on 6 January 2006
I've been anxiously awaiting the next "Company" book by Kage Baker ever since Life of the World to Come came out last year. I've been waiting to see how Baker moves the story forward, what Joseph's fate is, and where Mendoza will go from here. Unfortunately, The Children of the Company answers none of those questions, and again fills in a lot of backstory on the future and the evil machinations of a faction of Immortals, led by Labienus, who plans on perverting what the Company is doing for his own ends. This is valuable backstory, and I did enjoy the book, but I did feel a bit like we're spinning our wheels here. The book is a series of reprinted short stories with a framing sequence, as well as a few possibly new sequences along with them. It's not identified as such, which is also a problem (though a lesser one for me, since I've only read one of them). This is a good Company book, but not a great one.
The conceit of the story is a book told in three time periods: 1863, 1906, and 1906-2100. General Labienus (who was last seen sentencing the botanist Mendoza to 150,000 years ago exile) is reviewing some of his files, catching us up on his plotting to take what the Company is doing and turn it on its ear. He sees the Company as corrupt, the statement that recorded history cannot be changed as a lie (or, at least misleading), and he sees "mortals" as scum and slaves that should hang around to do the Immortals' bidding when the time comes. These files consist of previously published stories that give us pieces of the plot, all brought together for the first time. Is this intended to clean up some of the history? I don't know, but it seems to hang together fairly well. Ultimately, it boils down to Labienus' attempt to turn the Facilitator named Victor, who has been allied with Labienus' rival, Aegeus. It gives us the history of the defective humans who ended up capturing the literary expert Lewis in The Graveyard Game. It also, in an interesting twist, gives us a look from the other side at the saga of Alec Checkerfield and his various incarnations throughout time.
Thankfully, I've only read one of the stories reprinted here, "Son Observe the Time," which is the story of Victor and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Victor and a large party of Immortals are tasked with saving a lot of the art and other treasures that would have otherwise been destroyed in the earthquake, but Victor is also supposed to grab a young boy who would have also died, so that he can be converted into an Immortal. Victor is confronted by Budu, an Immortal from the dawn of man who was created to be a military Immortal, and has since gone insane since the Company stopped using them. Budu has his own thoughts on how things should be run, and he was Labienus' mentor at one time too. I had read the story, and it was wonderful, but it had even more meaning when given all the context that The Children of the Company gives us. Baker even gives us an epilogue to the story that wasn't included in the original, where Labienus debriefs Victor on his encounter with Budu, which goes even further to explain what happened and why. One small problem that this story didn't have before being included in this book is that Victor's attitude toward regular humans has softened a lot in 1500 years, but I guess that's not completely surprising. He's a lot more understanding of them in "Son Observe the Time" than he is in an earlier story.
The other stories are interesting in themselves, but even more important as they are put together to give us a view of what is really going on. We see the fate of Kalugin, a Russian Immortal who sees a bit more than he really should have in a future that's plague-torn. We see the history of Lewis that he can't remember in The Graveyard Game, as well as what happens when he starts to remember it. I wish we would have seen a little more of Aegeus and what his plans are, but maybe that's for another book. I have to admit that, as intriguing as all this is, I'm really starting to miss Joseph and Mendoza.
This all brings to mind pretty much the only fault with the book, which is the shotgun feeling of having a lot of stuff thrust at you at once. All of the above is included, plus a story of a new, extremely young, facilitator-in-training, named Latif. He's five years old but he's been fast-tracked. He's by-the-book with his training, so the base that he's sent to, with a facilitator that plays things more realistically than the book allows ends up throwing him for a loop. I have no doubt that Latif, and perhaps even Van Drouten, will play a role in the rest of the story, but they seem out of place here (though again, the story itself is wonderful).
Ultimately, it seems like Baker forged ahead in her story so quickly, between the various books and the short stories being published in Asimov's, that she has had to stop and let us catch our breath, bring readers who don't follow the short stories up to speed on what's going on, and then she'll vault forward for the finale. While I enjoyed Children of the Company because so much of it was new to me, it still felt like a pause for a bathroom break on a road trip that I was willing to hold it because I wanted to get to reach my destination. I trust Baker implicitly, as there hasn't been a work by her that I have disliked, but I'm getting a bit impatient.