Welcome to this week’s installment of the Kage Baker Company series reread! In today’s post, we’ll cover chapters 19-21 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 major revelations from later books. Gentle reader, thou hast been warned. 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: On January 5th, Mendoza and Nicholas are having fun in the minstrel’s gallery when they overhear a conversation between Master Darrell and Sir Walter. Sir Walter is planning to sell the Iden estate to Master Darrell, propose to Nefer, and move to London to try his luck at being a courtier. Meanwhile, news arrives that Roman Catholicism is being restored to England.
Commentary: I always feel horrible for Nicholas in these final chapters. It has to be hard for someone with such strong convictions and such unshakable faith to see everything they’ve believed in and worked for fall apart. Within just a few pages, the poor guy learns not only that his employer of seven years is about to sell his home, but also that England is being forcibly returned to Roman Catholicism and that everyone is expected to conform. That all of this happens right after Mendoza and Nicholas are interrupted during their, ahem, “recorder practice” must have made it even more of a cold shower.
I love how Joseph pops up, all suave and not even out of breath, right when Master Darrell wonders if Dr. Ruy might be a Spanish spy. In typical Joseph fashion, things pretty much work out perfectly for him when Darrell jumps to the conclusion that he must be a Freemason of some sort. (Ironic too, given that some of those lodges and secret societies and arcane brotherhoods and so on were early incarnations of what would eventually turn into Dr. Zeus, but that’s not the point here: Joseph is just happy someone gives him a free cover story for a change.)
The sad little “Oh.” from Sir Walter when Joseph explains that Nef’s dowry is “not base gold but spotless virtue” is a textbook example of perfect comedic timing.
The discussion between Joseph, Nefer and Mendoza in the final scene of the chapter is a memorable one: for the first time, Mendoza begins to realize that the Company’s primary goal is not the good of humanity but cold hard profit. Sir Walter may have regained his youth and strength thanks to Dr. Zeus, but she realizes that this has also upended his life and that of everyone in his household.
When Mendoza follows this reasoning to its logical conclusion, she begins to wonder if the Company’s interference caused the sale of the Iden estate, which in turn will cause the ilex tormentosum to go extinct and become invaluable, creating the reason for the entire mission.
The older operatives have been through this dance many times before. When Nefer and Joseph realize Mendoza is about to drive herself crazy trying to work out this causal chain of events, they sort of tag-team to drag her away from that edge:
“Believe me, Mendoza, there are better minds than yours grappling with this.”
“All the time, honey. Do yourself a favor, don’t get metaphysical.”
(Jumping ahead a little: in the 2007 novella “To the Land Beyond the Sunset”, which looks at Mendoza’s life between the end of In the Garden of Iden and the start of Sky Coyote, she’s already become used to this type of thing, even to the point of joking about it. “Ladies and gentlemen, please take your places for the Causality Quadrille!” We’ll get back to this novella later in the reread.)
The dialogue between Nefer and Mendoza at the very end of this chapter (right after yet another wonderful dramatic performance courtesy of Joseph) is prime Kage Baker. Mendoza is sounding out Nefer about the Company’s rules for marrying mortals. Nefer, who is focused on her magazine and possibly unaware of Mendoza’s real reason for asking because the question is seemingly about her own hypothetical marriage to Sir Walter, explains how the Company would decide to grant that permission or not. (You’ll note that none of the factors involved have anything to do with love.)
It’s easy to forget how trusting Mendoza still is about the Company’s intentions at this point in the series, and by extension, how little we knew as readers at the time. We haven’t seen any major examples of the Company’s darker interventions in human history yet. The idea of Joseph killing a random person so he can show off the corpse of the villainous unicorn horn thief was shocking to Mendoza in the previous chapter, just like the idea of Joseph really poisoning Sir Walter shocks her now. When Nefer lets it slip that this “almost never happens” at the end of this chapter, it’s downright chilling. Knowing the dark places the series will be heading, there really is an Eden-like sense of innocence to all of this. It’s in this chapter that Mendoza wonders, for the first time: “Are we… are we really good for humankind?”
Summary: The religious edicts of the Counter-Reformation are already in full swing. Everyone in England must attend Mass, on pain of punishment or even death. Nicholas refuses to conform and stays alone at the Iden estate, inventorying Sir Walter’s possessions for the upcoming sale. Mendoza tries to convince Nicholas to leave, and failing this, she tries to convince Joseph to help save him.
Commentary: The shadows are closing in for Nicholas and Mendoza. There’s a sense of desperation in Mendoza’s narration here, as she chronicles the religious persecution that gave Bloody Mary her nickname. People are being burned at the stake for not attending Mass, or for reading the Bible, or even for just listening to a Bible reading. And still Nicholas refuses to stray from his convictions. Sir Walter tries to cover for him, telling people that Nicholas can’t attend church because of illness, but Nicholas has never made a secret of his beliefs so the real reason for his absence is clear to everyone.
