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The Empress of Mars (The Company) by Kage Baker
Cover Artist: Paul Youll
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765318909
Date: 12 May 2009 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Sometimes you are in the mood for a gourmet meal and a fine wine, other times call for a burger and a beer. Kage Baker's The Empress of Mars is the latter. It's the story of a few brave independent pioneers of Mars against the evil shortsighted corporation that owns the planet. At the same time, it is about a bar, the Empress of Mars, and the woman who owns it, the one everyone calls mother. There's little pretense of plausibility, let alone hard science, but there's lots of adventure and colorful characters. It is a fun read, but not deep.

Mary Griffith went to Mars, along with her two children, to work as a scientist, developing algae and lichens to help terraform Mars. But after she had exhausted the subject of useful lichens, the British Arean Company cancelled her contract. So she opened up a bar for the others stranded on Mars after the balloon burst and the British realized that there was not much money to be made on Mars.

The book is mostly episodic, with events gradually adding up to a plotline. Mary and her family struggle to keep the bar open through barter and homemade liquor. Their fortunes begin to change when Mary finds a rock that turns out to be a valuable diamond. Meanwhile the cook, a Heretic from a female Goddess worshiping religion keeps giving cryptic comments that could be prophecy or ESP. Perrik, a supergenius who does not get along with people, bioengineers a replacement for bees. A con man from earth reintroduces gambling with cards, saying that this prevents cheating as opposed to computer games subject to programming. Another immigrant from Earth, who has spent too much time watching Wild West movies, fails as a prospector but succeeds as a storekeeper and marries one of Mary's daughters.

Gradually a plot does emerge. A new assistant to the General Director seems resolved to finally figure out how to make Mars pay, by driving out all the undesirables, while Mary resolves to use her diamond money to create a new energy company that could terraform a new city in territory beyond the control of the British. But some of the people on Mars become suspicious when both of Mary's daughters have babies when no one else on Mars can. Then the leaders of the Holy Mother Church excommunicate Mary and her family. Ultimately, it comes down to a struggle between Mary and the patrons of her bar versus the British Arean Company for control of the future of Mars.

There doesn't seem to be any connection between Empress of Mars and Baker's The Company books, although Baker is known for putting things into one book that don't fully develop until a few books later. Still, the tone here is different, lighter with the tongue more in cheek. Mary is an interesting character, always willing to take in another stray but still struggling to hold things together. Few of the other characters rise above stereotypes.

This bar is worth a one-book visit, although readers may want to check it out of the library or wait for the paperback.

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