THE EMPRESS OF MARS
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Kage Baker introduced The Empress of Mars, a bar located on a newly colonized Mars, in a Sturgeon Award-winning novella of the same name that appeared in Asimov's in 2003. She has since expanded he story, as well as the perception of this version of Mars, to novel length, retaining the title and feel. Despite being set on Mars, The Empress of Mars almost belongs more to the cowpunk genre of westerns in space than it does to the literature of Mars. Settled by the British Arean Company, those who live on the planet must follow the company line or face potentially deadly consequences. This does not sit well with Mary Griffith, who runs the only saloon on Mars and it sets up a situation of Mary and her supporters against the corporation.
The Mars run by the British Arean Company is made up of numerous groups: the Company itself, the Celtic Federation, the Haulers, and the miscellany of characters who have managed to find themselves living in the Empress of Mars. The novel is similarly fragmented, overall telling a story, but feeling like a fix-up, with each section being able to stand on its own, not entirely surprising given the pedigree of the volume. However, Baker does have an arch that shows Mary battling to keep the place she made on Mars, her daughters coming to terms with their own lives and loves, and the settlers facing down each other and external challenges.
Baker's Mars feels as if it should be inhabited by larger-than-life figures...the kind who frequently make appearances in Mike Resnick's novels. While some of them, notably Mary Griffith and Brick, come close, their humanity outweighs any legendary aspect they have, perhaps demonstrating the early stages of the legends that Resnick seems to specialize in. By making these characters human, rather than archetypes, Baker makes them more sympathetic to the reader, who can relate to them as individual rather than as mythological figures.
The Empress of Mars splits its focus. Throughout the book, Baker looks at Mary Griffith's personal life, examining the burgeoning relationships between her daughters and the men who inhabit Mars, whether the Hauler who first hooks up with one of Mary's daughters to the businessman who is the black sheep of his family to the lawyer who comes to Mars to represent terrestrial business interests. Not all of the characters introduced are pulled into Mary's tight circle Some are introduced, get what they need or want, and then move on to form their own little community. Other aspects of the novel focus more firmly on Mary's battle with the British Arean Company and its proxies, whether in the form of a religious sect which seems to feel that the enemy of their enemy is their friend (at least temporarily), or a new generation of settlers which haven't experienced the worst the BAC has to offer.
For all that the story told in The Empress of Mars covers broad areas of the settlers' relationship with the BAC, there is, at times, the feel that the novel is a little too focused on the role of Mary and her crowd. Even as the stories focus on her, there is the implication of activity taking place elsewhere on the planet, even in areas close to where the tavern is located. However, these other stories are merely implied and left unexplored. This does give The Empress of Mars the feel of being set in a fully realized world, but at the same time seems to be a little limiting.
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