Welcome to this week’s installment of the Kage Baker Company series reread! In today’s post, we’ll cover chapters 15 through 18 of In the Garden of Iden.
Before we get started, the usual warning: this reread contains spoilers for the entire series, so be careful unless you don’t mind finding out plot elements and revelations from later books. The reread’s introduction (including the reading order we’ll be following) can be found here, and the index of all previous posts here.
And with that, we’re off!
Summary: Autumn arrives in Kent. Nefer finally discovers that the “unicorn” is really a goat and, enraged, removes its fused horns. Joseph manages to deflect the blame. Nicholas confronts Joseph about how he is raising Mendoza, and asks for her hand. Joseph refuses and, later, tries to convince Mendoza she has no future with Nicholas. Meanwhile in the outside world, the Counter-Reformation continues to gain momentum.
Commentary: In chapter 15, Nefer finally loses it. We know that the Company uses psychological conditioning to keep its operatives focused. Part of this conditioning causes Preservers like Nefer to be happiest when they are doing the work they were trained for, and miserable when they’re unable to work for a long time. Nefer has had almost nothing to do on this entire mission except listen to the radio; even playing Mendoza’s duenna has more or less fallen by the wayside, as Nicholas remarks in this chapter. Having to deal with Sir Walter’s advances probably doesn’t put her in a better mood either.
Given all of this, it’s no surprise that Nefer snaps when she finally sees what has been done to the poor little goat’s horns and hooves. However, she also seriously endangers the mission, forcing Joseph to be quick on his feet and work out a semi-plausible story. He deftly deflects suspicion when he identifies the Graft-O-Plast bandage as so-called “German wax” and then blames non-existent “villainous Flemings” for stealing the unicorn’s horn. (I had to grin at this: I was born and raised in Flanders myself, though I’ve been a villainous American citizen for years now.)
The description of the confrontation between Joseph and Nefer (in the paragraph starting with “Joseph walked through them to Nef”) is a brilliant illustration of the difference between ordinary mortals and Company operatives. The mortals around Joseph and Nefer have no idea how violently they are quarreling, but Mendoza catches some of the shockwaves and realizes that they are “not any kind of human creature at all.” Later, Mendoza is crying, wishing she were a mortal girl.
The second confrontation in the chapter is between Nicholas and Joseph. In their own way, they’re both trying to look out for Mendoza: Nicholas questions how Joseph/Dr. Ruy is raising Mendoza/Rose, while Joseph more or less predicts Nicholas’ actual fate at the end of the novel. Nicholas asks Joseph for Mendoza’s hand, but Joseph refuses and Mendoza realizes she can’t marry Nicholas because she’s “no more human than Joseph was.” The positions have reversed: Joseph, who was encouraging Mendoza to start something with Nicholas just a few chapters ago, is now clearly sensing that he may be more trouble than he’s worth, while Mendoza is fully in the throes of her doomed first romance.
After this, Nicholas gives more details about his past, including his “obscure” (read: illegitimate) birth, his time in the Anabaptist sect, his exile on the Continent and his eventual return to England. It’s not until The Children of the Company that we’ll learn to what extent the Company in general and Labienus in particular were responsible for the course of Nicholas’ life (even naming him after another famous Nicholas), making him yet another victim of Company conditioning in this chapter.
Speaking of: it doesn’t sound like he’s really that contrite, does it? “To creep into this little hole and never bear witness to the truth again, that was the price of my life. My soul.” A bit later: “And God knows, this is the first honest work I’ve done this seven year.” Nicholas clearly still dreams of spreading his controversial religious theories to the people.
In the chapter’s final scene, while Nefer is dictating her report to the disciplinary board, Joseph rather bluntly explains to Mendoza why it would be a bad idea to marry Nicholas. The line about Fido may be the most callous thing he’s said to Mendoza so far, and Mendoza is rightfully offended, but it’s clear that this is an example of Joseph actually trying to look out for Mendoza. I’ve talked a lot about how manipulative Joseph can be, but in this case, the problem doesn’t lie with his intentions, which are good, but rather with his tone: maybe a 20,000 year old operative who’s been in many marriages with mortals throughout his career isn’t the best person to help a teenager through her first romance.
The end of this scene is a direct mirror of a scene in chapter 12, when Joseph reminded Mendoza of her time in the Inquisition’s dungeons to trigger the Company’s conditioning. In this chapter, Joseph gently reminds Mendoza she should be thinking about wrapping up her work, probably in large part to make sure the project is completed successfully but (I think) also partly to steer Mendoza towards her comfort zone again.
Summary: Fall turns to Winter. Master Darrell returns for another visit to the Iden estate. Nefer, who has adopted the unicorn and lets it live in her rooms, causes chaos in the Iden household when she is spotted climbing to the roof to install a radio antenna.
Commentary: Master Darrell makes another appearance at the Iden estate. We’ll learn soon why he’s coming back, but for now he’s also a handy way to have Nicholas find out the major news of the day (Mary may be pregnant!) given that he doesn’t have access to the immortals’ radio.
(And speaking of that news: I haven’t been going into detail about the bits of English history Kage Baker inserts into this story, such as Mary’s false pregnancy in this chapter and Cardinal Reginald Pole in the following one—partly because I’m not by any means an expert, and partly because these posts are getting very long already—but I’m happy to geek out about this utterly fascinating period in the comments section if anyone is so inclined.)
This chapter contains more examples of why it’s not a good idea to have operatives linger in a state of involuntary idleness. Nefer hasn’t just removed the unicorn’s horn, she has now adopted the animal and lets it live in her quarters, much to Mendoza’s chagrin. She’s also so desperate for any kind of distraction that she climbs to the roof to install an antenna, accidentally causing panic in the household when she’s spotted. I can’t imagine that this mission will turn out to be a highlight in Nefer’s career.
