Book Review: Before Mars by Emma Newman
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 3 of Planetfall
Publisher: Ace (April 17, 2018)
Length: 352 pages
By now, the Planetfall books are starting to establish a pattern: each book in the series stands alone, following a different character as he or she travels their own journey across this complex and unforgiving universe. Yet every installment also adds to what we know about the world-building, exploring the ripples of effect caused by greater, overarching events taking place in the background.
Although it is the third book in the chronology, Before Mars also fits this trend. This time, the story follows the life of a young geologist who has arrived on the Red Planet to study it with a group of her fellow scientists, but mostly she is also there to put her artistic talents to work as a commissioned painter, capturing the majesty and uniqueness of the Martian surface. Anna Kubrin never thought she would find herself in such a situation, but when your sponsor is multi-billionaire Stefan Gabor and one of the most powerful people on Earth, you don’t exactly say no—especially when you could really use the money. Of course, the Martian expedition will also mean a prolonged separation from her husband and baby girl, but surely the sacrifice would be worth it if it means a better, more comfortable life for their little family. Or at least that’s what Anna tells herself, in her guiltier moments.
Upon her arrival on Mars, however, Anna is immediately confronted with adversity. While a bit of confusion and some psychological issues aren’t uncommon after coming out of months of space travel, Anna is growing concerned that she may already be losing her mind. In her new quarters, she finds a note bearing a message in her handwriting—except she can’t remember writing it—warning her not to trust Dr. Amalfi, the name of the team psychologist. Soon afterwards, she also discovers while unpacking her valuables that her wedding ring has been replaced by a fake—a good replica, to be sure, but the custom engraving her husband had put on the inside band is missing. As the mysteries continue piling up, Anna begins to wonder if she is a victim of a malicious prank. After all, she has already made an enemy of Dr. Banks, the TV documentary who has been inexplicably hostile towards Anna ever since she arrived. The other more unpleasant option is that she really is losing her grip on reality, suffering what Dr. Amalfi tells her is “immersion psychosis”, a condition affecting those who spend too much time immersed in digital recordings of their memories.
I could probably go on for paragraphs about the delectable mystery of this book, and indeed, the overall plot of it is quite addictive, filled with plenty of unexpected twists and dangerous moments. But as always, when it comes to many of Emma Newman’s novels, I felt that character development was the greatest strength. Like the two previous volumes, Before Mars stars a protagonist who feels caught outside of society’s norms and standards. This time, readers are presented a complex character study of Anna Kubrin, who often struggles with the disconnect she feels towards others, especially with the members of her own family. While deep in her heart, she knows loves her husband and daughter, those relationships have also been severely impacted by her postpartum depression and the fact that she never planned to become a mother. There was no joy for her during pregnancy, no magical spark of love for her child upon seeing her for the first time after birth, leading her to believe that she is somehow broken inside. Feeling guilty over her lack of maternal instincts, as well as wanting so badly to appear normal, Anna has long since gotten used to faking the behaviors and attitudes that are expected of her.
When it comes to hiding one’s true selves in order to conform and fit in, I feel this is a trait that all protagonists in the Planetfall series have in common. However, Before Mars does have the distinct sensation of being a more personal book for the author. You can practically feel Newman pouring her heart and soul out into Anna’s words as she describes her feelings for Mia, the character’s young daughter. A lot of it rings a little too genuine and too powerful for me to believe it is completely fiction, which along with Newman’s acknowledgement section makes me think that a lot of her protagonist’s issues with new motherhood and postpartum depression were largely based on her own experiences. Whether or not this is the case though, it doesn’t matter; in the end, nothing changes the fact that this was simply the best, most honest and undaunted portrayals of the topic I have ever read.
In a way, Before Mars is a book that perfectly exemplifies a flawless balance between plot development and characterization. I also felt that the story’s climax and denouement were handled a lot better when compared to Planetfall and After Atlas, both of which had rushed and insufficient endings. This time, however, the author allows plenty of time to digest the momentous, earth-shattering revelations for Anna at the end of this novel—and trust me when I say you’re going to need it. Newman is not known to pull any punches, and once again she is merciless in dropping gut-wrenching bombshells on her unsuspecting readers.
Needless to say, Before Mars is a book I won’t soon forget. The character-driven nature of the story and the author’s personal touch elevates this one from what is typically expected of a mystery sci-fi novel to something that is truly beautiful and extraordinary.