Tor, 2007, 304 pages
When the British Arean Company founded its Martian colony, it welcomed any settlers it could get. Outcasts, misfits, and dreamers emigrated in droves to undertake the grueling task of terraforming the cold red planet - only to be abandoned when the BAC discovered it couldn't turn a profit on Mars.
This is the story of Mary Griffith, a determined woman with three daughters, who opened the only place to buy a beer on the Tharsis Bulge. It's also the story of Manco Inca, whose attempt to terraform Mars brought a new goddess vividly to life; of Stanford Crosley, con man extraordinaire; of Ottorino Vespucci, space cowboy and romantic hero; of the Clan Morrigan; of the denizens of the Martian Motel, and of the machinations of another company entirely - all of whom contribute to the downfall of the BAC and the founding of a new world. But Mary and her struggles and triumphs are at the center of it all, in her bar, the Empress of Mars.
Based on the Hugo-nominated novella of the same name, this is a rollicking novel of action, planetary romance, and high adventure.
The Empress of Mars is the ninth book in Kage Baker's "Company" series, which is set in an alternate universe in which timelines have been altered by Company meddling. But it does not read like an entry in a series; it's a perfectly good stand-alone novel, though the inflection points where this universe differs from ours become apparently quickly.
The British Arean Company initially colonized Mars hoping to make money with mining and real estate. It turned out to be unprofitable, and the Company, which is a heartless, mercenary entity that serves as the "enemy" for the rest of the book, finds ways to shed its employees without even giving them travel fare to get back to Earth. Thus, Mars is settled by the desperate, the abandoned, and the misfits.
The central figure is Mary Griffith, formerly a scientist for the British Arean Company. She came to Mars as a single mother with three daughters, and after being stranded by the BAC when she was no longer useful to them, she started a bar, the Empress of Mars.
Most of the stories center around Mary and the Empress; the book is really a collection of vignettes, introducing us to a growing cast of farmers, miners, ice-haulers, criminals, con men, heretics and entrepeneurs. The BAC is the recurring antagonist, scheming to shut down Mary's establishment, take back the land allotted to her and Clan Morrigan (a hardscrabble tribe of Celtic settlers which is a sometimes ally, sometimes foil for Mary), and generally profit off of Mars while screwing over everyone else. In the end, the BAC is replaced by another corporation, which of course turns out to be no more benevolent.
The Empress of Mars inevitably reminded me of other books about colonizing Mars: Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, Ben Bova's Mars, and Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars. Kage Baker is not quite the writer that Bradbury is, but her book is much more contemporary, the cast and setting more diverse, and I enjoyed the adventures of Mary Griffith and Clan Morrigan a great deal more than Bova's and Robinson's somewhat drier epics.
Verdict: There are lots of books about colonizing Mars: The Empress of Mars is one of the better ones I've read. Be aware that this is an alternate history novel, though it's never explicitly stated, but it's fun and could easily be the launch point for a series of its own. 8/10.
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