Rereading Kage Baker

Rereading Kage Baker’s Company Series: The Graveyard Game, Part 1

Welcome back to the Kage Baker Company Series reread at Tor.com! Today, we’re getting started on one of my favorites in the entire series: The Graveyard Game.

Quick note on how we’ll divide this one up: Like Mendoza in Hollywood, The Graveyard Game doesn’t have numbered chapters. However, the novel is divided in five separate sections that are set anywhere from a few decades to over a century apart. The sections are also conveniently separated by the confessional “Joseph in the Darkness” mini-chapters. To make things as easy as possible, we’ll just cover one of those sections every week, beginning today with the one set in 1996, next week the one set in 2025/2026, and so on.

You can find all previous posts in the reread on our index page. Spoiler warning: this reread will contain spoilers for the entire Company series, so be careful if you haven’t read all the books yet!

I realized a few days ago that I completely forgot to list some of the short stories and novellas set between the end of Mendoza in Hollywood and the beginning of The Graveyard Game. Since the internal time line of the series becomes less, well, linear after this novel, this is more or less the last chance to read the stories in chronological order, so I want to list some of the most important ones here for anyone who wants to fill in the gaps. Rest assured: God willin’ and the creek don’t rise, we’ll cover all these stories in more detail once we’re done with the novels.

The most crucial puzzle piece is the brilliant novella “Son Observe the Time”, which describes the massive Company operation that takes place right before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. A few sections in The Graveyard Game are tremendously confusing if you’re not familiar with “Son Observe the Time”, which must have been rough for those readers who’d only read the novels. Thank goodness that this novella, originally published in Asimov’s and later anthologized in one of Gardner Dozois’ annual “Best of” collections, would be incorporated in The Children of the Company a few years later, so legions of new Kage Baker fans who hadn’t caught her stories in magazines and anthologies could finally find out how Budu ended up chopped to bits in a buried San Francisco basement. (Also: I assume most people who are participating in this reread have read the entire series already, but if we have anyone who’s reading along for the first time — which I really don’t recommend unless you really don’t care about spoilers at all — “Son Observe the Time” is the single most important part of the series to read “out of order” so go find it in The Children of the Company before you read the rest of The Graveyard Game.)

There are a few other stories I’d recommend to anyone who wants to fill in some of the intervening years. The ones about Joseph and Lewis in early 20th century California are delightful, especially “Rude Mechanicals” and “Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst”. One of my all-time favorite Company novellas is “The Angel in the Darkness”, set in 1991 Los Angeles and focusing on Porfirio and his descendants. Finally, there are also a few stories that take place more or less simultaneously with events of The Graveyard Game (“The Applesauce Monster” and “Black Smoker” to name a few) but we’ll get to those once Kage Baker starts focusing more on Labienus and Aegeus in The Children of the Company.

 

Summary

In 1996, Lewis sees Mendoza and Einar in the temporal transcendence chamber of the Company’s Lookout Mountain Drive HQ, right before they are sent back to the 19th century. He travels to San Francisco to meet with Joseph, who (after a Ghirardelli’s-fueled theobromos bender) takes him along to interview Juan Bautista about what happened to Mendoza in 1863. The obvious physical resemblance between Joseph’s memory of Nicholas Harpole and Juan Bautista’s sketch of Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax makes Joseph realize that Mendoza’s problems are far worse than expected.

 

Commentary

Joseph in the Darkness: Even though The Graveyard Game is one of the most cheerful novels in the entire series, it starts out in a dark place, with Joseph recounting the events of the past three centuries to the unconscious Budu in his regeneration tank. Despite the gloomy circumstances of this framing story, we’re reminded right from the start that Joseph is a very different character from Mendoza, who narrated the previous novel in a similar, confessional style (well, literally a confession in her case, I guess) but with much less humor. Even though he is more isolated than ever (the “Darkness” chapters all take place after the events portrayed in the rest of the novel) Joseph still can’t resist cracking wise about Budu’s situation when he compares punishment for sin to a “rat gnawing at your guts.” Another big point Kage Baker drives home about Joseph, right in the second paragraph of the novel, is his moral relativism: “I could see all sides of every question. You saw black and white, and I saw all those gray tones.” Right from the start, you know that The Graveyard Game is going to have a very different tone from Mendoza in Hollywood, just like the opening of Sky Coyote immediately told readers to expect a shift from In the Garden of Iden: different narrator, different atmosphere, very different novel.

The process that started in Sky Coyote is coming to a close in The Graveyard Game. Joseph, always a loyal Company man, has managed to keep his growing doubts about the Company’s darker side at bay for centuries. He’s even had Budu’s message in his “tertiary consciousness” since 1099. In this novel, the combined guilt for not following up on his father’s disappearance and not being there for his daughter is becoming too much for Joseph.The chickens, as they say, are coming home to roost.

