Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sky Coyote by Kage Baker

Sky Coyote, the second novel in The Company series by Kage Baker, was a better read than the first. Baker seemed to find her feet as a writer, spinning a witty, satirical tale of how the operative Joseph saves a Chumash Indian village from encroaching white settlers.

Joseph has worked for The Company for 20,000 years, ever since he was recruited from a prehistoric European tribe. After a brief stay at a Company spa in the Mayan jungle, Joseph is sent to California in 1700, where he must convince the entire population of a seaside village to follow him into a Company enclave. (The Company's agents rescue works of art, rare plants and animals and cultural artifacts from destruction by humankind, so The Company can "rediscover" them in the future for its rich clients.)

Mendoza, the operative Joseph recruited in 16th-Century Spain, joins the California mission. (And yes, she's still bitter about how her last assignment with Joseph, in Tudor England, turned out.) However, the story focuses mainly on Joseph, describing his interactions with the Chumash while revealing his background and the doubts in his mind after centuries of service to The Company.

Joseph describes himself as having "a keen appreciation of the ludicrous." His wry, world-weary sense of humor colors the novel as he describes his efforts to lure the Chumash to the "sky canoes" that will take them to a new paradise. To facilitate his mission, Company technicians use implants, makeup and prosthetics to transform him into Sky Coyote, a Chumash trickster deity.

Baker wrote conversations between Joseph and the Chumash in modern idiom. At first, I thought it sounded odd and wasn't sure I liked it. But Baker soon had me chuckling with the wittiness of her dialogue. Her funny scenes gave me a sense of Chumash culture while reminding me humans have had the same flaws and foibles throughout history.

(For example, one scene had the tribe's holy men arguing heatedly with each other about how to interpret their deity's every word and action. Another had the village's tradesmen asking Coyote whether the gods might be interested in their merchandise.)

The Chumash remind Joseph of his own, long-vanished tribe as he reflects on his life as an operative. He and many of the other immortals are no longer sure their mortal masters are the wise, benevolent architects of a better future, as they were schooled to believe. Why are the mortals who travel back in time so narrow-minded and fearful? Why have some operatives disappeared after apparently outliving their usefulness to The Company? And why does the historical knowledge given to operatives end with the year 2355?

Baker's stories do require much suspension of disbelief, which I found easier with this second novel than I did with the first. Very little is revealed about how time travel works, or how exactly The Company makes certain select humans immortal. The Company's futuristic infrastructure operates alongside less advanced human societies, without humans ever becoming aware of it. (Could they really keep it all hidden for millennia?) What's more, some mortals, like the Chumash, become employees of The Company, somehow adapting to an utterly alien way of life even though they have no cultural or technological context for it.

Sky Coyote occasionally stretched my credulity a little thin. However, I enjoyed the story enough to put my quibbles aside. The novel was good enough to make me want to read further in the series, but not so good that I'm compelled to read the remaining books right away. I plan to take a break for other reading before I pick up the next Company novel.

My grade for Sky Coyote: B+

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