It's a disappointment, at least at first, to read on the copyright page that The Children of the Company includes six previously published stories. There's nothing new here, a reader of the series might think, no tidings of Alec Checkerfield and Botanist Mendoza, who were left hanging from various cliffs, metaphorically speaking, in the previous novel, The Life of the World to Come. And sure enough, the two of them don't appear at all, though they are mentioned a few times.
But the reader soon discovers that Children of the Company has its own pleasures, that it is not what it seemed at first glance, a cobbled-together selection of short stories. There is a reason these stories appear together, a reason that emerges gradually: to introduce the character and history of Executive Facilitator General Labienus.
Labienus works for the Company, a time-traveling organization that collects valuable artifacts they can sell to collectors in the future. As a Facilitator he doesn't work in the field with the Preservers; instead he supervises, making sure things are going the way the Company wants them to go. And the Company, as we've discovered in previous novels, is not as benevolent as they'd like their employees to believe.
Neither is Labienus. Like all the Company's employees he has been made immortal, and we first meet him as a capricious, sadistic Mesopotamian god named Atrahasis:
And when the rivers rose one season and drowned three-fourths of his mortals, Atrahasis waited out the catastrophe on high ground, watching with a peculiar thrill as bloated corpses were swept past his feet.
He told the survivors it had been their own fault, for not loving him enough.
It turns out that Labienus has his own agenda. He, like all the Company's workers, is worried about what will happen after the Silence: the year 2355, beyond which no word has come from the Company, or from anybody. He is marshalling his forces, conspiring behind the scenes, so that he will be in a position to take over if the Company fails.
The short stories, then, show Labienus reviewing his rather bloody career, the things he has done to those under his command. We've already heard about Lewis's visit in the sixth century to what was thought to be a fairy hill, but now we discover why Lewis has such trouble remembering it. And we find out where Kalugin disappeared to, and why he had to be gotten out of the way.
(If you don't recognize these names, by the way, especially those of Mendoza and Checkerfield, then I would most emphatically not recommend that you start with this book but with one of the earlier novels. One of the delights of the series is watching what had started with a simple love story between a mortal and an immortal become a complex tale of mystery and intrigue. The mortal turns out not to be so simple, for example, and so does the immortal.)
The Children of the Company is not really a novel, but it will do until the next Company novel comes along. In a way, it's a sort of dramatis personae, though a very detailed one. We're introduced to more of the people who will figure in the final confrontation with the Company; in addition to Labienus there is a mysterious Facilitator named Aegeus. We meet more foot soldiers for the Company, and find out why some of them have reason to hate their masters. There's a sense that a curtain is about rise, and that we are on the edge of learning more. Though whether this is true or not I don't know only time will tell.