I was first introduced to Kage Baker by a number of her short stories that I absolutely loved. I then moved on to the Company novels, and have enjoyed them immensely (with the minor speed bump of Sky Coyote). Now, with The Empress of Mars, I've read a novella by her. Is it any good? As usual, Baker has made me glad that I'm able to read.
The Empress of Mars is about the colonization of Mars by the British. As the story goes, "their space exploration effort had not been fueled primarily by a military industrial complex." This meant that its progress was not inhibited by the fact that there were no longer any enemies to face. "This left plenty of room for the private sector." The Empress refers to three things: a bar at the major settlement, the informal title of the owner of said bar, and (of course), the Queen of England. This story only concerns the first two. It's the story of Mary Griffith, homesteader and bar-owner, a woman of stout heart and steely determination, as she faces off against the main company trying to terraform the planet (the BAC, or the British Arean Company). She's trying to keep her family together and stable in a Western-like environment, when the discovery of diamonds on her property just makes things more interesting, and the BAC more intent on getting her land.
The Empress of Mars contains all of the Baker staples: quirky characters, fun writing and intriguing plot. At its basest, it is a Western about a strong woman on the frontier. This frontier just happens to be the Red Planet, of course, so it includes all the details that this requires (such as space suits to walk around). Baker captures wonderfully the desolation of a community that doesn't have a lot to live for. There's mining and there's drinking, and that's about it. Mary scrapes by on the meager earnings from the bar, taking advantage of the fact that there's little else to do around the settlement. She employs her daughters and a few other hands to work the small fields that she has, scraping together a little more money from the sparse agriculture.
The style of the novella is just as interesting. For awhile, I almost thought it was steampunk, with Victorian era British colonization of space, despite the fact that the queen in question is Elizabeth. However, I quickly realized that this is more of the style then the substance, as it clearly takes place in the future. The book is almost a hybrid as itís a futuristic Western-type story utilizing a Victorian style. It kept me off-balance (in a good way). While it has some romantic trappings, it even turns those cliches on their heads, with Mary getting married only to further her efforts to keep the BAC off her land.
The characters serve their purposes, with only Mary getting a full treatment. Still, the characters populating the bar and the semi-barren world around it do their thing well, each with a few characteristics to set them apart from everybody else. The Heretic is especially interesting, as thereís always a hint that somethingís going on behind the strange exterior. Another good one is the lawyer who comes up to Mars to inspect the diamond and give Mary some legal advice. He ends up being a lot more interesting than he seems to be, along with providing some decent comic relief. One of these minor characters (and I wonít say who) ends up being much more important than at first glance.
The plot fits the page count perfectly. One criticism is that things work out just right for Mary and her clan; none of the setbacks she faces really seem like theyíre going to bother her too much. While there is some tension, itís mainly from the reader wondering how Mary is going to get out of her latest scrape. Some of the solutions seem too convenient, while others are quite clever, but none of them are truly unpredictable. I think that may be an homage to the style Baker is writing in, however, so it may very well be intentional. Either way, itís a minor point that didnít detract from my enjoyment.
If you need a little Kage Baker fix, or want to try her out but donít like short stories, The Empress of Mars is a great way to introduce yourself to Bakerís writing. While I enjoy her Company novels more, this is a very worthwhile read.