Review of The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker

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Your gaze rests lovingly on your battered copy of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, wondering why no one writes like that anymore… Well, I’ve uncovered another gem in the same mould, folks. Based on Baker’s Hugo-nominated novella of the same name, this is space opera at its rollicking best. While still set in Baker’s world of The Company – her series about time-travelling immortals plundering Earth’s history – it is entirely stand-alone to the extent that you don’t need to be aware Baker has written anything else, in order to appreciate the story.

empressofmarsWhen the British Arean Company founded its Martian colony, it welcomed any settlers it could get. Outcasts, misfits and dreamers emigrated in droves to undertake the gruelling task of terraforming the cold red planet—only to be abandoned when the BAC discovered it couldn’t turn a profit on Mars.

This is the story of Mary Griffith, a determined woman with three daughters who opened the only joint selling alcohol on the Tharsis Bulge. As such, she and her bar, The Empress of Mars, are the beating heart of the bereft colony of eccentrics struggling to survive in the face of BAC’s corporate indifference. However, that indifference switches to something more threatening when an unexpected discovery suddenly makes Mars more important in the scheme of things…

A classic frontier tale of rugged individualistic grit pitted against shadowy religious and corporate ambition, Baker is very upfront about the influence of the Wild West in this book. This emphasis on the individual allows Baker free rein in her depiction of the gloriously mapcap characters peopling Mars as the plot weaves through a series of hurdles that Mary and her family have to scramble under and over. The characters leap off the page as the action sweeps them through edgy tense drama to humorous interludes verging on farce – classic Baker, in other words.

The setting is wonderfully realised. Mary’s bar… the Celtic settlement… the bleak red Martian landscape… without holding up the action, Baker has managed to make Mars and the Martian environment pivotal to the whole story – an element often missing in modern space opera. With their current obsession for character-driven plots and plenty of snappy dialogue, many modern writers treat their uniquely different science fiction settings with nonchalant carelessness. However, Baker never lets you forget that this is Mars – an untamed planet right on the edge of viability for human habitation.

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable, well-crafted offering by a scandalously underrated writer, who tragically died at the beginning of last year after a brave battle with cancer. I’ve been banging on about her Company novels ever since I accidentally stumbled across them a couple of years ago. Give yourself a treat, track down this book – and you’ll see why…
10/10

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