Sunday, December 20, 2009

Book Review: The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker

The Empress of Mars is most certainly an experiment in expectations. Having read Baker's The House of the Stag (and loving it, by the way), and being wholly unfamiliar with her Company novels, I had expected The Empress of Mars to be another adventurous, incredibly internalized story, only with spaceships and other science fiction furniture instead of magic and half-demons. Only, that's not what I got. Instead, The Empress of Mars provided me with more of Baker's ability to craft character and a strangely vibrant vision of a Mars that just might be, without the need for explosions and laser pistols to keep things interesting. The Empress of Mars takes place on, well, Mars, obviously, and follows Mary Griffith, a worshiper of "the Goddess" and owner of a seedy bar called The Empress, practically the only thing she owns, and a business she is struggling to keep afloat. There, she and her daughters, and a ragtag group of unwanted men and women who have come to Mars for the chance to make a life for themselves, eke out a meager living under the stern hand of the British Arean Company. Mary has had a hard life, too, with the BAC breathing down her neck, but unable to do anything about her, and all manner of unsavory characters wanting to see her pushed off the planet for good. After a string of good luck, however, Mary finds herself the target of the BAC's legal rumblings and business acumen. Now everything rests on Mary's shoulders: her business, the fate of Mars, and, most importantly, her family. Baker's pension for character is certainly a feature of this installment in her Company series. Mary Griffith is one of a set of astonishing array of unique characters, all with powerful motivations, wonderfully realized dialogue, and Baker's own flare for creating fascinating black and white figures on both sides of the coin. You still hate her bad guys, but you at least understand why they do what they do and disagree with them either because you hold different beliefs or because their tactics are unacceptable. Her good guys have similar problems, and this makes her story incredibly character-driven, because as the story moves along, Baker creates for us a long string of flawed, but endearing figures that you can't help but love, even if you disagree with aspects of their lifestyles. There are no wooden characters here. Pacing and world-wise, The Empress of Mars doesn't leave too much to the imagination. Some might conceive of this as a flaw, considering that much of Baker's novel is not at all unlike what we might see going on today: legal blunders, corporations overstepping their bounds, bitter attempts to steal land from underprivileged people, etc. The plot does take some time to get moving, but once it does, Mars comes to life as a clear, but somewhat exaggerated (and necessarily so) reflection of our present. Everything is laid out for the reader, bringing focus to the characters and their struggles with what is going on around them and de-centering the wider struggle of mankind; this creates isolation in plot and world, providing ample space for Baker to develop the scenery and history of the Mars colonists. Only in the end do things move a little too quickly, and some questions are left unanswered, but perhaps for good reason (the supernatural might have played a welcome--or unwelcome, depending on your perspective--hand in the overall story, but that's up for the reader to decide on his or her own). Beyond a somewhat lingering plot, Baker's imagining of religion seems to have a stronger connection to exoticism than realism. I feel as though the insertion of the mostly-pagan worship of the Goddess was inconsistent with what actually might be true in our own future. Mary's relationship to "the Goddess," while interesting, reflects more of the old, somewhat absurd early renderings of Mars in science fiction. Granted, I have not read her other Company novels, so perhaps there are some clear and powerful motivations for the changes in religion and social dynamics that I am unaware of in reading The Empress of Mars, but regardless, this seems a somewhat absurd complaint to have when the overwhelming majority of my thoughts about this particular novel center on my love for Baker's writing and her ability to create memorable characters. If everything up to this point hasn't indicated whether or not I liked this book, then I'll clarify now: while The Empress of Mars is not perfect, I found myself thoroughly engaged by the characters and once again loving Baker's writing style. This novel may not be for everyone--after all, it is not about galactic wars or spaceships or many of the more explosive and action-packed elements of the science fiction genre--but it will certainly appeal to many readers, particularly those who enjoy stories centered on the characters, rather than on the shininess of the setting. You can find out more about The Empress of Mars at Tor. It is also for sale on Amazon and wherever else you get your books. If you'd like to learn more about Kage Baker, check out her website.


SQT said...

I always have to read certain books due to a review schedule so I haven't had a chance to read Kage Baker yet. I think I'm going to take a month off soon just so I can read books by authors like Baker-- one's I've been wanting to get to.

S.M.D. said...

That might be a good idea. Baker is pretty good. I prefer her fantasy to her science fiction, though, at least based on what I've read.

kingofthenerds said...

There is a frontier, hard-scrabble flair to Baker's Mars that lends the proceedings a familiar feeling. It reminded me a lot of a western. Mary could have been a local farmer fending off a greedy cattle baron rather then a brewmistress fending off an evil corporation.