Arabella of Mars

Arabella of Mars was written by David D Levine and first published in 2016. It is a steampunk science fiction novel, set in an alternate timeline where the secret of interplanetary travel was discovered in late 17th Century. The novel forms the first part of the Adventures of Arabella Ashby series and is followed by Arabella and the Battle for Venus (2017) and Arabella the Traitor of Mars (2018).

The year is 1812 and Arabella lives happily with her family on their Martian plantation. Although her mother worries about her tomboyish behaviour, Arabella loves nothing more that to play hunting games with her brother, Michael, and learn about the tribal Martian culture from her native nanny, Khema. However, when she is injured during a rough game, Arabella’s mother declares this to be the last straw. She will not allow her daughter to grow up as a savage and whisks her away to London, where she can learn to be a lady and find a respectable husband.

However, a few months into their stay on Earth, Arabella receives terrible news. Her father has suddenly died and now Michael has been forced to take over the plantation. The news thrills her despicable cousin, Simon. Desperate for money, he hurries to Mars with the intent of murdering Michael. As the closest male relative, he would surely inherit everything and leave Arabella and her mother destitute.

Arabella disguises herself as a boy and makes her way to the docks, determined to catch Simon before he can depart. When she is too late, she hits upon a risky plan to beat him to the Red Planet. After impressing Prakash Singh, Captain of the Mars Company Airship “Diana”, she accepts a place on his crew as a cabin boy. The Diana is a fast ship and should be able to deliver her to Mars before Simon reaches the plantation. However, her safety depends on her ability to hide her sex for two months on a ship that is entirely crewed by men…

Arabella of Mars is certainly an interesting novel but I unfortunately found that I enjoyed the concept a little more than the execution. Its Regency era steampunk setting is not like anything that I had read before, particulary as it was written in such a way to evoke the feeling of a much older novel. It would be easy to believe that the author was a contemporary of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Jules Verne, as the story certainly apes this style.

The plot evokes a very old-fashioned idea of what space travel is like, from wooden spaceships and aerial canon battles to a breathable Martian atmosphere. I loved the idea of a world that had diverged from our’s due to the fact that Isaac Newton had discovered the principal of buoyancy, rather than gravity, and the idea of 19th Century colonial Englishman taking over Mars rather than India was pretty interesting. Yet, unfortunately, I felt that Levine did not use its setting that effectively. There were only the smallest hints of a larger political picture but, other than a bit of social decorum, it does not really impact the story at all. Humans have taken over the world of a female dominated alien species and forced them to conform to their oppressive gender roles, yet we don’t see a lot of friction between the humans and Martians.

Arabella of Mars is also not a greatly accessible novel. While its opening and closing parts moved at a breakneck speed, the section set aboard the Diana could certainly have been trimmed for length. The story is not overly descriptive and so most of the things that we learn about the ship and science that makes it fly are delivered through hefty blocks of exposition. While I did find some elements of the story – such as the blanking of curse words and overly formal narrative voice – to be rather charming, Arabella’s training was rather dry to read. A lot of it could easily be skipped over, as understanding navigation and the functions of different parts of the ship are not actually that important in the greater scheme of things.

I also felt that, while the setting was very original, the plot was a bit too tried and tested. The concept of a girl posing as a boy to infiltrated male-dominated areas of society has been done to death. Arabella of Mars didn’t even really do anything new with it. Even after Arabella is inevitably discovered, her life does not change as much as I would have liked. Despite her multiple achievements and proven competency, a majority of the male characters still insist on treating her as though she is sensitive, delicate and a bit simple. This even persists after the climax, in which every character would certainly have died if it were not for Arabella’s actions!

Yet, even though most of the characters are unable to see it, it’s clear to the reader that Arabella is a wonderful protagonist. While things did sometimes seem to come a bit too easily to her (she proves to be a skilled navigator in only a few weeks, despite having no formal education), it was satisfying to see her rise to every challenge and overcome the restrictions that had been placed on her due to her sex.

However, none of the other characters really made much of an impression. The ones that are left behind on Mars, such as Michael and Khema, only appear at the start and end of the novel. While we are also introduced to a number of characters aboard the Diana, they also aren’t really given any development or distinguishable characteristics. In fact, most of them vanish from the plot as soon as Arabella is revealed to be a girl.

The only other character to get any page time is the Captain, and he presents a whole host of new problems. His romance with Arabella is really shoehorned in after the climax of this novel, especially as we don’t even really see them spending much time alone before this. Most of Arabella’s lessons take place off page and the Captain spends a large chunk of the novel unconscious. While Arabella is almost instantly attracted to him, he never really shows the same kind of interest in her.

Anyhow, I think that about covers everything. As my first read of 2019, I found Arabella of Mars to be a bit underwhelming. While it had a really neat concept, it had issues with the pacing and characterisation. I might take another look at this series one day but I’m not really in any hurry to.

Arabella of Mars can be purchased as a Paperback on Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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