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
I adore Kage Baker and her literary work. Really. Truly. I’ve read damn near everything she’s written, including every novel and shorter work in The Company series where immortal cyborgs get drunk on chocolate while doing odd jobs throughout time on the behalf of their mortal masters. (One of our staffers agreed but added ‘I suppose it’s really relational’. I say it’s Heinlein’s fault — He made time travel too complex for its own good. Being your own dad — sheesh.)
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.
Look, I love long fiction, as it gives an author like Kage the room to flesh out a tale. The Company series in four novels and lots of shorter tales has demonstrated her genius at spinning a tale out. That said, the test of a truly great author for me is creating a story that I can read in a few hours and feel truly satisfied when I’m done. Kage’s done that in The Empress of Mars. UPS delivered this chapbook late in the afternoon along with a few dozen other packages as they oft times do. Just a few all too short hours later I had finished it with both a chuckle and (not surprisingly) a sigh that it was finished.
(I should say that this is a chapbook in length only as the printing job is one of the best I’ve ever seen. This is no cheap printing job done just to fill the coffers of a rich publisher, but rather a wonderfully designed and printed book that you will treasure for years to come.)
Now you will notice that I have not talked about what the plot is here. Nor will I. Some reviewers of The Empress of Mars have given away far more of the plot than is warranted. It is, I will tell you, a science fiction tale set on Mars with a bar owner and her workers straight out of the Golden Age of SF, a plot that is both moving and funny, well-drawn characters, evil government officials, not one but two DEA machines saving the day, and perhaps even a connection to The Company series, but I won’t tell you what it is.
If anyone tries to tell you the plot before you read The Empress of Mars, just kick them hard. They deserve kicking!
If you like Kage Baker and collect her work, you’ll want to own this chapbook. If you love the pleasure of reading a great story in a fine edition, you too will want this.
(Nightshade Books, 2003)