Arabella of Mars
by David D. Levine
First published in July, 2016 by Tor
From Goodreads: Ever since Newton witnessed a bubble rising from his bathtub, mankind has sought the stars. When William III of England commissioned Capt. William Kidd to command the first expedition to Mars in the late 1600s, they proved that space travel was both possible and profitable.
Now, one century later, a plantation in the flourishing British colony on Mars is home to Arabella Ashby. A tomboy who shares her father’s deft hand with complex automatons. Being raised on the Martian frontier by her Martian nanny, Arabella is more a wild child than a proper young lady. Something her mother plans to remedy with a move to an exotic world Arabella has never seen: London, England.
Arabella soon finds herself trying to navigate an alien world until a dramatic change in her family’s circumstances forces her to defy all conventions in order to return to Mars in order to save both her brother and the plantation. To do this, Arabella must pass as a boy on the Diana, a ship serving the Mars Trading Company with a mysterious Indian captain who is intrigued by her knack with automatons. Arabella must weather the naval war between Britain and France, learning how to sail, and a mutinous crew if she hopes to save her brother from certain death.
The planet Mars has been a topic of science fiction tales for a long time. In H.G. Wells’s 1897 novel War of the Worlds, Martians arrived on Earth with the intention of destroying humankind. In 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs began a series of stories set on the red planet with A Princess of Mars. These stories were followed by endless others, including such notable tales as Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Andy Weir’s The Martian. After all of that– and our ever growing knowledge of what Mars’s dusty surface is really like– you might think that we had run out of stories to tell about Mars.
Fortunately, with his charming story of Arabella, a young woman born and raised on a Martian colony, David D. Levine shows us that there are plenty of stories still to tell about Mars and the possibilities we have imagined there for centuries.
The story opens on Mars, where Arabella Ashby is playing a game of strategy in the wilds of Mars near her family’s plantation. When a miscalculation results in a minor injury, her mother reacts by overreacting and takes Arabella and her younger siblings to a place unlike anything Arabella has ever known: London. But Earth is not a friendly place to Arabella. She doesn’t understand the rules of etiquette she must abide by, the limitations placed upon her due to her gender, and even physical laws like gravity are against her.
When she goes to tea with a financially troubled cousin, Arabella accidentally sets in motion a string of events that put her brother and her family’s plantation in danger. To set things right, she disguises herself as a boy, takes a position on an air ship, and braves the dangerous skies between Earth and Mars in a race against time.
A friend recommended this book to me several months ago, and though she spoke glowingly of it, it was, like many recommendations, another book that languished on my TBR. Then, when I started watching BookTube reviews, it showed up on a few of the channels I’ve grown to like and trust and so I decided it was high time I gave it a chance. And like many books that have come highly recommended, I’m kicking myself for waiting so long.
Arabella Ashby is one of those heroines I would like to introduce to everyone. She is smart and free-spirited, brave and honest. She makes mistakes and she learns from them. Arabella isn’t the prettiest girl in the room, nor is the she pretty girl who doesn’t know it. Beauty doesn’t seem to enter her mind at all, even when she’s in the presence of someone she’s attracted to. This isn’t a story about how the pretty girl wins her true love in the end, nor is it a story about a plain-faced heroine discovering her inner beauty. It’s about a girl who makes a terrible mistake, the lengths she goes to to set things right, and the wisdom she develops along the way.
It’s also a brilliant fantasy novel. Set in space. With scientific concepts, automatons, and realistic sailing ships that fly through the interplanetary atmosphere between Earth and Mars.
Now, if you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll probably know I’m a stickler for accuracy. Obviously, England did not begin colonizing Mars in the 1600s, there is no air between Earth and Mars that allows people to fly ships, and the Martian atmosphere is not breathable by humans. The book is full of scientific inaccuracies.
Arabella’s world is based upon speculation from the 1600s and 1700s, when scientists didn’t have the powerful telescopes and other devices that we have now. The universe was full of possibilities about space travel and civilizations on neighboring planets. Levine builds his universe atop these ideas, and ends up with a story that feels like it could have been published alongside Treasure Island or Swiss Family Robinson. And yet it has a lot of modern sensibilities when it comes to Arabella’s point of view. While there are points that edge toward cliche (space pirates! the scrappy girl disguised as a boy!), Levine deftly handles them so they feel fresh again.
These days, a lot of science fiction and fantasy novels are dark and cynical. With the world as it is, it’s hard not to feel like everything is going downhill. Arabella of Mars hangs onto an optimistic tone without being cloying, and it maintains a spirit of adventure without forgetting about its core message of personal responsibility. So far, there are two more books in the Adventures of Arabella Ashby series, and I look forward to reading them!