Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine
What if Isaac Newton, instead of watching an apple fall from a tree and being inspired to develop a new theory of gravity, had observed a bubble rising from his bathtub and begun to meditate on space travel? Well, in the world of Arabella of Mars, a delightful and unique blend of a Regency-era nautical adventure and the pioneering science fiction of Jules Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs, it resulted in Captain Kidd commanding the first voyage to Mars in the late 1600s. A little over a hundred years later, in the year 1812, there are plantations on Mars that grow valuable khoresh wood, watched over by their British masters, with the assistance of Martian servants, who have a vaguely crablike appearance, as well as multiple languages and a culture that most humans fail to appreciate.
Arabella is a sixteen year old tomboy, raised on Mars with the help of a Martian nanny, Khema. Her pleasant life there is brought to an abrupt end when she gets a head injury in a rowdy game of Hound and Hare with her older brother Michael. Worse yet, her parents catch her wearing pants while she’s getting her head stitched up afterwards. Arabella’s appalled mother, who is set on her daughter becoming a genteel young lady, drags Arabella and her two younger sisters back to Earth. Over the next several months, Arabella unhappily deals with the physical burden of Earth’s heavier gravity as well as with the stifling Regency expectations of proper ladylike behavior. Secretly exploring and fixing the internal workings of her father’s automaton, a mechanical harpsichord player run by intricate clockwork, is her only outlet, a way to feel closer to her far-distant father.
When Arabella’s father suddenly dies back on Mars, Arabella finds out that her brother Michael, who stayed on Mars with their father, is in grave danger from a source he won’t expect. Arabella unearths the intrepid and adventurous side of her character, which has been buried for so many months: she disguises herself as a boy in order to get a job on a ship heading to Mars, so she can warn her brother and help protect him. Arabella’s talent with automata unexpectedly helps her to land a job on a Mars Company ship, captained by the intelligent, handsome Captain Prakash Singh. Arabella has a difficult time adjusting to the rigorous physical demands of being the most junior member of the ship’s crew, but that’s only the beginning of her adventures in space, where all the classic perils of sea travel reappear with an interplanetary twist.
In a whimsical throwback to the Jules Verne era of scientific romances, not only do spaceships in this universe look like old-time sailing ships, but space is essentially like one big ocean, with asteroids as islands. What’s more, the air in space is breathable, if a little cold, and asteroids have trees growing on them. It takes some getting used to. As the ship Diana took off from Earth and rose higher and higher, I kept expecting that moment when Arabella and the other sailors would encase the ship in a bubble of air, or put on space suits. It never happened. It’s surreal, but rather a breath of fresh air ― as is Arabella herself.
Spirited and resourceful, Arabella is nevertheless grounded in her time. Raised by a Martian nanny, and impressed by the intrepid Captain Singh, she is admirably colorblind, in contrast to the racist and xenophobic attitudes of many of the other characters, but she needs to work to overcome a tendency to exhibit a superior attitude toward others who aren’t aware of things that Arabella takes for granted. Life among the crew of the Diana, painfully learning new skills that the other sailors do easily, helps Arabella to become a more mature and thoughtful person.
Arabella of Mars makes many sly references to colonial Great Britain, including the Mars Company of space ships, the British navy’s treatment of its sailors, French piracy in the skies, and native uprisings. It’s amusing that the book’s title calls to mind both Georgette Heyer’s classic Regency novel Arabella as well as the titles of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels, like Thuvia, Maid of Mars. In fact, Mars is here the literary equivalent of colonial India, with the Martians in the role of the native people who are treated, at best, rather dismissively by most of the British colonists on their planet. David D. Levine weaves in some serious issues like the historical role of women, colonialism, racism and entailment of estates, but it never becomes too heavy for this adventure tale. The detailed descriptions of life aboard ship and the duties of sailors, based to a large extent on nautical practices during the Napoleonic Wars, do occasionally bog down the story slightly, but the overall pace is brisk and imbued with a fresh sense of adventure and discovery.
Arabella of Mars is a debut novel by Levine, a Hugo award-winning author of speculative short fiction. Two sequels have been promised by Levine, but Arabella is also very satisfactory as a stand-alone read. It’s an enchanting novel for young and young-at-heart readers who will enjoy a retro-flavored science fiction read.
I can’t wait to read this!
Ditto Kat’s comment!
It’s a fun read. I’d say it’s written on more of a YA level than adult, FWIW, but it does have some deeper themes going.
I loved your review–and as much as I was already excited about reading this, you managed to ramp that up somehow! Out of curiosity, since you seemed to enjoy the book so much, what prevented you from giving it a higher rating?
Good question. Part of it is that, as I said, the narrative bogs down a little for me with some of the detailed nautical stuff, though maybe that just wasn’t entirely my cuppa tea. The other thing that pushed it to a 4 for me is that it’s (as far as I can tell) being marketed as an adult book, and I felt like the story was a bit simplistic for adult fiction. Though I do realize that Levine is writing in the spirit of the old-time SF adventures. He did do that very well, BTW.
That makes perfect sense. Thanks! :)