Book Review: Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor Books (July 12, 2016)
Length: 352 pages
Meet Arabella Ashby of Mars. The year is 1812 and already humans have been capable of space travel for centuries, thanks to the advances in automata and airship technology made in the 1600s. Our titular heroine is Martian-born and Martian-bred, having been raised on her family’s frontier colonial plantation until the year she turned sixteen, when her mother deemed the red planet too unsuitable for the enrichment of proper young ladies. After saying goodbye to her father, her older brother Michael, and her childhood home where so many fond memories of her wild adventures have been forged, Arabella is whisked away along with her two younger sisters back to London, England on Earth, a planet as alien to our protagonist as Mars is to most English folk.
Growing up on Mars, Arabella’s Martian nanny Khema taught her how to be strong and independent—important traits to have if one hopes to thrive on the world’s harsh surface. But back in England, she is expected to be meek and gentile, following the myriad incomprehensible rules of etiquette expected from a young woman of high birth. Before she’s had much time to settle though, her family receives terrible news from Mars: Arabella’s father has passed on, leaving the ownership of the plantation to Michael, his only son and heir. However, members of the extended Ashby family have other ideas. Arabella’s cousin, Simon Ashby, has long felt slighted over his side of the family’s lack of inheritance, and sees this as an opportunity to seize what he wants. When Arabella finds out about Simon’s dastardly plans to kill her brother, it is a race to Mars in order to try and stop him.
But while she’s still on Earth, Arabella is just a girl with no resources or power, and her murderous cousin has a pretty big head start. In a desperate gambit, she steals a set of men’s clothing and poses as a boy looking for work on a ship bound for Mars, and that’s how she ends up on the Diana, a merchant airship for the Mars Trading Company captained by the handsome and mysterious Prakash Singh.
Ahem, if someone had told me this was predominantly a girl-disguised-as-a-boy story, I would have read this one much, much sooner! I can’t help it; as common and well-used as it is, I’m always a sucker for this trope. As an added bonus, I happen to love nautical fantasy. While the “sailing” here takes place in space instead of upon the high seas, and the airships might not look exactly like the traditional tall ships of history, one look at that gorgeous cover with the sails and rigging and you can probably tell that the general idea is the same. We may be trading ocean currents for solar winds, but you still have the ship crew, sailing lingo, the everyday activities that take place on a trade ship, and even a heart-stopping encounter with French privateers.
I’ve never read anything by the author before this, but I can see the reason for all his accolades and why his short fiction is so widely praised. David D. Levine is an excellent world-builder, imagining an alternate history where, instead of observing an apple fall to the ground, the great Sir Isaac Newton receives his epiphany after watching a soap bubble in his bath rise to the surface, leading him to form the principle of aerial buoyancy. Thus, humankind was able to develop space travel so quickly. Despite the themes of planetary colonialism and traversing the stars though, there’s also a strong fantastical nature to this novel. In truth, the elements of sci-fi are pretty light, making a lot of the “technology” feel practically indistinguishable from magic. This includes the society’s use of automata and other clockwork machinery, giving Arabella of Mars a strong Regency Era-inspired steampunk flavor.
As for the character of Arabella, it was impossible not to be drawn to her immediately. She’s a free spirit trapped by the strict conventions of the early 1800s, especially those placed upon upper class young women. But her Martian upbringing and her time with Khema had shown her see how things could be different (the Martians are a heavily carapaced race of aliens with eye stalks, and it is their larger, more powerful females who are the warriors and leaders) and so she has a much different outlook than her mother and her peers. Although this gives Arabella a “special snowflake” vibe at times (not to mention her knack with fixing automata which surpasses the abilities of even the most experienced adults) it was very easy to feel a connection to her character, and to cheer for her every step of the way on her quest to save her brother.
There are a few other nitpicks, but they are mostly minor. The plot was fast-paced but felt a little “forced” and too convenient, considering everything that could go wrong does go wrong, and at times it got very predictable. The romance between Arabella and Captain Singh also came on a bit too suddenly for me at the end there, especially since the latter spent more than half the book believing the former to be nothing more than his cabin boy. But since this novel appears to be designed for crossover YA and adult appeal, I didn’t mind these stylistic choices too much.
All in all, I loved Arabella of Mars and I couldn’t have asked for a more fun and exciting genre-bending tale. With its intriguing mix of steampunk, fantasy, science fiction and alternate history, readers of every persuasion will likely find something for them in this wonderful, action-packed coming-of-age adventure.