I've been waiting for this one ever since I saw it, but sadly it wasn't in my hands soon enough to take to Westercon 69 in Portland for David Levine, the Fan Guest of Honor, to sign. Now I have another good reason to go back for OryCon in November!
Even the cover is gorgeous! It features a good, old-fashioned ship, sails unfurled, soaring through the sky towards the red planet. The font used for the title is lovely, stylish but old-fashioned. The result is clean, neat and thoroughly enticing, especially for those who will immediately imagine an Edgar Rice Burroughs-type story. There are many of us and we're growing more vocal, it seems.
To be fair, this is only one part Burroughs. It begins more like a Robert Heinlein juvenile, hardly a bad way to start, then shifts into a Sabatini vibe and eventually returns home to finish out as an ERB piece. Those are intriguing names to put together, but Levine makes them all fit naturally.
Our heroine, the Arabella of the title, is Miss Ashby, a first-generation Martian born to English parents. This fictional past proves to have run a good deal ahead of our real one: Captain Kidd was the first man to land on the planet Mars and, by 1812, we've colonised the place with manor houses, English manners and subjugation of the natives. The whole thing could be a scientification take on how the British ran India, if only it didn't feel like a comment on the American deepsouth. Maybe Levine aimed at both.
Arabella loves it on Mars, roaming away from Woodthrush Woods, the family plantation, into the countryside to play games of action and strategy with her brother Michael and their itkhalya or nanny, Khema. Back home, she's a fan of her father's hobby of tinkering with automata, something that mother doesn't deem remotely ladylike. In fact, she's had enough of the place and so takes her daughters back to London where they can be part of the proper society and get married off. So, Arabella is torn away from all that she knows and planted in what is to her a foreign place, with heavy atmosphere and boring men.
The trigger to rebel comes a year later, in 1813, after the death of her father. Arabella is distraught and, to get away, goes to stay with Simon, her cousin, only to discover that he's lost one inheritance and decides to steal another one by travelling to Mars and murdering Michael. Arabella is incensed and takes it upon herself to follow him. Of course, she isn't able to pay the exorbitant fare, so ends up signing up as a lowly crewman on a speedy merchant vessel of the Honorable Mars Company instead, disguised as Arthur Ashby, a boy.
And so we leap headlong into the Rafael Sabatini stretch of the story, all of which unfolds in the airstreams between the planets. Yes, this follows the planetary romance approach to reality, namely that romance, in the old-fashioned sense of adventure, can bend science to its will. Levine keeps internal consistency, so as long as we can buy into a journey into space echoing a journey across the ocean in every way except water, we're safe.
The biggest drawback to this novel is that its ideas are firmly drawn from the inspirations already mentioned, so nothing that happens on the voyage from Earth to Mars will be remotely surprising to fans of the Napoleonic adventure. The biggest boon to this novel is that it feels very much like an old friend. Sure, it was written in 2016 with a first edition in July, but I devoured it like it was a childhood favourite that had unfairly languished on the shelf for too many years. I'd never met these characters before but I knew every one of them and I was happy to reacquaint myself with them.
While the bookends unfold on Mars, with Arabella inevitably returning home an older and wiser young lady than the naive girl who had so recently left, most of the novel takes place on her journey there. This is a coming-of-age story as much as it's a seafaring (erm, spacefaring) saga and Levine knows his stuff. This is smooth writing indeed, especially for a debut novel, and it makes for fast-paced reading. I devoured this 350-page volume in under a day and I wanted to leap straight into the sequel. I truly hope that Levine has written it by now and it's being edited or proofed or typeset already.
Beyond letting you know that surprise isn't going to be an emotion to leap out of this book, I won't spoil any of Arabella's many adventures. Let me just introduce Prakash Singh, the captain of the Diana, into whose service Arabella (as Arthur) ventures; and Aadim, a literal mechanical Turk that Captain Singh has designed to handle the complex navigational calculations required to sail the air currents between the planets. Needless to say, both are as important to this story as the Diana herself.
I must salute Levine for writing something so old-fashioned but so fresh. His love for the old masters is palpable, whether we're talking Burroughs, Sabatini or Verne, not to mention Robert Heinlein, who would have told an equivalent story with futuristic technology rather than historic. This is Napoleonic science fiction rather than Victorian, but the prose is more of the early twentieth century, more akin to Doyle or Haggard than Verne or Wells.
However, he includes the Victorian stylistic choice to censor all examples of strong language or words with unpleasant religious connotations which, naturally, should not be uttered within earshot of the fairer sex. So, we find ourselves treated not only to 'd--n' and the confusing 'g-------d' but to 'h--l' and 'd---l' too. Sailors do like their swearing but such language has no place in a novel named for a lady.
Of course, her mother would have kittens if she heard Arabella speak the language of the locals. It isn't just that they're ghastly savages, rather like humanoid crabs, but that Martian is a guttural language, its 'th' and 'kh' sounds reminiscent of those tharks and thoats, kadars and jeddaks of Barsoom. Fortunately, her mother is absent for most of the book, the bore that she is. She sets the story into motion and then steps away so that it can be told and told by the sort of people who should be telling it, young Arabella chief amongst them.
I've been having a blast revisiting nineteenth century adventure novels and it's great to read another one, merely one not written until this year. Given that 'Arabella of Mars' is brand new, I doubt I'll be able to read a sequel for at least another year, but I do see that the inspiration for it appears to be in print. The tale of Captain Kidd's journey to Mars is told in 'The Wreck of the Mars Adventure', a short story Levine contributed to the 'Old Mars' anthology, edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois. Clearly, that's the next stop for anyone who proves to be as much a fan of 'Arabella of Mars' as I am. Race you! ~~ Hal C F Astell