Tuesday, 21 April 2009

‘The Empress of Mars’ – Kage Baker (Tor)

If you read fantasy or science fiction then the odds are that you’ve ended up nursing a pint of something alcoholic with the denizens of pubs with names such as ‘The Crippled Orc’ or the ‘Hyperdrive Saloon’. Staying away from places like these are well nigh impossible; whether your adventurer has slain a dragon or busted through a planet’s security blockade the first thing that they’re going to want to do afterwards is celebrate by getting roaring drunk at the nearest place that sells hard liquor.
You would have thought that the prospect of hanging out in yet another space bar would be getting tedious by now but not so! The fact is that ever since I saw Star Wars, for the first time, I’ve loved this setting. The Mos Eisley Cantina has got a lot to answer for :o)
If this wasn’t enough, ‘The Empress of Mars’ is a book written by Kage Baker; an author who I’m always keen to read more of after reading ‘The House of the Stag’ back in September last year. As it turned out, ‘The Empress of Mars’ was more of the same and in the best possible way...

When the British Arean Company founded it’s colony on Mars welcomed any settlers it could get and, more often than not, these were outcasts, misfits and dreamers. When the company realised that there was no profit to be had on Mars the settlers were left to fend for themselves and this is the story of what happened next...
Meet Mary Griffith, an unemployed mother of three who opened the only place to buy a beer on the Tharsis Bulge. ‘Empress of Mars’ is her story but it’s also the story of conman Stanford Crosley, space cowboy Ottorino Vespucci and the mysterious Heretic. With the help of others, these four people will turn a derelict planet into something else entirely...

I haven’t read the 2006 Hugo nominated novella (of the same name) that ‘The Empress of Mars’ is based upon but if this book is anything to go by then I think the nomination was well deserved. ‘The Empress of Mars’ was a thoroughly entertaining read, starting off like ‘Cheers’ set on Mars but then becoming a lot more...

The first chapter sets out the stall for the whole book with an amusing set of circumstances and coincidences that set Mary up with everything that she needs in order to get to her exalted position by the end of the book. The ramblings of the Heretic suggest there is more at work here than sheer luck; this may or may not be the case but these occurrences do fall into a pattern which can leave the reader knowing that come what may Mary will always win through. At first, there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of point in continuing reading, if you already know how it will end, but the way in which Baker goes about her writing business soon gives you a very good reason to stick with it.

I was left marvelling at how everything fitted together to form a plot that was meticulous and moved along at a steady pace. Nothing is superfluous to the story as a whole, if anything looks like it is then that’s only because it’s about to come back (in a few pages) and surprise you in the best way possible. ‘The Empress of Mars’ has plenty of twists and turns but it always makes sure that the reader doesn’t get lost along the way. This book is also not afraid to poke fun at itself every now and then, the addition of little asides like ‘downloading the 350th season of Eastenders’ never failed to surprise me into a laugh and this is one of the best ways to keep me reading.

The characters in the book are a joy to get to know and investing time in their development is definitely a pleasure not a chore. There is laughter and tears over the course of the book and Baker is not afraid to shy away from going into what this means for people like Mary Griffith, her children and others. Even though you know how the story has to end, watching these people refusing to be cowed is still quite an experience.

It wasn’t until about halfway through the book (with the introduction of Ottorino Vespucci) that I started to notice the parallels between frontier life on Mars and the frontier life of the early American settlers. Baker’s commentary here gives the reader plenty to think about and if it’s a little over egged (the English are ‘bad’, I get it, seriously...) it doesn’t matter too much as the end result comes across very much like the Western films I used to watch on Sunday afternoons as a kid, good fun with plenty happening.

‘The Empress of Mars’ proved to be a very entertaining read. I haven’t read the novella so couldn’t say where the differences lie in this book. Bear that in mind, I guess, if you’re thinking of buying this (the book is released in May) but if you haven’t come across this before then I’d recommend giving it a go.

Nine out of Ten

No comments: