Subterranean Press ISBN 978-1-59606-214-6
Tor ISBN 978-0-7653-1890-9
Mars is one of the most iconic and revisited settings in all of science fiction, both as a place of past alien civilizations and future colonization for futuristic frontier stories. In Empress of Mars, Baker takes that second route as Mars is still an open planet ripe for pioneers to settle. Overseeing the colonization efforts is a very looming authority: the British Aerean Company (BAC). Unfortunately, the success the BAC had in colonizing the Moon didn’t turn out so well on Mars leaving the populace on the fringes and quite that evoked the Dustbowl situation in the American West in the 1930s.
At the center of the story is Mary Griffith, proprietor of the Empress of Mars, the only bar on the red planet. By strange hands of fate, she comes into possession of an extraordinarily large diamond which could set her comfortably for the rest of her life. Mary is a very matriarchal figure, she strong-willed, smart and has a number of daughters. She signed on to the BAC’s too-good-to-be true deal to help terra form Mars, but things didn’t work out so well. Unable to return to Earth, Mary used her skills and knowledge as a xenobiologist to brew beer and open the Empress.
Other quirky characters round out the cast, a man who seemingly helps Mary sell the diamond, another, Ottorino Vespucci, who woos her, the lawyer who is hoping to stifle the BAC’s attempt at autocratic control; a strange man known as the Heretic who once lived on the moon. Baker also created a cult religion on the planet who worships a mysterious Goddess. The characters provide a great deal of life on an otherwise barren landscape.
I thought Baker did a very nice job of drawing her characters, particularly Mary and her daughters. I also thought the atmosphere and the overall feel she gave to Mars was terrific. However, he narrative didn’t pull me in as much as I would have liked and found most of the events to be in a unbalanced contrast to the colorful characters. That is, the characters were fairly interesting, the setting was done well, but the plot just didn’t hook me. Unfortunate because I like a lot of the shorter fiction I’ve read by Mrs. Baker and I thoroughly enjoyed The Anvil of the World.
Though not clear from the text itself, Empress of Mars is set in the same milieu as Kage Baker’s Company novels. In that case, this book should please many of the fans she’s garnered from those books. The Mars of Baker’s novel seems only touched upon by the author, there’s a sense the more stories can be told of the idiosyncratic characters who live on the red planet. That coupled with the fact that it is set in her Company milieu would almost guarantee readers haven’t seen the last of Mars.
© 2009 Rob H. Bedford