The following reaction will contain spoilers for The Garden of Iden, the first novel in Kage Baker’s Company series.
As a policy, I’m trying to keep the spoilers in these reactions to a bare minimum and limited to the first fifty pages of the book. If the spoilers exceed those guidelines, I’ll make a point to include a note up front. Spoilers for the two books discussed here are kept to the usual absolute minimum.
END NOTE ABOUT SPOILERS
I found a lot to really enjoy in Baker’s The Garden of Iden, as I described in my previous reaction.
The Garden of Iden walked a fine line between a light adventure story and a character drama, and succeeded admirably at delivering a powerful dose of the latter wrapped in the appealing package of the former.
Sky Coyote, the second novel in the series, walks the same line, but ends up coming down firmly on the other side of it: This is a fun, rip-roaring, no-holds-barred adventure story nicely spiced with moments of character drama which ring true and strike deep chords. The result is very effective: Because the same thematic elements are used and explored in both The Garden of Iden and Sky Coyote, the book clearly resonates as a sequel. But because the ratios are shifted, Sky Coyote exists as a stylistically distinct work.
Unlike The Garden of Iden, Sky Coyote does begin to show clear signs of a series-in-progress: Moments of conspiracy and mystery lurk throughout the novel, but their resolution is distinctly left for another day (and a different book). Intriguingly, however, the result is not that of a half-finished product: The very lack of resolution for the moments of conspiracy in terms of plot is, in fact, the resolution of the major character drama of the novel. In a similar fashion, Kage Baker brings Mendoza, the main character of the first novel, in as a supporting cast member in Sky Coyote. Mendoza’s role in the novel is absolutely essential, justified, and complete… but it also serves, at the same time, as a foundation for Mendoza in Hollywood.
There’s a remarkable craft at work there. And a surprising depth in what appears, at first glance, to be a light read. And, in fact, the novel can be read as a light adventure story completely independent of the series as a whole.
Mendoza in Hollywood, by contrast, is the story of post-traumatic stress syndrome finally catching up with Mendoza. But its also a conspiracy story, and the twin threads wrap around each other in a delightful way as the books comes to a close.
The strength here, as it was in The Garden of Iden, is the depth with which Kage Baker draws the character of Mendoza. The emotional journey Mendoza endures through the novel is a gut-wrenching, heartbreakingly true experience.
The book doesn’t quite measure up to the first two, however, because it doesn’t find a plot for a long time. When it does, the whirlwind is intriguing and exciting, but ultimately short-lived. (And there are some suspension of disbelief issues with the deus ex machina which jump starts the plot once it arrives.) Two comments on this:
First, it creates a problem with the cover blurb. The blurb writer, clearly seeking exciting plot to write about, sums up the entire plot of the novel. Well, okay, he doesn’t describe the last 50 pages. But, nonetheless, if you read the cover blurb on this one your reading experience will drastically suffer. DO NOT READ THE COVER BLURB. I’m not kidding.
Second, I suspect that I would enjoy this novel on an entirely different level the second time through. Simply put, once the plot becomes clear near the end of the book, a plethora of small details – worked seamlessly into the character drama endured by Mendoza through the early part of the book – suddenly coalesce.
It’s a situation where, if you knew the plot of the book ahead of time, the thrust and direction of the story would be clear to you. I don’t think its coincidental that this is the same knowledge an author would have sitting down to write the book.
Which doesn’t mean that Mendoza in Hollywood is a waste of time the first time through. The character drama is intense. The development of the series’ meta-plot is intriguing. And the reading experience, for me, was very enjoyable.
It’s a good novel cursed by the fact that it followed two great novels, and it suffers somewhat in the comparison. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s good.
At the moment, I am very much looking forward to reading the next book in this series. Unfortunately, The Graveyard Game appears to be entirely unavailable to me at the moment. Fortunately, it is going to be re-released in paperback sometime next year by Tor, shortly before they publish the fifth book in the series. So I’ll be looking forward to that.
SKY COYOTE: A-
MENDOZA IN HOLLYWOOD: B
Published: 1999 / 2000
Cover Price: $6.99
ISBNs: 0380731800 / 0380819007