Rereading Kage Baker

Rereading Kage Baker’s Company Series: Sky Coyote, Chapters 1-10

Welcome back to the Kage Baker Company Series Reread at Tor.com! Today we’re getting started on the second novel in the series, covering the first ten chapters of Sky Coyote. As always, you can find the introduction to the reread here, and an index with all previous posts in the series here.

Spoiler 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.

And with that we’re off on our first adventure narrated by the redoubtable Joseph—surely a significant change in tone from the previous novel…

 

Chapters 1-10

Summary: It’s November 15, 1699. Joseph arrives at the luxurious New World One Company base in Central America, where he is reunited with Mendoza (who, to her dismay, will join him on his upcoming mission) and meets both Lewis and Latif for the first time. After a spectacular New Year’s Eve party orchestrated by the decadent base administrator Houbert, Joseph’s team leaves for California.

Commentary: These ten chapters, which take place before the Chumash mission begins, are completely separate from the rest of the novel. Structurally, In the Garden of Iden did something similar (ten chapters before the team arrives at the Iden estate) but Sky Coyote’s introduction is very different. For one, it takes place in just a few weeks rather than covering the 15 years from Mendoza’s recruitment to the start of her first mission. It also takes place in only one location: Administrator General’s Houbert’s luxurious New World One base, where Mendoza has been stationed since the end of In the Garden of Iden, nearly a century and a half now.

However, the biggest immediate difference with In the Garden of Iden is that our narrator is no longer Mendoza but rather Facilitator Grade One Joseph. It’s hard to overstate the effect of this change on the tone of Sky Coyote: rather than a newly minted teenage immortal, still coming to terms with her new life and in the throes of a doomed romance, this story is told by an experienced operative with an irreverent sense of humor who’s had thousands of years to practice his craft. It makes for a very different novel, right from the opening sentence (“You’ll understand this story better if I tell you a lie.”) and especially the final paragraph of the second chapter:

You know why I’ve survived in this job, year after year, lousy assignment after lousy assignment, with no counseling whatsoever? Because I have a keen appreciation of the ludicrous. Also because I have no choice.

A “keen appreciation of the ludicrous” is helpful when reading these first chapters. It’s almost as if Kage Baker set out to cause her readers cognitive dissonance: here’s the Spanish Jesuit tramping through the jungle in his cassock, finding the legendary Lost City and even doing his best Indiana Jones impression to disarm the traps… then sitting down and ordering a margarita from the Ancient Mayan waiter. It’s all considerably less tragic and tortured than In the Garden of Iden’s final scene, which this one is obviously echoing even before Mendoza shows up.

Mendoza has spent the previous 144 years in New World One, which creates a weird sort of role reversal: unlike Joseph, she already knows the lay of the land, the expected social niceties, the way to deal with the Mayan mortal servants. It’s clear that she’s not over Nicholas yet and hasn’t forgiven Joseph for the way the Iden mission ended. She’s already working obsessively on her maize cultivar. She’s upset about being pulled away from this project to join Joseph’s as-yet-unspecified mission to California, despite having specifically requested an assignment like this one during her training days.

These chapters introduce some characters who will turn out to be key players in the series. First and foremost of these is Literature Preservation Specialist Lewis, who at this point has been serving as New World One’s Guest Services Director for several centuries. While he’s a minor character in this novel, he’ll take a much more central place later on in the series, including some wonderful stories set in the Golden Age of Hollywood with Joseph. We’ll also learn much more about Lewis’s past in The Graveyard Game and The Children of the Company: his first encounter with Homo Umbratilis in medieval Ireland (briefly alluded to here in chapter 4) will prove to be one of the key events in the history of Dr. Zeus.

During the New Year’s Eve party it’s clear that Lewis and Mendoza have become close friends during their time at New World One. You can read about one of their adventures in the novella “To the Land Beyond the Sunset”, included in the collection Gods and Pawns.

The brief meeting between Joseph and Lewis in chapter 4 also includes a dizzying overview of Joseph’s career so far. The two immortals sound like two armed forces veterans reminiscing about different places they’ve been stationed over the years, except in this case the action is spread across millennia and includes meeting the Empress Theodosia and being a priest in ancient Egypt—probably a reference to his stint as Imhotep, also described in The Children of the Company. There’s even a reference to Joseph’s original family: his father created the cave paintings at Irun del Mar. (About that name: there is a town called Irun in the Basque region of Spain, but I can’t find any reference to an Irun del Mar. However, the famous cave paintings of Altamira are a few hundred miles west of Irun near Santillana del Mar; maybe Irun del Mar is a combination of the names of those two towns? In either case, we’ll get to see the town and the paintings a bit later in the series in The Graveyard Game.)

One of the themes Kage Baker explores in this novel is exploitation of mortals by immortals. Throughout In the Garden of Iden, the immortals were mostly trying to stay undercover. They tried to blend in with the mortal population, even to the point of acting silly so they’d look non-threatening. In Sky Coyote they’re doing the exact opposite: with New World One, Houbert has set up an elaborate stage that allows him to act like a living god, the Father of Heaven, complete with mortal servants. He demands that the other immortals do the same and act like the Sons and Daughters of Heaven, even if it makes them uncomfortable. And of course Joseph himself will take on the guise of a god soon, albeit in service to the mission, and his team will pose as supernatural “spirits”.

We’re catching this aspect of the Company at its very end. There’ll be far fewer opportunities to impress mortals with stagecraft and supernatural powers in modern times, but in The Children of the Company we’ll see that this used to be a much more common practice: two of the most powerful immortals, Labienus and Aegeus, essentially built up their power bases this way, to the horror of the 24th century mortals. Sky Coyote is the novel that first introduces this major conflict, albeit in a relatively innocent way compared to the horrific exploits of Labienus and Aegeus. (Or at least innocent as far as it’s presented here. There’s a disturbing little throwaway line during the New Year’s Eve party, when Mendoza orders a Mayan waiter to jump in a fountain: the waiter states he’s “under oath” to obey all orders from immortals, “no matter how unpleasant or irrational”, which suggests Houbert may share more of Aegeus’ inclinations than is shown here.)

