Rereading Kage Baker

Rereading Kage Baker’s Company Series: Mendoza in Hollywood, Chapters 17-24

Welcome back to the Kage Baker Company Series reread! In today’s post, we’ll cover “chapters” 17 through 24, which is from the end of last week’s post all the way to the end of Part Two: Babylon Is Fallen.

As always, you can find all previous posts in the reread on our index page. Also as always, ‘ware spoilers: this reread contains spoilers for the entire Company series, so be careful if you haven’t read all the books yet!

For the soundtrack to today’s post, we’ll go back to the first edition of the Cahuenga Pass Film Festival with the score for the movie Greed, composed by William Axt. Enjoy!

 

Summary

The drought in Cahuenga Pass gets worse, making it impossible for Mendoza to do her work. Juan Bautista rescues a bald eagle, which later kills most of his other birds. When Cyrus Jackson attacks in a fit of jealous passion, Alfred Rubery, one of Imarte’s clients, leaves behind a briefcase full of incriminating material about the Chapman Piracy Case. Oscar, Einar, Porfirio, and Imarte all leave Cahuenga Pass HQ.

 

Commentary

Chapter 17: If you read Kathleen Bartholomew’s blog, you know Kage Baker loved celebrating holidays, all holidays, of all sorts, whenever possible. If there was an occasion, it had to be marked in an appropriately festive manner, and “appropriately festive” was highly personal and not necessarily the way that particular holiday is celebrated today, if at all. In either case, holidays were important to Kage Baker, and that’s probably why they often ended up in her stories and books. You can see examples of this all through the Company series, from the big Christmas bash at the Iden estate to Houbert’s New Year’s Extravaganza in Sky Coyote.

Christmas in Los Diablos in 1862 isn’t the most festive of occasions. Smallpox flares up in California, killing natives and immigrants indiscriminately, and the drought hits its peak. Mendoza continues to go off the deep end and is now trying to keep her pet oaks alive by pouring used bath water on them. As the drought worsens, the plants she’s supposed to catalog are dying or being eaten by starving longhorns, so involuntary idleness (always a bad thing for operatives who rely on work to stay happy) is about to be added to the list of factors destabilizing our favorite Botanist’s already wobbly psyche.

Even though there isn’t much to celebrate this year, you can maybe see echoes of Kage in the way Mendoza remembers the near-mystical experiences she had marking the longest night of the year in the forests of California:

Other years, I’d been alone in the night, where the great trees towered black against the stars, so many white stars, and the air was cold and full of the smell of evergreens. I’d been in the heart of the Mystery then, too. The stars rang like little bells at midnight, and one moment the air would be dead calm on the forest floor, and then a wind would spring up, just on that stroke of midnight, a wind magically warm and full of perfume, and you knew that the Light had begun to fight his way out of his grave, and winter could not last forever.

Chapter 18: Also on Kathleen Bartholomew’s blog, I learned that Kage Baker sometimes wrote right after waking up from a dream, and that this groggy “sleep-writing” would often lead to very confusing, even hallucinatory dream scenes. (I think this came up after I desperately tried to interpret the dream young Mendoza had in the Inquisition’s dungeons, when Jesus on the Cross seemed to transform into Joseph. Just goes to show not everything can be analyzed to bits, right?)

I’m bringing this up here because the dream in this chapter may be another example of this, but dear reader, it is so hard not to pick this one apart for every possible shred of meaning too!

Before you ask, yes, of course I tried to track down the actual front page of the London Times mentioned here, to see if there’s anything on it that could be related to the story. (I was only thwarted because the London Times, in all its wisdom, keeps its archives behind a paywall.)

In all seriousness, I have no idea what the blue pyramid in this dream is supposed to be or represent. Crome’s radiation is usually associated with blue light, but for all I know, it may just be a dream-twisted, off-perspective version of one of the blue triangles on the Union Jack, which Edward appears to have tattooed on his face in this particular Crome-inspired death dream, in addition to the fearsome (and blue) Braveheart-style spirals on his body and that accursed front page on his chest.

Also, I may be over-analyzing when I think about the implications of the date of Edward’s first (dream) appearance, but still: the date on that front page is January 6th, the day of the Epiphany. Given the messianic twist to Edward’s character arc later in the series, that can’t be coincidence, right?

Chapter 19: Kage Baker was involved in theater throughout her life. Whenever an actor or play is featured in the books, like Ingraham Drew Culliman in this chapter, I always feel like they must be based on something or someone she encountered in real life, rather than a historical figure. (In this scene, Ingraham always reminds me of the over-dramatic lead Thespian in the Pixar movie A Bug’s Life, but that’s probably just me.)

Aside from this, I don’t have a whole lot to add about this charming but (at least as far as the general plot is concerned) relatively meaningless interlude. Juan Bautista pulls a Nefer and rescues the poor bald eagle from the inhumane way it’s been treated by its owners, but it will never really regain its sanity. The animal is clearly a symbol for Civil War-era United States, even before the author states it outright:

He was a symbol of many things, señors, not least of all this nation, crazed and self-destructive as it was. None of us could fly from that desolate place. Though the New Year arrived, there was a general feeling of the light going, waning, chilling, the feeling that we were journeying downward into darkness. The land sick, the people sick and crazy, certain ruin trundling toward us like a siege tower.

Minor note: the coach driver’s news about Indian attacks in Minnesota is probably a reference to the Dakota War of 1862.

Chapters 20 and 21: We immediately get another bit of Native American history in Oscar’s origin story. If you put together the puzzle pieces in the paragraph starting with “Native of this country, I’m proud to say!”, evidence points in the direction of Oscar having been rescued from the Lost Colony of Roanoke—exactly the type of historical mystery Kage Baker loved to exploit in these novels. (Reading this, it also occurred to me again that one of the side-effects of the Company’s recruitment policy has to be a fierce case of survivor syndrome in most of its operatives, although Oscar seems to be one of the more well-adjusted cyborgs on their payroll.)

