Kage Baker,
In the Garden of Iden
(Harcourt Brace, 1998)

In the Garden of Iden is an impressive debut science fiction novel, fresh and original, laced with wit and rendered in cool, evocative language.

Mendoza is an immortal. Only about five years old when rescued from the dungeons of the Inquisition by an operative of the Company, she undergoes years of surgery, medical treatment, and other forms of conditioning. All of this is make her into an operative for Dr. Zeus, the Company, the mission of which is to travel into the past to help preserve works of art and literature, to gather samples of endangered flora and fauna in order to restore them in the future, and to search for orphaned or abandoned children who would make suitable operatives.

Trained as a botanist, Mendoza's first assignment is to go to England to collect rare plants from the garden of Sir Walter of Iden. She is accompanied by Joseph, the operative who rescued her originally and who poses as her father, a Spanish physician, and Nefer, another operative who is, ostensibly, her duenna, a chaperone. Mendoza does not like being around mortals, and all she wants to do is go in, grab her plants and get out. She doesn't reckon on Sir Walter's secretary, Nicholas Harpole, nor does she expect to fall in love with him.

At first, Mendoza delights in their affair, but it is 1554, and England is poised on the brink of a counter-Reformation. Nicholas, a staunch Protestant, refuses to relinquish his faith, and as Mary Tudor's fires begin to blossom across the land, his life is imperiled. Mendoza finds out that while, being immortal, she can't die, she can certainly feel pain.

Baker writes with imaginative flair and polish. She possesses an extraordinary command of language, choosing exactly the right images to convey her descriptions. Her story unfolds smoothly, subtly raising questions with which the characters -- and the readers -- must grapple. When necessary, the tone is serious, but Baker deftly weaves humor into the narrative as well.

Mendoza is a terrific character. Possessed of a dry sense of humor and ready wit, she is, if not mortal, then very human. Her emotions and reactions are genuine, and her first person narration is at once bracing and heartbreaking. The characters around her, both mortal and immortal, are convincingly drawn, and Nicholas in particular is more than a match for Mendoza.

In the Garden of Iden is one of those books you hate to finish, but fortunately, Mendoza returns in Baker's second novel, Sky Coyote, and a third novel is due out in the spring of 2000. Move this one to the top of your to-read stack.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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