Another memorable first meeting in these chapters is the one between Joseph and Latif in chapter 5. Latif is only 3 years old here, a neophyte on an accelerated augmentation schedule who is being trained to become an executive administrator. Latif will soon head to Mackenzie Base to train under the aforementioned Labienus, and then to North Africa to train with Suleyman, who recruited him by saving him from slavers. (He also mentions he’ll be sent to the Netherlands to work with Van Drouten, which will lead to the most hilarious episode in his career, described in the “Lost Boys” chapter of The Children of the Company.)

The meeting with Latif causes Joseph to reminisce about his own immortal “father”, the Enforcer Budu. It’s more than a little ironic that Joseph comments on Latif’s “size 10 case of hero worship” for Suleyman, given that Joseph will display some obvious daddy issues too throughout the series. Joseph also wonders why none of his recruits ever thought he was a hero, like he did with Budu—proving once again that even a 20,000 year old superbeing can lack self-awareness.

We’ll spend a lot of time inside Joseph’s head in Sky Coyote, and all this introspection will add a tremendous amount of depth to his character. In a broader sense, it also expands the reader’s understanding of the Company itself by leaps and bounds: rather than being limited to the perspective of a new operative who is focused almost exclusively on her first romance, we get the full benefit of Joseph’s twenty millennia of knowledge and experience. E.g. in the first novel Mendoza reflects briefly on her guidance counselor’s prognathous brow and how the way he looks makes it impossible for him to work off-base anymore; by contrast, the majority of Joseph’s career happened while the Enforcers were still active, and he’ll spend a good chunk of the next few centuries trying to find out what happened to them. (I didn’t realize until recently that this is the first time in the series the term “Enforcer” is mentioned, by the way; the word doesn’t appear in In the Garden of Iden at all.)

The contrast between Houbert’s luxurious lifestyle and Joseph’s reflections about the past is striking. As comical and over the top as Houbert’s decadent behavior is, in a sense he’s living by the advice that Joseph gave to Mendoza at the end of the first novel: avoid unhappiness at all costs. It’s just that Houbert’s preferred way of avoiding unhappiness and maintaining a sense of wonder involves pretending he is a living god with mortal servants, staging elaborate parties, and mainlining Theobromos that’s so strong it reduces one of the Company’s most experienced operatives to a drooling idiot. Despite the comedy, there’s also something a little tragic about Houbert: a genius who earned acclaim by designing field shelters in the early days of the Company, he now applies his talents to decadent themed parties for a captive audience.

The Theobromos scene during Joseph’s brunch with Houbert also includes the first reference to chocolate being illegal in the future, foreshadowing some of Bugleg’s behavior later on in Sky Coyote and, further down the line, the heavily regulated future society we’ll see in later novels. Kage Baker really expands the time scale in these early chapters of Sky Coyote, with hints about both the ancient past and the far future of the Company making it increasingly clear that Mendoza’s tragedy in the first novel was just one chapter in the middle of a story that started a long time ago and will continue for centuries to come.

I’m always a bit sad that the novel skips the annual “Saturnalia, Christmas, Yule, Whatever” party Mendoza briefly mentions and instead skips straight to the “Grand Fin de Siècle Cotillion”, but still—what a scene, right? It’s a brilliant display of what Company operatives are capable of when they’re off the leash and don’t have to stay undercover, from the description of the huge, dual-floor party tent, to the food, to Houbert’s tragicomical speech, to the clever name of the house band. The image of the immortals dancing to Ravel’s La Valse, their skeletons glowing in the dark, is perfectly chilling. And of course Mendoza has no way of knowing how prophetic her words at the end of chapter 9 will prove to be: “Here we sit tonight, and do you realize how unlikely it is any of us four will ever be together in the same room again?” (Even though Joseph will spend a lot of time with Lewis and meet with Latif several times, it won’t be until the very end of the series that all four of these immortals will be together again.)

(On a personal note: the slogan banners we see during the New Year’s Eve party (“We are the ticking clock measuring the soul’s dark midnight”, “All good things must end” and so on) always remind me of the graffiti on the Pearly Gates in one of my favorite song lyrics of all time, “The Trapeze Swinger” by Iron & Wine. But to be clear: that song hadn’t been recorded yet at the time this novel was written, so I’m 100% sure this is not one of Kage Baker’s sneaky hidden references.)

Chapter 10, the final one in this set, shows the immortals in transit to California, but Joseph’s thoughts are clearly still stuck in the past: he compares how Latif and Mendoza were recruited and then thinks back again to how Budu rescued him. The image of the huge Enforcer, hands covered in blood after killing the Great Goat Cult members who massacred Joseph’s family, is the strongest proof so far that the Company has never been afraid to kill inconvenient mortals if it furthers their goals.

All in all, this set of chapters are a huge change from In the Garden of Iden. Mendoza has settled into a grim, world-weary mindset after over a century in New World One, finding solace in her work. Joseph, now we finally get to read his internal monologue, shows that he’s more than just a fast-talking manipulator. Key characters who will play major roles later on are introduced (Lewis, Latif) or at least mentioned (Suleyman, Labienus). The ancient history of the Company is slowly coming into focus and looking very different from what the official Company line states—plus we get at least one early hint that life in the 24th century may turn out to be different than you might expect too.

 

And that’s it for this week. Next week we’ll cover chapters 11 through 15. See you then!

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.

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