Another great example of Kage Baker’s wit: during the first snowfall, Nicholas repeatedly mentions how blue Mendoza looks in the freezing cold, even referring to the famed “blue blood” of Spanish nobility (which ties in neatly with the myth of Almanzor I mentioned in a previous post). Then Mendoza drily writes “Actually in my case it was antifreeze, but I looked haughtily at him.” Love it.
Summary: It’s now December. Sir Walter holds elaborate Christmas revels for his guests and neighbors. A past member of Nicholas’ former sect shows up. Nicholas and Mendoza discuss eloping together.
Commentary: Snow is blanketing the countryside of Kent, putting the household in relative isolation from the outside world. The mortals are still blissfully unaware of the full extent of what’s happening in London, but Joseph, Mendoza and Nefer learn on the radio that big changes are afoot. Mendoza is once again shocked at how jaded the other two immortals are about the new anti-Protestant laws, but they’ve seen this cycle acted out multiple times across thousands of years of history. To Mendoza it’s not only new, but also personally meaningful because of her relationship with Nicholas. All of this gives the chapter, for all its festivities, a melancholy atmosphere—a last hurrah before the hammer comes down in the final chapters.
This makes the brief looks at the different ways Christmas is celebrated throughout history even more meaningful. There’s the brief note about how people used to celebrate the “Twelve Days of Christmas” starting on Christmas Day, and how in modern times the season has evolved to start in November and then end abruptly on Christmas. There’s Mendoza reminiscing about Christmas barbecues in Australia, and then observing the solstice privately. And of course there’s Nicholas, moved to tears while reading the Gospel of Luke.
The reappearance of Tom, a former member of Nicholas’ old sect, is another harbinger of things to come. Tom misreads Nicholas: seeing Nicholas with Mendoza, Tom assumes Nicholas has given up the old heresies and turned into a proper Catholic, even going as far as suggesting he’ll become a cardinal. This is of course as far from the truth as could be, and highly insulting to Nicholas. (The verse Tom quotes is from 1 Corinthians 13, the same chapter that contains the famous “through a glass darkly” line that inspired so many titles.)
The rice pudding dish served at the party is apparently an actual regional specialty in the Bay of Biscay region of Spain, though Sir Walter’s poor kitchen staff clearly had no idea that the syrup of locusts referred to something made from locust beans. I’m not sure what to make of the “rice after the fashion of John the Baptist” name: it could be a random Biblical reference thrown out by the most Catholic Francis Ffrawney to please the Spanish guests, or Joseph could have used it himself because it fits his Spanish character, or for all I know it could be a real name for the dish that I’m not familiar with. (Also, it’s probably pure coincidence that the Bible chapter Nicholas read in the previous scene talks about the birth of John the Baptist.)
During the cockfight, Nicholas doesn’t even try to pretend that he believes Mendoza’s cover story anymore, telling her to “play the Spaniard.” (In Mendoza’s defense, our zoologist Nefer had to look away too at yet another instance of cruelty towards animals.)
In case anyone is curious, you can hear a lovely version of Mendoza’s favorite pavane “Belle Qui Tiens Ma Vie” here. (The song was apparently also featured in a fictional future version of Orlando, starring yet another fictional Barrymore descendant.)
Mendoza and Nicholas discuss eloping together, maybe to the Continent, but by the end of the conversation Nicholas sounds like he would consider this cowardice and wants to stay and fight. It’s becoming more and more clear that Nicholas plans to stick to his beliefs, come what may.
Directly after this Mendoza experiences what I believe is another Crome’s radiation episode, in the paragraphs starting with “Then they began to go out, the mortals” a few pages before the end of the chapter. The mortals disappear one by one, and Mendoza is alone in a future version of the Iden estate, abandoned and derelict, “in a cold blue light that streamed in through the windows.”
And right after this vision, there’s the great scene with Nicholas, dressed as the Winter King and taking full advantage of Joseph’s stage pyrotechnics and his own imposing height and booming voice to terrify Sir Walter’s guests. Some of his all-caps lines (especially “I AM A SPIRIT THAT DOES NOT REST” and “AGE AFTER AGE I COME AGAIN)” take on an additional layer of meaning if you’re familiar with the Adonai plot. I’ve never been able to figure out if the child Edward, who decapitates the Winter King and scoops up all the piñata candy, is someone I should recognize.
Summary: It’s the morning after the Christmas party. All the guests have stayed over after Sir Walter drunkenly invited them. Nicholas finds a way to chase most of them off and feed the rest on leftovers.
Commentary: This short chapter mainly deals with the aftermath of the Christmas party, and as such there’s not a whole lot to talk about here. There are really only two things I’d like to highlight. First of all, Sir Walter is clearly already thinking of leaving his estate and getting back out into society, building up to the big revelation in the next chapter. And secondly, Mendoza slips up when she gives Nicholas the same advice he’d just given to Sir Walter behind closed doors, and this time she knows very well that this was a mistake older, more experienced operatives wouldn’t make.
Aside from those small points, what struck me most in this chapter is the growing sense of doom in the romance between Mendoza and Nicholas:
How could anyone think that my lover was a paltry mortal thing? He was an immortal creature like me, and we dwelt in perfect harmony in a tiny world of bare boards and dust, leather and vellum.
You can love like that but once.
And just a few lines later:
One should always avoid unnecessary unhappiness. Especially if one is an immortal. They taught us that in school.
And with that, we’re done for today. See you here next week for another installment in the Kage Baker Company reread!
Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. You can find him on Twitter, and his website is Far Beyond Reality.