The burning of Nicholas’ now-forbidden religious texts, probably by Francis Ffrawney, is a horrible foreshadowing of Nicholas’ death at the end of the novel. Compare how Mendoza and Nicholas react when they find out. Mendoza is understandably horrified by the book-burning, not only because of the pettiness of the gesture but also because of the willful destruction of knowledge and literature. By contrast Nicholas, who has frequently shown anger and passion in the past, is perfectly calm, even wondering if this is a message: maybe he sinned in pride by loving the physical books too much. Is Nicholas already checking out from the world and considering martyrdom?
All of this makes Mendoza’s desperate pleading with Joseph at the end of the chapter even more heart-breaking. She’s grasping at straws, trying to convince Joseph to distill a Romeo and Juliet-like poison that would allow her to smuggle a seemingly dead Nicholas to safety in Europe. Joseph can tell that his young protégé is starting to lose it and tries to drag her back to a saner, safer course of action.
Summary: It’s now Spring. Mendoza finally convinces Nicholas to run away with her, but when he accidentally walks in on Joseph performing surgery on himself after an earlier accident, he becomes convinced that Rose/Mendoza is a demon sent to steal his soul. He flees the house.
Commentary: Nicholas is making an inventory of Sir Walter’s possessions for the upcoming sale. Even in this seemingly meaningless list of items, in a scene that’s mainly there so Joseph can get the injury that’ll have such a big impact on the rest of the novel, Kage Baker manages to plant a few nifty details.
First of all, the Counter-Reformation has already had its effect: Sir Walter’s collection of religious relics was previously labeled “Popish Impostures”, but this has already been changed to“Holy Relics Miraculously Preserved from the Late Heretics,” showing again that, unlike Nicholas, Sir Walter has no problem adapting to the new religious climate.
Mendoza identifies one of the supposed human remnants of saints as a chicken bone, but she also spots some residual Crome’s radiation on others, leading her to think they may have been the true toes of saints. This ties in with a few other suggestions scattered throughout the series that Crome’s radiation is a byproduct of paranormal activity.
What Sir Walter believes to be the Sword of Charlemagne is actually the Sword of Roland, according to Nicholas. Most likely they’re both fakes, given how gullible Sir Walter is about these things, but it’s still fun to speculate whether this might be the same sword William Randolph Hearst pulls out at the very end of the series. My guess is no, if only because Hearst would use carbon-dating and every other future test available to ensure the item’s authenticity.
Also mentioned in the inventory: the supposed head of Queen Guinevere! This is, according to Mendoza’s scan, also a fake and really the head of a (male) Roman legionary. The only reason I’m mentioning it here is the fact that Mendoza easily spots the spearpoint still buried in the skull, again making it hard to believe she never noticed anything unusual about Nicholas.
However, it’s Joseph’s shoulder injury that really sets up the rest of the chapter. Clearly 16th Century furniture had a bit more heft than, say, the average Ikea bookshelf, because it does enough damage to disable an immortal’s shoulder. Be that as it may, the end result is that Joseph will be distracted for a while, allowing Mendoza to get a head start in the next chapter. More importantly, it’s the reason Joseph decides to perform surgery on himself, which Nicholas then accidentally witnesses.
The timing of all of this is really heartbreaking. Nicholas has been see-sawing emotionally: in the previous chapter he seemed distant, coldly detached, not even angry someone burned his books. Now, he suddenly surprises Mendoza with a plan for escape, once the roads clear. Mendoza is so happy she dances down the stairs to fetch their last meal. Briefly, it feels as if everything might work out for the star-crossed lovers after all. (Which reminds me: Nefer’s snarky “There art thou happy” to Joseph in this chapter is a quote from the third act of, yes, Romeo and Juliet.)
However, Dr. Zeus’s control over its operatives’ mental state once again proves to be impressive. Mendoza, now firmly resolved to abandon the mission and elope with Nicholas, immediately suffers a trauma nightmare that takes her back to the dungeon of the Spanish Inquisition, courtesy of the Company’s psychological conditioning. Nicholas runs to Joseph’s room to fetch something to calm Mendoza’s nerves. It’s a bit out of character for Nicholas to suddenly go to Joseph for help after all their earlier arguments, but anyway, this is how Nicholas ends up witnessing Joseph’s incomprehensible surgery (or maybe “repair” is a better word), finally giving him incontrovertible proof that Rose and Dr. Ruy are not human.
Unfortunately, and this is one of the biggest tragedies in this story, Nicholas jumps straight to thinking Mendoza is a succubus who is out for his soul. He’s obviously been aware for a while that something is different about Mendoza, but his unusual religious beliefs seemed to point him in the right direction in terms of humanity improving itself and striving for eternal life. This caused Mendoza to ignore the fact that, despite his massive intellect and advanced beliefs, Nicholas is still very much a product of his time: when confronted with an Outside Context Problem like this, he automatically falls back on demons coming for his soul. In one horrible scene, Nicholas’s suspicions are confirmed and Mendoza’s illusions are shattered.
And with that, we’re suddenly only three chapters from the end of the novel, so in next week’s post we’ll wrap up In the Garden of Iden!
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.