While a bit long a times, this was a fascinating look at the Company through the eyes of Labineus and Victor. I especially liked the sections featuring Victor in San Francisco just before the 1906 earthquake and the one featuring Kalugin in the sunken ship telling his story to a worm.
Two steps forward, one step back.
There was finally a feel of momentum about the last Company novel (The Life of the World to Come) -- we finally reached the future, and quite a few events came to a head. The cast of characters appeared to be complete with the introduction of Mendoza's third (and final, I believe) lover and his devious Captain; we finally got into the heads of some of those poor short-sighted mortals nominally in charge of the Company, and we came within striking distance of 2355. Unfortunately, this volume squandered all that momentum by jumping far, far backward to fill us in on another event shadow -- the evil machinations of Labienus who, from sometime in prehistory, has been doing his best to undermine the Company's stated mission.
Which actually wouldn't have been terrible (though it was always destined to be frustrating) if Labienus had been rendered as fully as Baker's other viewpoint characters have been. Unfortunately, he remains throughout a caricature of frustrated desires and squeamishness. The implications from his being the only character in this universe to display homosexual urges left me a little queasy.
I don't think that Baker is particularly homophobic (she was in theater, for goodness' sake! in California!) and I believe she could have rendered Labienus a more complex character had she wanted to (though thinking about it, most of her bad guys have been a tad stock) but despite what the dust jacket says, Labienus isn't really the focus of the book. He's little more than a frame; the book literally shows us him going through his secret files for a page or two, then "remembering" a short story set from quite a few other Company operatives' perspectives.
We see Lewis at his best in an Ireland just being converted to Christianity; we see little Latif receive training from a Facilitator in Amsterdam; we see Kalugin's final dive into treachery; and we get Victor's story. Tragedies all, and most quite moving. We also see Budu and the ADONAI project from Labienus' perspective, as Baker maneuvers more of her plot into place. But I must say I resent the evil puppetmaster Labienus has been cast as, because (1) I just find it hard to believe a total sociopath could be produced through the indoctrination the Company uses on its Facilitators, and (2) it seems a rather creaky plot device.
Still, some of the short stories within nearly moved me to tears, and Baker's prose has become more polished -- there were several pieces of description that took my breath away. The series has come far enough from the passionate first-person narration of Mendoza and Joseph that I no longer crave that from it -- at this point, I just want the action to start! But the frustration shows how much Baker has me invested in these characters and this world, so of course I still have to recommend it. But just a warning to the universe at large: the payoff had better be fantastic!
This is the sixth novel in Baker's 'The Company' series, not counting the short story collection 'Black Projects, White Knights" (which I'll probably read next). At this point, I'd have to say this does not work as a stand-alone novel. To enjoy this book, you really have to know what came before, and be interested in what's eventually going to happen (in the 24th century). I did enjoy the book - but because I do really like this series. Mainly, it forwards the growing concepts the The Company is more and more corrupt than we initially guessed, and rebellion is fomenting among some powerful parties. The story mostly has to do with a secret genetic experiment to cross the mysterious troglodyte race mentioned in previous novels with humans - but at this point in the saga, there's a lot of different characters and elements, and bringing them all in and forward doesn't make for an extremely cohesive plot. But - I've still really got to get the last two book in the series!