David D. Levine’s THE ADVENTURES OF ARABELLA ASHBY Regency fantasy trilogy wraps up in Arabella the Traitor of Mars (2018), which, appropriately, returns us to early 1800’s colonial-era Mars, where all the action began in Arabella of Mars. The series is an engaging melding of Jules Verne-style retro science fiction with Horatio Hornblower-type naval battles in the air above Mars, with an intrepid young woman heroine. *Some spoilers for the first two books in the series follow*
Fresh off their victory over Napoleon in the skies over the planet Venus, related in the second book, Arabella and the Battle of Venus, Arabella and her India-born husband Captain Singh are now in England, honored guests of the Prince Regent. Emboldened by their defeat of the French on Venus and encouraged by his advisors and the Mars Company, Prinny has decided that it’s time to take control of Mars, where England has a foothold in the form of some British towns and invaluable khoresh-wood plantations, and turn it into a full-fledged colony of England, adding to England’s empire and to the Prince’s coffers.
The Prince asks Captain Singh to be the fleet commander over the naval expeditionary force to Mars, leading the military invasion to deal with any resistance from the native Martians. Arabella is an ardent supporter of Martian independence and can’t believe her beloved husband is even considering doing this, but Captain Singh is torn by his loyalty to his adopted country, England, and believes that he can use his position to make sure the invasion isn’t too brutal toward the native Martians. Arabella disagrees vehemently, especially after she finds out about a subplot to disgrace her husband. After a bitter argument, Arabella takes off on a Draisine (one of the earliest historic versions of the bicycle) to try to catch a ship to Mars, warn the Martians of the pending invasion, and do whatever she can to help the resistance effort against the British fleet.
Naval battles, albeit in the air and space rather than the ocean, take center stage in Arabella the Traitor of Mars, along with the travails of long voyages by airship and the difficulties of organizing and carrying out a resistance against British invasion. Personal relationships are of secondary importance to military and naval planning and execution. Perhaps as a result, as well as the restrained, sometimes distant tone, I didn’t find this third book quite as engaging as the previous two in the series, but readers with an interest in military history will find much to interest them. As with the previous two books in the ARABELLA ASHBY series, Levine weaves in actual historic events (the Opium Wars make a disguised appearance in one subplot) and historic figures, like the Prince’s mistress Lady Hertford and Lord Reid of the East India Company (here the Mars Company).
It’s almost inevitably a bit dicey dealing with colonialism and racism themes in fictional literature, which Levine takes on directly in the form of British prejudice against and mistreatment of the Martian natives, and even more so when a white person is the main character of the story, but Levine has made a clear effort to make the native Martians an integral and fully engaged part of the resistance. Still, the renegade British and their ships are the biggest factor in the resistance, even with a native Martian as the admiral of their small fleet. The final diplomatic resolution of the conflict is too quick and seemed improbable.
Despite these weaknesses, Arabella the Traitor of Mars has an interesting plot and a feisty, valiant heroine with a taste for adventure. The naval air battles are intense and detailed. Arabella’s relationship with Captain Singh is based on mutual respect (one gets a hint of passion as well, but it’s well hidden behind Regency-era doors here). Her relationship with her brother Michael, the head of her family and a landholder on Mars, is complex and adds depth to the overall story of the rebellion. It’s a satisfying wrap-up to a unique retro-SF series with modern sensibilities.