The Alexandrian

The Garden of Iden - Kage BakerIt was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

If Charles Dickens hadn’t 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 doesn’t look that way. Honest.)

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 can’t send them into the future. Plus, most people find traveling into the past uncomfortable: It’s dirty. It’s violent. It’s unpleasant. It’s full of strange people.

What do you do?

Well, if you’re 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 don’t have to keep shuttling back and forth your operatives: You just let those immortal natives you’ve recruited travel through time the old-fashioned way – by living it. Along the way they’ll 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 Mary’s England.

Viewed from that simplistic angle, The Garden of Iden is an unremarkable – even boring – 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: It’s 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 – if lightly – entertained through Baker’s 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 you’ve been enjoying a light tale of romance and mild adventure, Baker has been gently gathering up the rug you’re standing then: Suddenly she’s 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 you’ve actually been reading brilliance at work. Because the surprise doesn’t come out of left field: Baker has been building it up from the very first page, and you didn’t see it coming at all.

GRADE: A

THE GARDEN OF IDEN
Kage Baker
Published: 1998
Publisher: Avon Eos
Cover Price: $5.99
ISBN: 0380731797
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