Over the course of a very long series, there is a kind of agreement made between the reader and the writer. The reader continues to read with the understanding (or at least the hope) that the series will come to a satisfying conclusion, and the writer, on the other hand, has some idea of where the thing is going, even if it's only an overarching image that represents the end.
No, this isn't a review of The Sopranos (though it was threatening to become one for a moment there). It's about The Sons of Heaven, the final volume of Kage Baker's Company series, and I'm happy to report that Baker has fulfilled her part of the bargain. Plotlines are tied up, lost characters are found, puzzles are solved. Even that much, these days, is grounds for rejoicing. But there is a good deal more to this book; it has twists and turns aplenty, surprises going off bangbangbang like fireworks.
It's an amazing achievement, all the more so when you consider that the series itself has been a sort of journey through time; the first book, In the Garden of Iden, came out ten years ago, in 1997. Iden is a simple story, nothing like as complicated as the later ones would get: Mendoza, an immortal cyborg working in the sixteenth century, falls in love with Nicholas Harpole, a mortal man. And yet even here, almost without our noticing it, Baker is laying the foundation for the books to come. In the background is the shadowy Company, Dr. Zeus Inc., which possesses the secret of time travel and has created the cyborgs to collect treasures from various eras. And there are hints and traces of things that will turn out to be important later—Nicholas's broken nose, for example, or Mendoza's work with corn.
The love affair ends horribly, of course, and Mendoza is heartbroken. In later books, though, as she moves through time, she meets men who seem to be exact copies of Nicholas: Edward Bell-Fairfax in the nineteenth century in Mendoza in Hollywood, and, later in the series, a man named Alec Checkerfield. Unbelievable coincidence? No, as it turns out, but you'll have to read the rest of the books to find out why.
It's with the fourth book, The Graveyard Game, that the plot really thickens. Mendoza has killed some mortals while defending Bell-Fairfax, and the Company has made her disappear. Two of her fellow Immortals go searching for her: Joseph, who discovered her as a mortal child and recruited her for the Company, and Lewis, who is in love with her. In the course of their investigations they learn some very disturbing things about their employers: other Immortals have gone missing, and the mortal masters, who have begun to fear their creations, are looking for ways to kill them off. Joseph, who has been a good Company man heretofore, turns rogue. And poor Lewis, a mild-mannered Literature Specialist who collects rare books and manuscripts for the Company, is kidnapped himself, by a race of little people who live out of the sight of Homo Sapiens: Homo Umbratilis, man of the shadows. The little people are mechanical geniuses but impossibly stupid about everything else, and some Immortals suspect that Lewis has been turned over to them by the Company, as part of their experiments. It is in The Graveyard Game, too, that we begin to learn more about the year 2355 and what the Immortals call the Great Silence, when all communication from the Company will cease and time itself may come to an end.
The Life of the World to Come begins with Mendoza, exiled to "150,000 BCE (more or less)." But it is really the story of Alec Checkerfield, a twenty-fourth-century English lord and the third incarnation of Mendoza's great love. He discovers Mendoza, loses her, vows to free her and save her from the Company. In the course of his investigations he learns as much about himself as Mendoza, including information about the Company's earlier experiments, Nicholas and Edward. With the help of his AI, the piratical Captain Morgan, he retrieves their recorded consciousnesses, and they take up residence in Alec's body.
It's a tight fit, though. Although these men are essentially the same person, each of them is also a distinct individual, with his own history and opinions. Harpole is a decent man trying to discern God's purpose for the world, a quest that takes him into religious fanaticism; Bell-Fairfax also wants to make the world better, but by serving Her Majesty's government, in the course of which he strays into some moral gray areas. Poor Alec would like to help people too, but the twenty-fourth century is such a boring, bloodless place that he mostly just drifts along, doing a spot of piracy (meat and alcohol are outlawed) here and there, and getting disastrously involved with some rebels on Mars Two.
In the next two books various Immortals get ready to oust the mortal owners from the Company when the Great Silence falls. In The Children of the Company we meet some higher-ups, including Aegeus and Labienus; Labienus, in particular, is so crafty and power-hungry that he almost makes us feel sorry for the mortals. The Machine's Child finds Mendoza and Alec/Edward/Nicholas traveling through time, planting various weapons that will go off in 2355.
And that—whew—brings us to The Sons of Heaven. (And please do not start this book without having read at least some of the others—this is a bare bones summary of a series that extends, literally, through space and time, and you'll be lost almost immediately.)
So. Does Lewis escape the little people who have captured him? Yes he does—but although we have seen the terrifying things Homo Umbratilis is capable of, Lewis's story becomes poignant, even bittersweet. Is there a showdown between Aegeus and Labienus? Yes there is—but they turn out to be less important than one of their underlings. Is there an actual Dr. Zeus? Um, sort of. Does Edward take over the world, as he seemed poised to do at the end of The Machine's Child? Well, he starts to, but something distracts him.
See what I mean about surprises? In almost every case, the story takes an unforeseen turn, confounding our expectations (my expectations, anyway). Some of the resolutions are better than others: I found the way Edward solves the problem of the three minds in one body a bit creepy, though the characters themselves don't seem to mind. And Mendoza, who has been fiercely independent throughout the series, seems strangely acquiescent in this one, agreeing too quickly to Edward's mad schemes.
Still, all of Baker's strengths are on display here. There's her memorable characterization, the way she is able to somehow get inside her characters, to show us their hopes and fears, their foibles and strengths. Joseph, for example: we first meet him in Iden as an interrogator for the Inquisition, not the most sympathetic of characters, but as the series progresses he comes to learn more about his job, and we learn more about what he was doing in those Spanish dungeons, and we end up liking the guy despite everything. And everyone who passes through is as carefully delineated, even the bit players—squeamish mortals who work for the Company, other Immortals who have, improbably, found love in their very long lives.
There's also the wry humor: directors of the Company are given the names of people who famously attempted to create life, Rappacini and Rossum and Loew; the mortals, who are taught that killing even animals is wrong, squirm ferociously as they try to justify getting rid of the Immortals.
A few stories still seem unresolved. I'd like to know more about Nan and Kalugin, for example, who are summed up with a few sentences, and what Chatterji thought of the rather frightening letter delivered to him. Perhaps there will be more Company short stories. I hope so.
But this is a minor point; The Sons of Heaven is extraordinarily satisfying. After the Company secrets are revealed one by one, after Mendoza and her lover(s) discover the properties of temporal physics, we are left with a sense of having glimpsed the levers of power, seen beyond the curtain to the mysteries of space and time. What could be better than that?
Lisa Goldstein's latest novel is The Divided Crown, written under the name Isabel Glass. Her novel The Red Magician won the American Book Award for Best Paperback. She has worked as a proofreader, library aide, bookseller, and reviewer, and she lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and their cute dog Spark.