I just finished reading In the Garden of Iden for Carl's 2009 Sci-Fi Experience, and it was an intriguing if somewhat frustrating experience, to say the least. It's definitely one of the more unique stories I've read in awhile.
The premise is terrific. A few hundred years into the future, a global conglomerate, Dr. Zeus, Inc. (known as The Company) has invented time travel. Its agents turn children from different historical periods into immortal cyborgs and trains them to act as The Company's operatives. These immortals collect old manuscripts, works of art and rare plants and animals that otherwise would be lost or go extinct. The Company produces these "rediscovered" treasures at appropriate times ... for a price.
The botanist Mendoza is one such operative, rescued from the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition. Like other agents, she believes her work will ultimately benefit humankind by saving mortals from their own destructive tendencies. She has little regard for humans, perceiving them as violent, unreasonable apes.
I flew through the first third of the novel, which introduced Mendoza and her associates and revealed a little of The Company's methods for creating operatives. Part human and part machine, operatives have heightened senses, lightning-fast reflexes and the ability to heal rapidly, as well as centuries-worth of knowledge.
At age 19, Mendoza receives her first Company assignment. She, her mentor, Joseph, and another operative are sent to Mary Tudor's England to collect samples of rare plants from the garden of Sir Walter Iden, a country gentleman.
Unfortunately, the plot slowed to a crawl once the group arrived at Iden's garden. At the country manor, Mendoza falls in love with Nicholas Harpole, Iden's secretary, an idealistic young man with heretical beliefs not at all welcome in Bloody Mary's England. Their relationship gives Mendoza a new perspective on mortals and eventually leads to her questioning much of what The Company has taught her.
The problem with this portion of the book was that very little happened. Mendoza and Nicholas simply roamed the garden (when they weren't having sex) for page after page, conversing earnestly about God, spirituality and the human condition. Their discourse was so tangled, I had trouble making sense of it. I still haven't quite figured out Nicholas's religious philosophy. It certainly wasn't quite Protestant, or Catholic, or any other creed I recognize from that time. (And I've read a lot about Tudor England.)
I have enjoyed other novels that wrestle with theological concepts. Kage Baker just didn't present them in a way that was enjoyable for me to read. I found my eyes glazing over whenever Mendoza and Nicholas had one of their "chats."
However, I'll admit it was refreshing to have two characters fall in love with one another chiefly for their minds, rather than because they matched some ideal of physical attractiveness. And I liked how Baker described their physical intimacy - joyful, playful and as natural as breathing.
Also, Baker has a knack for writing scenes filled with sly wit and dark humor. A few of these scenes kept this section of the novel from being completely tedious. I also chuckled at how the operatives enjoyed modern conveniences in secret. (For example, the group has a radio disguised to look like a reliquary, and they listen to other agents doing live broadcasts of historical events.)
After reading the first 200 pages, I didn't know if I wanted to continue with The Company series. But then, the plot fired up again, beginning with a humorous section on Iden's Christmas revels and the operatives' reactions to them. Right after that, Iden makes a surprising decision, and at the same time, Queen Mary begins burning Protestant heretics. The Company's mission is endangered, while Mendoza, fearing for her lover's life, frantically tries to find a way to save him. The novel's climax was quite dramatic and thought-provoking, and the epilogue left me wanting to follow Mendoza and Joseph to their next mission.
Without its sagging middle section, this would have been a very good novel. In the end, it did intrigue me more than it frustrated me, so I will continue with the series for now. My grade for In the Garden of Iden: B-