Rereading Kage Baker

Rereading Kage Baker’s Company Series: Mendoza in Hollywood, Chapters 25-29

Welcome back to the Kage Baker Company Series Reread! Can you believe we’re already finishing up another novel this week? In today’s post, we’ll cover the final five chapters of Mendoza in Hollywood, so from the end of last week’s post to the end of the novel. I’m not going to separate the commentary by chapter this time because this section focuses exclusively on Mendoza and Edward, rather than skipping around between the different characters and subplots.

All previous posts in the reread can be found on our handy-dandy index page. Important: please be aware that the reread will contain spoilers for the entire series, so be careful if you haven’t finished reading all the books yet!

The soundtrack for this week’s post should really be Joy Division’s She’s Lost Control, but since that’s hardly period-appropriate I’ll go back to El Amor Brujo, which makes a second appearance in this set of chapters.

 

Summary

Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax arrives at the stage coach inn in search of Alfred Rubery’s valise. Mendoza falls in love with the apparent reincarnation of her long dead lover Nicholas Harpole and accompanies him on his mission to Santa Catalina, where he is shot to death. She kills several mortals. After her disciplinary hearing, she is imprisoned on Catalina, approximately 150,000 years in the past.

 

Commentary

The long-awaited appearance of Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax coincides with the disappearance of Mendoza’s final few shreds of sanity for a good long time, but who could blame her for losing her mind? The emotional trauma of her first mission has been haunting her for over three centuries. She then worked in isolation in the forests of California for decades to avoid the company of mortals. Recently, she’s been through a bizarre, world-shaking experience when she impossibly found herself transferred to future Los Angeles. In addition, her colleagues on this assignment have, through no fault of their own, reminded her several times of the consequences of giving your heart to mortal creatures. Finally, her work, which she’s been using as an emotional crutch for centuries, has dried up along with the drought. And then, to top it all off, an Englishman who is the spitting image of Nicholas Harpole walks in.

I’m always curious what everyone else made of this development upon first reading. What did you think, the first time it became clear that Edward was somehow, impossibly, a Victorian clone of Nicholas Harpole? I came up with some crazy theories, back then, though nothing near as crazy as what the actual explanation would turn out to be…

(That three year gap between the publication of The Graveyard Game and The Life of the World to Come didn’t help either! At a signing here in San Diego, Kage Baker even offered to explain the Nicholas/Edward mystery, spoilers and all, but no one took her offer. In retrospect I’m glad, because The Life of the World to Come wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying, but remember, at the time Tor hadn’t picked up the series yet so we weren’t even sure if and when that fifth novel would ever appear.)

Setting aside the mystery for a moment, I have to say that Edward’s infuriating arrogance and stodgy Victorian values rubbed me the wrong way almost from his first line of dialogue, and that’s even before he tries to drug Mendoza and suggests marrying a rich man or joining a convent are the best ways to improve her life. If you’d told me back then that he’d turn out to be a central character at the end of the series, I don’t know if I could have kept reading. (Well, no. I would have definitely, 100%, kept reading. But I’m glad I didn’t know!) Edward never really shakes off those Victorian values (and it’s probably unfair to expect this of him anyway) but thank goodness it doesn’t take long for him to see Mendoza’s true potential and offer her employment. He also does turn out to be more enlightened than initially expected when he discusses empire and religion with Mendoza.

It struck me that Mendoza’s inner dialogue suddenly gets a lot darker once she stops suppressing her emotions and memories. When she and Edward are making love, she says he played her body like a rare instrument, “as though I were something beautiful.” Later in the same scene: “If this day was possible, then angels might exist, fairies too, miracles and wonders, even a loving God.” Clearly, even though the impossible reunion with her long-lost lover improved her mood tremendously, it didn’t completely cure her depression and self-loathing.

The British plot, which Imarte has been unravelling in bits and pieces throughout the novel, finally comes into clear focus. California is the grand prize in this latest iteration of the Great Game of Nations. After all, the state has only recently become part of the Union. Given the current geopolitical situation, with European nations still squabbling over the New World, it’s not that hard to imagine California becoming a tempting prize, especially with the ongoing Civil War creating a huge distraction for the American government and military. Keep in mind that the Panama Canal is still fifty years off at this point; with British colonies all over the Pacific Ocean, it’s not such a big stretch to imagine a chunk of the U.S. West Coast going over to Queen Victoria too.

The Chapman Piracy Case only turns out to be one part of the plot. There are also plans to grow cotton in California, now the Civil War has created supply problems for British textile mills, and the ultimate goal is for California to become part of the British Empire.