If Sky Coyote showed Joseph’s growing doubts about the shining future the Company promised its operatives, The Graveyard Game shows the final nails being driven into that idea’s coffin. If anyone needed more proof of Kage Baker’s genius, just look at how she managed to turn the shattering of a 20,000 year old operative’s illusions into a (mostly) fun romp across multiple centuries and three continents. Despite some of its darker moments, The Graveyard Game always felt a bit like “Lewis and Joseph’s Excellent Adventure” to me — or “Mendoza and the Hardy Boys”, as Kathleen Bartholomew wrote in last week’s excellent guest post. This is in large part due to Joseph’s personality and the seemingly inevitable chaos that erupts when he gets together with Lewis. It’s that juxtaposition of entertaining hijinks and world-shattering revelations that makes this one of the best novels in the series.

Hollywood, 1996: After Joseph’s first confessional chapter, the novel immediately links to Mendoza in Hollywood by doing something uniquely wonderful. We witness Mendoza and Einar’s inadvertent trip to 20th century Los Angeles again, but this time from Lewis’s perspective. Showing a time travel event in the context of both sides of the chronology isn’t something I’d ever seen done before.

However, this scene is more poignant than “just” a temporal anomaly, because Lewis has had an unrequited crush on Mendoza for years, starting with their time in New World One between In the Garden of Iden and Sky Coyote. (In addition to Lewis’s memories in this chapter, you can read more about this episode in the short story “To the Land Beyond the Sunset” in Gods and Pawns.) Lewis knows that everything went horribly wrong for Mendoza in 1863 and hasn’t heard from her since. When he sees Mendoza in the time transcendence chamber in 1996, he tries to warn her by yelling “Mendoza, for God’s sake! Don’t go with him!”. Mendoza thinks he’s referring to Einar because, at this point in her subjective timeline, Edward isn’t in the picture yet. Lewis, on the other hand, knows Mendoza killed several mortals in 1863, but had no idea until this point that Mendoza was a Crome generator who did the impossible and travelled into the future before her downfall.

Maire’s reassurance to the shaken Lewis that he is a “valuable Company operative” rightfully makes him nervous with its clearly implied “despite the way you just reacted to this Crome generator’s freak accident.” Kage Baker casually mentions Maire is 15,000 years old in this chapter, making her not that much younger than Joseph (what’s 3,000 years between cyborgs?) and one of the Company’s oldest active operatives. Combine that with her past association with Aegeus (see: The Children of the Company) and Maire is suddenly several spots higher on my personal list of “Company Operatives I Want to Read More About.” (No worries though: Imarte still holds the top spot.)

Still, the main reason why this scene is so effective and so crucial in the broader context of the series is the way it connects plot points going back several centuries. Shocking as the temporal accident was the first time we read it in Mendoza in Hollywood, it ended up getting overshadowed a bit by the dramatic ending of that novel. Seeing the same scene from Lewis’s perspective in The Graveyard Game drives home the point that Mendoza, who he hasn’t seen in centuries, is really, truly gone. From this point on, Lewis will get more and more obsessed with Mendoza and the mysterious Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax. Sadly, he won’t see either until the very end of the series.

Minor note: The official reason for Lewis’s trip to San Francisco is obtaining the “Marion Davies correspondence” for the Company’s archives. In “Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst”, a novella published two years after The Graveyard Game, Marion Davies actually appears as a character who Lewis and Joseph meet during their all-important mission to the Hearst mansion.

San Francisco: I already mentioned that The Graveyard Game is one of my favorite novels in the Company series. Let the record further state that this particular chapter is one of my favorite chapters in the entire series. I’ve at times been tempted to recommend it as a sample when trying to convince people to read the series, but you can’t explain half of the cool things that happen in this chapter without either explaining the plot of the entire series or sounding a bit mental, or possibly both.

Part of the reason why this chapter is so wonderful is that it’s one of only a few parts of this series that take place in a contemporary setting. There’s something thrilling about seeing these characters, who we’ve followed through several centuries and will follow far into the future, navigating a recognizable environment. It makes perfect sense that Joseph and Lewis would be involved with the Hollywood entertainment industry and that Juan Bautista is working in an Audubon Society bird sanctuary, but it’s still amazing to see how well their long careers translated into 20th century jobs. For me, seeing these characters living and working in contemporary California always made them feel more relatable and more alien at the same time. It gives the series an odd “they walk among us” secret history vibe I really love, especially when you add in some of the little details Kage Baker slipped into the story, like Lewis complaining to Joseph that the VR simulation is unrealistic because there weren’t any druids yet when Stonehenge was finished: “I was one, I should know.”

But aside from this general appreciation for the setting of the chapter, so different from anything that came before in the series, I also love it because it’s the first time we see the dynamic duo of Lewis and Joseph in action. (I’m disregarding the brief meeting at start of Sky Coyote because yes, they met, but they didn’t really work together on a “mission” like they do here and in some of the stories I mentioned earlier.) If Kage Baker had lived longer and launched an ongoing series of The Continued Adventures of Joseph and Lewis stories, I would have gladly bought and read them as fast as they became available. (I should also note here, that “Hollywood Ikons”, one of the stories Kathleen Bartholomew completed posthumously, is a Joseph and Lewis story. You can find it in the Tachyon Publications anthology In the Company of Thieves.)

