It was the best of times, it was the worst
If Charles Dickens hadnít laid claim to
the line a century and a half earlier, Kage Baker could have
used it to pithily sum up this jewel of a novel.
(The only spoilers in here are for the
first five pages of the book, even if it doesnít look that
Imagine a future in which two inventions
revolutionize the world: Time travel and immortality. Actually,
you invent the immortality first, and then you invent the time
travel in order to test it. But, in any case, both of them come
with catches: First, the process for creating an immortal is
horrendously expensive, can only be performed on young children,
and requires surgery so horrendous that few parents would
subject their children to it. Time travel, on the other hand, is
an incredibly expensive, one-way street: You can send people
into the past, and bring them back to their point of origin, but
you canít send them into the future. Plus, most people find
traveling into the past uncomfortable: Itís dirty. Itís
violent. Itís unpleasant. Itís full of strange people.
What do you do?
Well, if youíre the Zeus Company you
find a simple solution: You go back into the past to the
dawn of interesting human history, pick up some orphaned
natives, turn them into immortals, give them a top-notch
education and massive historical databases, and then come home.
Now you donít have to keep shuttling back and forth your
operatives: You just let those immortal natives youíve
recruited travel through time the old-fashioned way Ė by
living it. Along the way theyíll be saving priceless works of
art from destruction, preserving endangered species, and
recruiting more agents to the cause.
Cool concept? I thought so.
Having rapidly crafted a cunning universe,
Kage Baker begins crafting a cunning tale. On the surface, it is
a simplistic (perhaps even obvious) tale: A young, orphaned girl
is rescued from 16th century Spain by the Company,
turned into an immortal operative, and then sent on her first
mission to Queen Maryís England.
Viewed from that simplistic angle, THE
GARDEN OF IDEN is an unremarkable Ė even boring Ė novel.
But, in truth, the story of this novel is not a nifty time
travel mission. The story of this novel is the story of its
title character: Itís an emotional, gut-wrenching tale, and
the most surprising thing about it is the subtlety with which
its emotional punch it delivered.
As you read THE GARDEN OF IDEN you are
lulled into a seeming complacence: Pieces seem to fall into
place just the way you would expect, the cast of characters
seems to do just what you would expect, and so forth. Through
this complacency you are kept heartily Ė if lightly Ė
entertained through Bakerís irreverent wit, startling reality
and depth of characterization, and beautifully accurate
descriptions of setting and history.
But then, suddenly, you realize that this
complacency is all an illusion. While youíve been enjoying a
light tale of romance and mild adventure, Baker has been gently
gathering up the rug youíre standing then: Suddenly sheís
yanking the rug out from under you and throwing an emotional
fist right into your gut.
And as you stumble back from the impact, you realize
that youíve actually been reading brilliance at work. Because
the surprise doesnít come out of left field: Baker has been
building it up from the very first page, and you didnít see it
coming at all.