Of course, underneath all of those plots with varying degrees of historical plausibility, there’s the true secret goal of the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society. They need to get their hands on the mysterious technology hidden on Santa Catalina, described in the mysterious Document D that’s been mentioned a few times so far and will finally be seen in The Life of the World to Come. This will start a chain of organizations and discoveries that will ultimately lead to the creation of Dr. Zeus, Incorporated.

These chapters also give us the first big hints about the source of that technology. During her research into the history of Catalina, Mendoza reads about sunken continents, seven foot tall skeletons, and white Indians dating back 30,000 years. She notes that the English will try to get access to whatever’s buried on Catalina for decades to come, and that predecessors of the Company will have a presence on the island for centuries, setting up a conservancy, altering maps of its interior when necessary, and even protecting it during the second American Civil War. When Mendoza is imprisoned in Back Way Back, she’s given orders to look out for the arrival of a technologically advanced people. Connecting all these dots, she begins to realize the importance of Catalina to the history/future of the Company, but we’ll still have to wait a bit to get more information about the exact nature of Homo Umbratilis.

Mendoza’s reference to “those little pale men I ran into back in 1860” points back to the story “Lemuria Will Rise!” in Black Projects, White Knights: The Company Dossiers, which features a hermit (in Pismo Beach, where Kage Baker lived) waiting for the return of the inhabitants of an Atlantis-like sunken continent called Lemuria. Somewhat confusingly for people who are familiar with the Company series, the “Lemurians” in this story are small, pale, big-eyed humanoids with advanced technology. If you squint, you could almost confuse them with the Homo Umbratilis in the series. However, the beings in the story are described as classic X-Files-style aliens, not Homo Umbratilis who are (at least based on what we read in The Children of the Company) a “third branch” of humans, next to Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals. If there are any links between the aliens in “Lemuria Will Rise!” and Homo Umbratilis in the series, Kage Baker never explains them in the books. It’s fun to speculate about possible connections between the two, but since we only see those aliens in one short story, I don’t want to overthink what may be just a fun one-off story rather than a major shake-up of the quote-unquote Company canon.

But, back to Edward and Mendoza! Their romance is so much shorter than the one in In the Garden of Iden, but it burns even more brightly. It again features the intellectual sparring we saw between Nicholas and Mendoza, with Edward trying to figure out exactly what type of creature Mendoza is, but this time it’s matched by Mendoza trying to figure out exactly what type of creature her impossibly reincarnated lover is, especially when he displays some of the same seemingly super-human reflexes and intellectual abilities that Nicholas occasionally showed. By the end of the novel, tragic as it is, Edward has shared enough about his beliefs and his organization’s plans that, when we add it to Mendoza’s own research into the history and future of Catalina, we’re beginning to get a decent idea about the link between Dr. Zeus and Catalina, and even what role Edward and the G.S.S. play. Unfortunately it’ll take a while before we get a satisfying explanation about how an apparent clone of Nicholas can show up in 19th century California, because at this point Nicholas and Edward are sadly dead and Mendoza is out of the picture until The Life of the World to Come.

This is where I, again, ask you to imagine the terrible plight of those poor Company fans who read these books as they were being released. This maddening mystery would take years to be resolved because The Graveyard Game mostly just prolongs and deepens the mystery, and that novel was followed by a three year gap. The collection Black Projects, White Knights, which came out during that gap, if anything deepened the mystery even more because it included a few short stories about Alec (one of which would later be reworked as a chapter in The Life of the World to Come) without explaining much about the Inklings. Dear reader, it was a dark and confusing time.

Anyway, moving on! Before I wrap up my thoughts about Mendoza in Hollywood, here are a few random bits from my notes.

  • The poem Mendoza whispers to the dying Edward is the same one we heard Eucharia singing in chapter 4. It’s part of the (fictional) “Celtic reinterpretation of de Falla’s El Amor Brujo” mentioned in that chapter.
  • We’ll see Joseph’s theory about the English Character Actor Phenomenon in action soon, when he and Lewis visit the Basque region in The Graveyard Game. If not for all the other coincidences and impossibilities, that theory would actually be a plausible explanation for the identical looks of Edward and Nicholas.
  • Speaking of those coincidences, Mendoza questions Edward about his nose, which looks broken in exactly the same place as Nicholas’ nose was. Edward denies ever breaking it. Even confronted with this mystery, Mendoza somehow still doesn’t scan him, just like she never scanned Nicholas. Of course, if she scanned them, she’d discover the “black box” recorders that were installed in the Adonai when they were babies, which would completely change the way the mysteries of the series are revealed.
  • We have an ichthyosaur sighting in the penultimate chapter! Remember the dinosaur skull fossil from the very end of In the Garden of Iden? Edward describes seeing an entire ichthyosaur skeleton in Dover, and we’ll see a few more of these creatures pop up as the series progresses, including a live one in The Life of the World to Come. (Once I spotted this a few years back, I almost drove myself crazy trying to come up with explanations about why they keep popping up throughout the series. It turned out to be a something completely different from what I thought, as you can see in this post on Kathleen Bartholomew’s blog.)
  • This series inflicts many unspeakable horrors upon its characters, from emotional trauma and existential dread to the most unimaginable torture, but the one that most frequently makes an appearance in my own nightmares are the sardine tacos Edward eats in these chapters. Sardine tacos, dear reader… Just typing the words make me shudder. And all because Marie Dressler didn’t like her pelican chow!