The scene in Ghirardelli’s has to be one of the funniest moments in the entire series. The sheer idea of a pair of immortals putting a $100 bill on the counter and telling the fountain worker to “keep the drinks coming”, the confusion and disbelief of the employees when these two nattily dressed executives proceed to get ridiculously intoxicated of just hot chocolate, Joseph snorting a line of not coke but cocoa right off the table, followed by Lewis going into gales of high-pitched laughter and falling off his chair… and finally, the coup de grace and another one of those moments of perfect comedic timing Kage Baker was so great at: Joseph patting the security tech’s white bicycle helmet and leaving cocoa-powdered fingerprints. Dear reader, I lost it the first time I read this scene, and I still chuckle every time.

Despite all the comedy, this scene is also notable as another “crossroads scene” we’ll see from more than one perspective, although not quite in the same way as the one with Mendoza, Einar and Lewis in the Lookout Mountain Drive HQ. In The Machine’s Child, when Mendoza and Edward are time-hopping, they’ll visit this same Ghirardelli’s, just minutes after Lewis and Joseph have left in their taxi. And to add yet another layer, Joseph mentions having seen Nicholas and Mendoza on Catalina Island in 1923, not realizing that this was also an example of their time-hopping. You have to admire the intricacy of this one little scene, in which Joseph remembers seeing Mendoza and Edward in 1923, just minutes before they actually arrive in 1996, while from their perspective both of those scenes happened within days of each other.

Another favorite scene, though for different reasons, is Lewis and Joseph’s visit to the Tomales Bay bird sanctuary. This is, as you’d probably expect by now, also a real place, and yes, parts of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds were actually filmed there. I love how Kage Baker has transformed Juan Bautista from the good-natured but naive kid we saw in Mendoza in Hollywood. He’s had to dye his hair black because the distinctive silver hair of the Channel Island Indians would stand out too much in modern times, and he goes by the name “John Grey Eagle” now rather than the name he was given in the Mission where Joseph recruited him. This could be his original name from before he was adopted in the Mission where Joseph recruited him, or possibly it was just seen as a more plausible Native American name for modern times.

All of this makes this contemporary Juan Bautista seem like someone who has to hide everything that makes him unique in order to fit into the 20th century. There’s something tragically diminished about him here, isolated in his bird sanctuary, showing the smews to tourists but hiding his illegally augmented raven, who we first met (pre-augmentation) at the end of Mendoza in Hollywood. The fact that Juan Bautista doesn’t recognize Joseph as his recruiter/father, and that Joseph doesn’t tell him, makes it all even more tragic. (On the other hand, you could also argue convincingly that hiding your true nature is something every operative has to do at some point, as the centuries pass. Plus, present-day Juan Bautista has the best deal out of all the contemporary operatives, being able to focus exclusively on his work in the bird sanctuary, like Mendoza in the Ventana between Sky Coyote and Mendoza in Hollywood.)

The real kicker, at the end of the chapter, is Juan Bautista’s sketch. This isn’t a revelation for us readers, because we already knew from Mendoza in Hollywood that Edward was a Nicholas Harpole doppelganger, but for Joseph it’s one of the biggest shocks of his millennia-long life now he suddenly realizes that whatever got Mendoza in trouble goes much deeper than expected. This is where Lewis and Joseph truly become partners-in-crime and decide to investigate what has become of Mendoza and who or what is responsible for her disappearance.

Before we wrap up for the week, here are a few more fun references hidden in this chapter:

  • Joseph’s brand new pseudonym here is Joseph X. Capra. My guess is that he’s posing as an obscure member of the Capra family of Hollywood directors and studio executives. (I’m not sure what the “X” is supposed to stand for here, as opposed to the one in the “Joseph X. Machina” name he uses later in the series.)
  • Robert Louis Stevenson will make an appearance later on in the series, and of course Alec’s pirate theme ties in perfectly with Treasure Island, so it’s no surprise that Kage Baker subtly highlights the monument dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
  • In the ice cream parlor, Joseph’s line “What was it the man said about the free French garrison, Louie?” is a reference to the movie Casablanca.
  • Finally, based on the Marin County location and the reference to “Mr. Lucas”, it’s pretty clear that Joseph is working for Industrial Light & Magic at this point in time. This led me to imagine Lewis, who writes adventure stories featuring Edward later on in the novel, branching out into Star Wars/Company fanfic. Can you imagine a tiny hologram of Mendoza saying “Help me Edward Bell-Fairfax, you’re my only hope”? Sure to be another billion dollar franchise. (Call me, George!)

And on that note we’ll end for the week. Next time we’ll cover the chapters set in 2025 and 2026, so from the end of this section through the chapters set in Yorkshire. 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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