Kage Baker is a fairly new discovery for me and I’m hooked. I very much enjoyed The House of the Stag (Tor, 2008), a fantasy that had the feel of a much bigger book than the number of pages. She had so many story elements so seamlessly woven together that her world and characters seemed as rich and complex as if this were a trilogy instead of a single volume. I loved how she took so many established tropes and, if not turning them inside out, developed them in unexpected and ultimately satisfying ways.
The Empress of Mars (Tor, 2009) is so different in style and material (from gritty Conan-with-brains fantasy to colonizing Mars-as-Wild-West), it could well have been written by a different person. Notwithstanding, I recognize Baker’s deft handling of expected and surprising turns of events, the quirky characters, and the rousing good ending.
Mars has been settled initially by the equivalent of the British East India Company, who are of course interested in profit above all else. At first, they lure the best scientists in the hope of making Mars fruitful, but when that turns out to be more costly and difficult than expected, they abandon these people with only a pittance. One of them survives by opening a saloon, The Empress of Mars, which caters to long-distance drovers and accumulates a host of misfits. Everyone is just barely holding on until Sutter discovers gold in California…er, Mary discovers diamonds on Mars. In true Kage Baker style, the Martian misfits have resources undreamed of by the British Arean Corporation. The humor sucked me in right away.
“Are you hung over?”
“No,” said the Heretic, cautiously uncovering her eye, and Mary saw that it was red as fire.
“Oh, dear. Did you have the dreams again?”
The Heretic stared through her for a moment before saying, in a strange and breathless voice, “Out of the ground came scarlet flares, each one bursting, a heart’s beacon, and He stood above the night and the red swirling cold sand and in His hand held up the Ace of Diamonds. It burned like the flares. He offered it forth, laughing and said: Can you dig it?”
“Okay,” said Mary, after a moment’s silence.
“Sorry, said the Heretic, turning back to her cutting board.
“That’s all right,” said Mary. “Can you get luncheon on by eleven?”
“Oh, good,” said Mary, and exited the kitchen.
Lady, grant me an ordinary day, she begged, for the last time the Heretic had said something bizarre like that, all manner of strange things had happene d.
NOTE: After I’d composed this note, I learned that Kage Baker is seriously ill. Details are here. If you’ve loved her work, let her know. Now.
Deborah J. Ross began writing professionally in 1982. Her most recent book, finishing a manuscript begun by the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, is now available from DAW.