But in all seriousness, I’m always sad that we only get a few chapters of Edward and Mendoza’s happiness at the very end of Mendoza in Hollywood. The novel finally feels like it’s taking off, right when it’s about to end. After so many centuries, Mendoza finally finds some happiness, only to see it ripped away in four short chapters. Even worse, she’s then imprisoned in Back Way Back (about 150,000 BCE) on Catalina Island, where she will remain until Alec, the third Adonai, finds and rescues her.

If you made a graph of Mendoza’s mental state, it’d hover somewhere between “morose” and “depressed” for most of the novel, shoot up to “euphoria” during these last few chapters, and then crash right back down to “despair” for the final chapter and most of the next three millennia of her subjective time line. Because of this, let’s mark the occasion of Mendoza’s few days of happiness in this century with this gorgeous (and prophetic) quote, before I wrap things up with some thoughts about the novel:

“What are you?” Edward whispered.

“Your mate,” I said. “As meaningless as that is, for us both. We’ll never marry. We’ll never settle in a cottage by the sea. We’ll never raise children. Death and time stalk us like a pair of hounds. But we were formed in the mind of God from the same piece of steel, for what purpose I cannot imagine.”

He was silent for a while. His hand traveled up and closed on my breast. “Death and time,” he said at last. “What would our life be like, if we could live?”

“Oh, we’d make the world the place it should have been,” I answered with a grand wave. “We’d blaze across the sky like meteors, and our masters would look upon us and tremble. We’d bring down the palace of Death as though it were so many cards. You’d take the flaming sword and smash the lock on the gates of Eden, and let our children into the garden. I’d teach them how to grow corn, and you’d give them laws. Everything would begin again, except sorrow.”

So, that’s it for Mendoza in Hollywood. Despite its shortcomings, I’ve always enjoyed the novel’s unique atmosphere. I love the idea of a group of immortals working in a small stage coach inn, bonding, bickering, huddling around a flickering movie projector in the dark 19th century California nights. I’ve seen the term “slice of life” used to describe movies (and art in general) that focus on the everyday experiences of its characters. If so, Mendoza in Hollywood is the most “slice of life” novel in the Company series.

I’ve also always felt that Mendoza in Hollywood is one of the weaker novels in the series precisely because it tends to focus on the slice of life material at the expense of, well, an actual plot. Looking at the previous two novels, In the Garden of Iden introduces the entire concept of the Company and has a strong romance plot, while Sky Coyote adds a ton of depth to the Company and describes a mission working towards a specific goal, i.e. acquiring the Chumash village. Those novels have a clear beginning, middle, and end. They have, for want of a better term, narrative tension. You want to know what happens next.

By contrast, I’ve always thought that much of Mendoza in Hollywood feels less like a novel and more like a handful of novellas and short stories in search of an overarching plot. That plot is hinted at broadly throughout the book but only comes into focus in the last quarter of the novel. Because of this, the novel lacks a sense of purpose and direction until much too close to its end, when it suddenly kicks into overdrive.

I learned from Kathleen Bartholomew’s posts that the shape of the stories in the Company universe was always evolving. Novellas and stories became part of novels during rewrites. Some were later separated into shorter pieces again or recombined in different forms. What we came to know as the main novels in the series also went through multiple transformations along the way, which is more obvious for certain books (e.g. The Children of the Company) than for others. (For a perfect example of this, look at how Kathleen Bartholomew described the making of Sky Coyote.) I may be wrong, but I suspect that most of Mendoza in Hollywood’s issues with structure and pacing can be blamed on a similar process.

However, before a mob of howling Mendoza in Hollywood fans descends upon me, I want to state for the record that, back when it originally came out, I enjoyed this novel more than Sky Coyote, and I still love revisiting it because honestly, how can you not love these characters and this setting?

 

And that, my friends, is a wrap as far as Mendoza in Hollywood is concerned. If all goes well, I should have another post by Kathleen Bartholomew for you next week, and the week after that we’ll jump right into The Graveyard Game. See you then!

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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