Review: Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

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Kindle Edition, 320 pages
Published July 12th 2016 by Tor

I want to preface by saying that I know David a bit, as he’s a prominent figure in the local book scene, however I doubt he could pick me out of a lineup. I’m a huge fan of his short fiction – I really have legitimately enjoyed pretty much all works from him I’ve ever read. Knowing that, I was more than excited to get my hands on his full novel, especially once the details on the plot and setting came out.

Arabella Ashby is a Martian. Actually, let me rephrase that: Arabella Ashby is a lady of English descent, who is part of a generation of colonists who were born and raised on Mars.

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In the 1600s, leaps in technology allowed Captain Kidd to take an airship to Mars, and begin the process of colonizing the planet. Obviously, there’s some suspension of disbelief here, but this is a fantasy/steampunk novel afterall, so that’s expected. The sooner you get over those improbabilities, the sooner you can enjoy novels like this. Arabella’s family runs a wood plantation on the colonized Mars, however her mother is concerned with the danger Arabella faces on the planet, as well as her increasing levels of tomboyish endeavors that take her away from being a proper English lady. Mother packs up Arabella to head back to Earth, leaving Arabella’s father and her brother, Michael, behind to run the plantation. However, word comes back later of her father’s passing, and soon after Arabella is surprised by deceit within her family, necessitating her getting to Mars to protect her brother – as soon as possible.

Arabella then escapes her family (whose mother I don’t remember her ever actually getting a hold of, despite thinking about it at one point) and looks for passage to Mars, however without any money on hand. She steals some men’s clothing, poses as a boy, and joins the military. However, before she can leave, she’s approached by a private sailing cargo ship, who employ her as a captain’s boy. The book follows Arabella’s adventures on the trade ship Diana, a dirigible capable of space travel on coal/steam power, wherein she learns valuable skills and proves her worth, fights the French, and has to deal with a ship mutiny, while hiding her true sex, before negotiating with the native Martians to get her brother back.

There are a lot of pieces moving in this story, despite it’s overall straightforward feel. Levine’s writing is, as always, an easy and pleasing read, technically sound but not stuffy at all. The dialogue is intelligent, believable, and consistent, and the story flows at an excellent pace, without major stalling at any point, or unnecessary info dumps. The shorter format of the novel means it’s a quick read overall, which is superb as it’s a hell of a page-turner. All of the characters are diverse, with unique voices and traits, and I had no issues keeping people separated based on their actions and speech alone.

I really enjoyed the way the space travel was handled – hints at some of the various things that went into it occurring, but not going overboard in technical explanations, or using magic of some sort. The fact it was just “it is what it is” was a great touch for me, and helped keep me from thinking of unnecessary details, and just enjoying the story within the framework of the world developed. The ship scenes were well done, giving the intrigue and excitement of a long voyage, but without some of the boat-porn we get in other novels, such as Red Seas Under Red Skies. There were ample anxiety-inducing scenes, where I found myself actually concerned for what might happen or the consequences thereof. The ending of the book, while a bit expected, was a satisfying conclusion to this novel, leaving it open-ended enough to continue if desired, but closed tight if not.

There’s a bit of been-there, done-that for sure. Less so with the steampunk aspects, as I found the dirigible-to-Mars to be a fresh take, and really interesting. However, Arabella is similar to most teenage female protagonist in Regency-style fantasy I’ve seen; the proper lady who desires to do the things denied to her by her status as a woman. The girl posing as a boy and staying undiscovered while proving their worth. I could continue – however, this archetype works, this is popular, and people obviously enjoy it, being as I’ve seen it time and time again. Arabella herself is a deep character, who is intelligent and unique in her own way, despite meeting a lot of the characteristics I’ve seen time and time again. The cast of supporting characters are, however, quite vibrant and interesting, and help carry Arabella through her trials.

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However, what I missed in this entire process was that this is a YA novel, through and through – I’m sure this has been mentioned, but I missed the memo. While it does not appear to be directly marketed that way, it contained all the elements: teenage protagonist (bonus points for female), mild romance storyline, the proper-but-intelligent-and-full-of-ingenuity protagonist who goes outside their comfort zone to save the day, etc. The ending, while containing some fantastic writing and plot twists, also had a very feel-good-everything-went-ok feel to it that I associate with YA novels. While this is not a problem, it did catch me off-guard, as I was used to the much more adult feel and tone of much of Levine’s short fiction. He does a terrific job at this style, however, keeping the book interesting and complicated enough to keep anyone invested, while making it accessible and enjoyable to most reading age brackets.

Arabella of Mars isn’t perfect, but it’s a really great read, and a tantalizing taste of what David Levine can do when writing at novel length. If you’re the type who enjoys steampunk settings, even with a bit of Regency-era behaviors and dress, as well as space tales, this book is a home run for you, and a must-read.

Rating: 4 / 5

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