Kage Baker is one of those author’s that I always mean to read but never get around to doing it. I’ve always been intrigued by her Company novels but intimidated by the prospect of jumping into a new series. The Empress of Mars is listed as being a Company novel, and the cover certainly mimics the the other Company but new readers should rest assured that The Empress of Mars feels like a standalone work and I never felt at a loss for having missed out on other Company novels.
The plot is fairly straight-forward. Mary Griffith runs a bar on colonial Mars, run by the British Arean Company, called the Empress of Mars. The plot is not grandiose but rather almost quaint. I don’t mean that in a bad way but the story of a hardworking colonist struggling against the oversight of an oppressive administration is something quite familiar; especially from the American perspective. Baker manages to imbue that familiar struggle with a vivid originality; I was particularly fond of her use of the Celtic clan structure to increase bonds between colonists and the emergence of a sort of monotheistic Dianic neopaganism as an more widespread religion.
When first starting to read The Empress of Mars I found it a little difficult to get into. Having come off the rather fast paces books of Michael J Sullivan the more sedate open sections of this novel, that give a fairly detailed accounting of the history of Mars and the operating procedures of its current administration, were a bit difficult to read through for a typically impatient reader like myself. However, as I read on what felt like short vignettes about Mary Griffith and her family laid a nice foundation for emotional attachment between reader and character. I am uncertain if I would have felt as invested in the events later in the novel without the careful writing earlier in the novel.
Indeed where Baker excels with this novel is character. From the red-tinged ice hauler Brick, to a delightfully roguish Lunar expatriate, all the way down to a rebellious Italian business heir obsessed with the old west the people that populate Baker’s Mars are absolutely fascinating, constantly interesting, and always entertaining.
In fact all of Bakers characters function in two or more roles. This blending of roles blends the aforementioned sense of the familiar with the new. On the one hand everyone in the book fills a familiar role typical to that of a western: the tavern owner, the lovable thug, the lawyer, the religious outcast. Each of those roles have a more-or-less archetypical feel where Baker starts to shake things up a bit is by combining those familiar roles with roles that are more in line with requirements of an advanced off world colony. Mary Griffith’s collection of outcasts and rebels are not just rabblerousers or your typical barflies but men and women with advanced degrees in high-tech science from terraforming to xenobotany. Again the unique blend of the familiar with the strange and new is what gives the novel its real charm.
Baker’s novel would have been woefully disappointing if she hadn’t managed to tie those people together with perhaps the most important character of all: Mars. Thankfully this is an area where Baker succeeds. The character of Mars casts a long shadow that engulfs everything and everyone in the novel. It is however, a difficult characterization to articulate and it is a portrait that emerges over time rather than all at once. The revelation of Mars’ character is, in my opinion, the primary impetus of the novel’s plot. Two characters in the novel exemplify this the best; I’m going to tell you one, the other would be too too much of a spoiler in my opinion. Take a look at the introduction to Brick:
The Brick was so named because he resembled one. Not only was he vast and wide and tall in his quilted Hauler’s psuit, he was the color of a brick as well….There was red grit between his teeth when he grinned…and his bloodshot red eyes widened in the pleasant evening darkness of the Empress….He had been on Mars a long, long time.
He is figure seemingly carved out of the very landscape of Mars itself and, as far as I’m concerned, an early declaration on Baker’s part regarding the importance of the planet itself. There are other, more subtle, hints over the course of the novel not the least of which is differences in values of the BAC versus those Mary and her family. For all the novel’s colonial underpinnings in the end it reads sort of like a character study of a planet.
With its slow beginning The Empress of Mars had me worried that it just wouldn’t hold my interest. However, the characters of Baker’s novel, like the red dust of the planet its set on, managed to work their under my skin until they felt like they were a part of me; like they were my own family. It would be easy to say that The Empress of Mars is just a colonial what-if story, and if you do it is an extraordinarily entertaining colonial what-if story, but the novel evokes a larger message of faith. Faith not only in the self, the power of the human spirit to endure whatever the condition, but in faith in something larger than oneself. The Empress of Mars is a fantastic novel that, despite its desolate setting, is vibrant with life.