Kage Baker, The Empress of Mars -- A Novel (Subterranean, 2009; Tor, 2009)

There were three Empresses of Mars. The first one was a bar at the Settlement. The second was the lady who ran the bar; though her title was strictly informal, having been bestowed on her by the regular customers, and her domain extended no further than the pleasantly gloomy walls of the only place you could get beer on the Tharsis Bulge. The third one was the Queen of England. — First words of The Empress of Mars (both versions)

Several years ago, I reviewed the work that this novel came out of. It was, as I said at the time, a great reading experience:

She is always brilliant, and never less than fully entertaining. I thought she could get no better until Nightshade Books sent Green Man a chapbook she did called The Empress of Mars. At a mere one hundred and three pages, this is one of the best Robert Heinlein works I've ever read. Oops, I meant Kage Baker works. Or did I? Ok, let me reconcile the contradiction I just created (somewhat). The Empress of Mars reads like the best of Heinlein's short fiction from the golden period of the 1940s and 1950s. It is so good that I've no doubt John W. Campbell would've published it! It would sit very nicely alongside much of his short fiction such as 'Blowups Happen', 'The Long Watch', and 'The Green Hills of Earth', to name but three classic Heinlein tales. It's that well-crafted. It's that entertaining. And it's that rarest of short works — one that is just the right length.

So why is it now a novel? And does it read as well as the novella did? Good questions worth an answer. Several reviewers have been rather pissy about taking what they perceived to be a perfect story and stretching it out. Well, fuck 'em.

It certainly isn't the first novel that's the result of reworking a shorter work, and it works brilliantly in both forms. Now the story in both versions is that of Mary, a woman who owns the only bar on Mars. After being found redundant as the xenobotanist by the British Arean Company, she and a few loyal Mars settlers work very hard to create a bar which in turn becomes a business empire that deals in everything from barley (and beer of course) to really big diamonds.

If you've read her Company series, you'll be able to tell that this Mars is the Mars of that universe. read carefully and might even figure out which, if any, of the characters here are the immortal cyborgs of that series.

Think Heinlein without the obsession that he had on sex. Think females whose primary attribute isn't their pneumatic breasts. Hell, The Empress of Mars would not have been possible if the old bastard hadn't written the wonderful tales he wrote so many times in the Forties and Fifties during the Golden Age of what we now call Young Adult literature.

And I invoke The Old Man here because he of all people would have understood and appreciated what Kage has done here. As he used to say, many truly great stories are taken from others with 'the serial numbers filed off'. Why use a great idea only once? I've read the novella and loved it, now I've read the novel (which is about three times as long) and really appreciated how good Kage was in adding what I can now see was much needed detail to the existing story without losing its tightness.

The Subterranean limited edition which I know will be absolutely gorgeous, as it has J.K. potter cover art (!) could have been purchased here but it sold out already but Tor will be doing an edition in May. And no, I don't suspect that she will be revising The Empress of Mars for that edition.

[Cat Eldridge]