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The Empress of Mars    by Kage Baker order for
Empress of Mars
by Kage Baker
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2009 (2009)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Kage Baker, author of the satirical, long-running and remarkably popular time traveling Company series (that culminated in The Sons of Heaven), as well as excellent works of fantasy like her recent The House of the Stag, brings us a novel about another nefarious corporation in The Empress of Mars.

Having observed how well the British Lunar Corporation did by its stockholders (from mining and tourism), its executives formed the British Arean Company to terraform Mars into 'a place slightly less hospitable than Outer Mongolia in the dead of winter. But what are spin doctors for?' After a domed base was built and scientists sent out - as well as 'the better-socially-adapted inhabitants of two or three Hospitals' and the incorporated Clan Morrigan - the balloon burst. When BAC abandoned its terraforming project, most of the people the company had placed on Mars could not afford passage home.

Left to support three small daughters, ex-scientist Mary Griffith - 'a compactly built and muscular little woman of a certain age' - survived by running a tavern, The Empress of Mars. Morrigan clan chieftain Cochevelou set her up with a secondhand still. She took in strays, including Eccentric Mr. Morton (skilled in fabrication of cast-stone structures); terraforming specialist Manco Inca; Sherpa Chiring Skousen who shoots an ongoing documentary series for The Kathmandu Post; and the Heretic, blind in one eye and excommunicated from the Ephesian sisterhood, a cook and visionary.

Five years later, as the story begins, Mary's grown daughters - resentful and pregnant Alice, Mona ('the best listener'), and 'brown and practical' Rowan - help run her establishment. But their life is about to change. A discovery of red diamonds on the planet gradually transforms their hardscrabble existence, and Mary acquires colorful - and helpful sons-in law. Alice takes on lawyer De Wit, hoping for a life back on Earth, while Mary encourages Rowan to accept romantic Ottorino Vespucci (scion of a wealthy family), who sees the settlement as a Red Planet Wild West. Penultimate con man Stanford Crosley adds to the fun.

It's a hilarious romp through the sands of Mars as Mary lays claim to a volcano and her cohort of followers find ways to defend her projects against all comers. She'd have no chance of success against the powerful lined up against her, except for two key allies - Cochevelou's hermit genius son Perrik, and the strange voice that speaks through the Heretic. If you haven't read anything by Kage Baker yet, then what are you waiting for? The Empress of Mars is marvelous entertainment for anyone with a sense of irony.

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