This middle section of the novel is like the quiet before the storm. Before everything goes haywire when Edward comes on stage in Part Three, Kage Baker gives each of her supporting characters a moment in the spotlight, from Porfirio’s family drama in last week’s set of chapters to the ongoing drama of Juan Bautista and his birds. Einar’s background story seems to have been left on the cutting floor (pun intended, sorry) but in this chapter, Oscar gets his turn, starting with the aforementioned origin story and moving on to his sale of the ridiculous pie safe and the subsequent New England boiled dinner celebration, which has to be one of the happier moments in the series. Also, I don’t think there’s a more quintessentially Oscar moment in this entire novel than the conclusion of his motivational speech in chapter 20:

“Oscar,” I said at least, “you will go far.”

“Excelsior!” he said, and thrust his hat skyward as far as he could reach.

Much more importantly, however, chapter 21 sees the arrival of the hapless Alfred Rubery and his all-important briefcase. Even though Rubery’s appearance is relatively short, he’s one of the keys to the elusive international intrigue, which is still mostly taking place off camera in Imarte’s research. Rubery will turn out to be a Gentlemen’s Speculative Society agent who is scheduled to head to San Francisco to help Asbury Harpending with his pro-Confederacy privateering scheme. This will fail horribly, in large part because Alfred leaves his briefcase behind when he flees into the night after Cyrus Jackson attacks. Harpending doesn’t realize Rubery’s help is really meant to further the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society’s designs on Catalina Island, rather than the Confederacy.

What’s really interesting (and something I only figured out after I’d read this novel more than once) is that Alfred Rubery was a real person too, who even got his own chapter in Harpending’s autobiography The Great Diamond Hoax. In reality, Rubery was a young English gentleman of good fortune who had travelled around the Old South, admired its aristocracy, and became part of Harpending’s Confederacy-supporting privateering scheme. Using the fact that Rubery, a British citizen, was involved in this very American plot, Kage Baker turned Rubery into a tool of the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society. The (real, historical) Rubery was captured, along with Harpending, before they could board even one Union ship. He would ultimately be pardoned by none other than Abraham Lincoln himself, probably in large part because he was the nephew of a powerful British statesman.

It’s striking how surprised Mendoza is at herself when she asks the others not to kill the unconscious Cyrus Jackson and offers to deliver him to San Pedro with Oscar. She even asks herself: “Why on earth was I sorry for this mortal?” To be honest, I have no idea either. Everyone, including Mendoza, clearly thought Cyrus Jackson was a nuisance. Maybe some deeply buried compassion for another person who loved unwisely? Or did hearing Rubery’s British accent trigger some latent sympathy for mortals? It’s probably nothing, but it jumped out at me because even Mendoza herself acknowledges it’s out of character.

And speaking of being out of character, did you notice Cyrus Jackson calling Rubery a “prancin’ Ephebe”? Jackson doesn’t strike me as someone who enjoyed a solid education in ancient Greek history. Maybe he was channeling the original Cyrus

Chapters 22 and 23: And here we get the tragic outcome of Juan Bautista’s doomed attempts to balance his work with his love for mortal creatures. Mendoza has nothing but sympathy for the young operative because of what she experienced a little over three centuries ago. Porfirio, as team leader, has to be firm with Juan Bautista, but even he sounds understanding of the young operative’s pain; after all, his own descendants just taught him a similar lesson.

I always find this scene heartbreaking. Juan Bautista is one of the few genuinely nice characters in this series, and seeing his illusions shattered is tough. Even though it looks like he’s learned his lesson right now, this is just a temporary blip, because in the very next chapter he already adopts a baby raven. Even worse, in The Graveyard Game we’ll see that he eventually makes that raven immortal…

Chapter 24: You know something important is about to happen when half of a novel’s characters suddenly have Important Reasons to leave. Oscar is already gone by this point, off to Molokai for his well-earned vacation. Einar is suddenly tasked with delivering a shipment to another town, and Porfirio is assigned to accompany him. (Minor note: Porfirio’s question about wild dromedaries in the area is—unsurprisingly because after all this is Kage Baker—also rooted in historical fact. They probably got there because the American military in the 19th century apparently had a budget for purchasing camels and dromedaries. You just can’t make this stuff up, folks.) In either case, I’m fairly confident the animal shipment is just the Company’s way to get Einar and Porfirio out of the way, because Porfirio’s expression as they ride off makes it clear that he knows something major is about to happen to Mendoza.

So, Oscar, Porfirio, and Einar—all gone. Then Imarte suddenly announces her departure for San Francisco, now she’s thoroughly analyzed the contents of Rubery’s briefcase and figured out the outlines of Asbury Harpending’s plot, which will come to be known in the newspapers as the Chapman Piracy Case. There’s a lot of historical material in Imarte’s breathless summary of the plot so far, but I’ve already gone over my tangents quota for the week so I’ll restrain myself. (Okay, maybe just one: the John Bright Imarte mentions was Alfred Rubery’s uncle and probably the sole reason why the young idiot was pardoned.)

At the end of Part Two, the stage is set for Mendoza to be almost entirely alone. Once Imarte takes off in the first few pages of the next chapter, all the experienced operatives are suddenly gone. It’ll be just Mendoza and Juan Bautista when Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax makes his brief but spectacular first appearance in the series… which we’ll cover in the next post. Thanks for reading, and see you next week!

Stefan Raets used to review tons of science fiction and fantasy here on Tor.com and his website Far Beyond Reality, but lately his life has been eaten by Kage Baker’s Company series.

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