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Stella Matutina
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Review Rerun: The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker 
15th-Nov-2012 07:00 am
My review of THE EMPRESS OF MARS first appeared on October 4th, 2010. It was my four hundredth; whee!

Revisiting it for this rerun series has made me want to reread all Kage Baker's books. She's fantastic.

Cover art for The Empress of Mars, featuring a red landscape peopled by two figures in space suits positioned above a valley filled with futuristic housesTitle: THE EMPRESS OF MARS
Author: Kage Baker
Series: this works perfectly well as a standalone, but it's set in the same world as the Company novels
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 303
Status: library

LibraryThing Info

The Empress of Mars for purchase on The Book Depository

The Empress of Mars for purchase on Kobo

I’ve gotta say, I’m hella surprised at how much I enjoyed this. I shouldn’t be--it’s Kage Baker, writing about her fascinating future world, on Mars. What’s not to love? And yet, it took me a while to really commit to it. It was interesting enough, but I wasn't particularly invested in the story for, say, the first hundred and twenty pages.

I hasten to say, though, that I don’t think it’ll take most people that long to connect with it. THE EMPRESS OF MARS began as a novella, so Baker gets the ball rolling pretty quickly. She introduces her characters, throws the central conflict out there (which: a barkeep starts a Martian diamond-rush when she discovers a gem in her allotted cultivation patch) and gives us some well-developed set pieces right off the bat. I think my failure to love it from the word go is more an indication of my untrusting nature. Yes, I loved scads of Kage Baker's other books, but I didn't quite trust her to deliver yet another awesome read. It’s my problem, not hers.

Once I did manage to trust the story, I realized that it was exactly the sort of book I like. Baker gives us a small, ever-shifting group of quirky, capable individuals who’ve carved out a niche for themselves and formed their own tight-knit family. That’s an intriguing set-up at the best of times, but the frontier setting also renders this a pioneer book (!!!), complete with all the usual suspects. We’ve got barkeeps, newspapermen, toothsome young wenches, grifters, slightly crazy folks who’re willing to do the dirty work, nasty folks who’re out to grind the little people into the ground, adventurous younger sons of wealthy families, etc, etc. THE EMPRESS OF MARS reads almost like a Western, for all that it’s set on a distant planet.

And what a planet it is! I loved Baker’s vision of Mars. It’s savage and beautiful, with plenty of opportunity for those who’re willing to work for it. It has its own distinct culture, too. In Baker’s future, anyone who doesn’t fit a very limited definition of "normal" ends up in Hospital (read: lifelong psychiatric treatment) or on Mars. Some of the characters did immigrate in order to take up skilled positions with the British Arean Company, but many of them were offered a choice between frontier life and a continued stay in the psych ward. They’re all just a little bit different than the sober, clean-living folks who’ve stayed back down on Earth, and their differences make Mars a vibrant, fascinating place. Everyone involved is uber aware of the science fictional tradition, too, and they've incorporated it into their culture. As a longtime Edgar Rice Burroughs fan, I particularly liked Barsoom Day, their version of Christmas, on which Uncle Tars Tarkas hands out imaginary presents to all and sundry.

As I said at the top, I do think the book works perfectly well as a standalone, but those who read and enjoyed the core series will be glad to hear that there are a couple of cyborg characters, as well as a homo umbralis fellow. (Not that anyone in the book knows what he is, with the possible exception of Nennys. I can't remember whether he was involved in the whole homo umbralis plot in the other books). I don’t think their presence is enough to derail any first-time Kage Baker readers, but I can’t say that for sure. I know I would have enjoyed THE WOMEN OF NELL GWYNNE’S a good deal more if I’d known what was going on with that inventor chap. THE EMPRESS OF MARS is much longer than that wee novella, though, and the cyborgs and the genius inventor play roles that still make sense even if you don’t know just what they are.

All in all, I recommend this to science fiction fans who like character-based stories and frontier adventures. I had a ton of fun with it, and it’s gone a long way towards convincing me that I can trust Kage Baker to deliver the goods, no matter the book.

4 stars - loved it

Other Reviews:

Fantasy & Sci Fi Lovin' News & Reviews
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review

I couldn't find any others. If I missed yours, please let me know so I can link to it.

Back In the Day:
Buffy - Lorne
15th-Nov-2012 07:08 pm (UTC)
I started to read Kage Baker earlier this year, but didn't get to finishing the book. Must try again! Terrible reading year sucks. :(
15th-Nov-2012 09:11 pm (UTC)
:( Terrible reading year is terrible. I hope you enjoy it once you return to it.
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