Arabella of Mars

Cover image for Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine by David D. Levine

ISBN 9780765382818

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher. All quotes have been checked against a finished copy.

“Here she could exercise her mind in a way her mother, indeed all of English society, would never tolerate in a girl or even a grown woman. In these moments all shame at her continued deception fell away, replaced by anger at the opportunities denied her by her sex.”

Born and raised on Mars, Arabella Ashby find herself dragged by to Earth so that her mother can turn her into a proper English lady before it is too late, and she destroys her marriage prospects with her tomboyish behaviour. But when her home and family on Mars are threatened, Arabella disguises herself and takes a job as a captain’s boy aboard the Marsman Diana in order to get herself home as soon as possible. But the journey between Earth and Mars is not without its dangers, and every delay threatens the timeliness of her news, or the revelation of her secret. And there is no time to waste, for the life of a family member hangs in the balance. (Aside: Levine summarized the plot of his novel in a filked version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Alexander Hamilton”. You can watch it on my YouTube channel!)

David D. Levine at University Bookstore Seattle, July 29, 2016
David D. Levine at University Bookstore Seattle, July 29, 2016

David D. Levine sets Arabella of Mars in an alternate Regency England that follows from a history in which Captain William Kidd set out for the first expedition to Mars in the 1600s. This is a universe in which the space between planets is occupied not by a vacuum, but by air. Speaking at University Bookstore Seattle on July 29, Levine readily admitted this was a fantastic alteration. In reality the physics of such a universe would send the planets spiraling into the sun. Two hundred years later, the English colonial presence on Mars is well-established, and children such as Arabella and her brother Michael are Martian-born humans who have never seen their home planet of Earth, or their parents’ native England.

Mary Jo Putney’s blurb on the back of the book describes this novel as the “delicious love child of Jane Austen, Patrick O’Brian, and Jules Verne.” The first comparison is perhaps the biggest stretch. The book is set during the Regency period, and an entailed estate does feature prominently in the plot, but in tone and action, there is really no similarity. But the action is reminiscent of Verne, and Levine credits the inspiration for the airship aspects of the novel to O’Brian’s books, and a great deal of attention is lavished on the sailing and navigation parts of the tale. Additional research was done at the  Musée national de la Marine, in Paris.

Levine employs an old sci-fi version of Mars that predates our current knowledge of the red planet. It is home to Martians, though much of the story is set among humans, and aboard Diana in transit between Earth and Mars. Levine still dedicates a decent amount of attention to the development of his Martians. They are made up of different groups and have a variety of languages. Many have learned English, but few humans return the favour. Levine also reverses the genders, casting the Martian females as hunters and warriors, though most English refuse to perceive the difference, and will hire female Martians only as nannies. It is as such we meet the main Martian character, Khema, who was tutor and caretaker to Arabella and Michael. While Levine does some good development of Martians as a whole, Khema is unfortunately the only individuated Martian character, and one of few named.

Levine is best known as a writer of short stories, and Arabella of Mars is his debut novel. He describes Arabella herself as having burst from his brow fully formed and armoured, already entirely herself. He immediately recognized it as a novel-sized idea, but thought it might be Young Adult. Tor decided to publish it as adult fiction, but with no sex and all curse words dashed out Regency-style, it has good crossover appeal for younger readers. Arabella of Mars was written to stand alone, but with the possibility for sequels. Tor has purchased two more books, and the second Arabella adventure is due out next year. It will see Arabella take passage from Mars to Venus aboard Captain Daniel Fox’s ship Touchstone.

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