Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006
US Hardcover First Edition
310 Pages; $23.00
Publication Date: 02-01-1999
Date Reviewed: 01-17-06
The follow-up to Kage Baker's enormously enjoyable 'In the Garden of Iden' is narrated not by Mendoza, the botanist who told the first tale in Baker's series about time travel, but Mendoza's mentor, Joseph. "The year is 1699," we're told, "And the place is South America." That much we know already from the finale of the first novel, which you must read before beginning this one. But no amount of prep is sufficient to prevent the shock of the new as Baker strides confidently into the future via the past. 'Sky Coyote' is rude, raucous and really funny. Set mostly in California amongst the Chumash Indians, Baker's novel manages a number of neat feats and will make you bark like a dog -- with laughter.
The opening segment of 'Sky Coyote' gives the reader a precious little bit of time to get acquainted with Joseph's voice as he rests in a luxurious resort run by Mayan slaves overseen by a prissy potentate from the future. There he hangs out long enough to incur Mendoza's continued scorn and withering anger before heading to California, where he and his helpers -- eventually joined by Mendoza -- will preserve an entire Chumash village for the residents of the twenty-fourth century. As one might suspect, this being a novel of some three hundred pages, things don’t go swimmingly well. Obstacles are encountered, clues as to what the future will entail are revealed, and many jokes ensue. If things turn out well, it certainly won’t be because the humans from the future or the humans of the past are any great shakes. Like most of us, they're all pretty picky, pretty lazy and somewhat self-involved.
No, the future is never assured, but when you’re reading a Kage Baker novel, a great time is a virtual certainty. I didn't know what to expect going into this novel, but what I got was a wonderful anachronistic look at a culture we'll apparently never escape -- our commercial culture. We'll never escape it because it's apparently hard-wired into our fiber, and Baker reveals this as she presents the Chumash as cunning commercial geniuses, sly, slick and a lot more canny than the reader or the crew from the future could possibly expect. Joseph and his minions find their hands full just keeping up with the clever chieftains and keeping everyone happy enough while dispelling the threat of a monotheistic religion. It's a wild and heady concoction and Baker handles it with class and a wonderfully straightforward prose.
The characterizations of the Chumash Indians were for this reader utterly enchanting. Baker's witty slapstick prose keeps the laughter flowing. The complications that arise from dealing with "primitives" who are primitive in technological terms, but sport a commercial streak every bit as creatively avaricious as anything the twentieth or even the twenty-fourth century can conceive of are brilliantly portrayed. And Baker's sense of humor is literally infectious. It's rare that readers find humor where characters find humor. We prefer to laugh at, not with our characters. But Baker brings in a wild Looney Tunes riff that works on all levels. She makes the old cartoon characters we know and love funny again.
Baker also works in a wonderful thread of folklore and archaeology that culminates in a campfire performance that goes on a bit too long but is nonetheless utterly, bewitchingly wonderful. The only caveat I might offer is that this novel will have you desperately looking for whatever real-life information you can dig up on the Chumash. Baker draws such a strong portrait of this fascinating civilization that the novel itself is clearly not enough. She skirts the edge of believability but does so with such élan and so enjoyably that I, at least was inclined to just buy it and read as fast as I could.
'Sky Coyote' may take place entirely in the past and be an enjoyable romp in real history, but Baker is writing a science fiction novel. There's a lot of mystery around what exactly is happening in the future from which the original time travelers hail. She skillfully drops a couple of hints about what is going on, enough to intrigue and advance the action a bit, but not enough to really give readers a good idea. And as with the first novel, she dumps you off at the beginning of the third novel, 'Mendoza in Hollywood'. It's a great tactic to keep you reading, but if you don’t have the novel to hand, you might be impelled to engage in some coyote behavior of your own, which in this case would involve chewing on your credit card to scare up a hard-to-find copy. I can only imagine what those who read the books as they come out must have thought. Talk about waiting breathlessly for a sequel! This is why readers like myself tend to wait for a series to finish before beginning it. But now, I'm so many novels behind I can hardly read fast enough. I hope. If I find myself hanging off a Baker-built cliff in some future, why I'll, Ill -- damn you Road Runner!
'Sky Coyote' is a wonderful, witty, engaging novel written in a winning voice. It's imaginative, filled with history and superbly silly. Like the Coyote from the old cartoons, I'm inclined to run wherever Baker points, right out into the abyss. If I fall, well, I'll be laughing all the way down.