Arabella of Mars
by David D. Levine
This is on Locus Magazine’s recommended reading list under the category of First Novels, which makes it possible for this to be a Hugo Nominee. Is it good enough for that? Is it actually BETTER than that and should be eligible in the Best Novel category as well?
First of all, let’s look at Parental Advisories, as that is the main purpose for my reviews. Then a brief synopsis of the plot, with as few spoilers as possible; my inconsequential opinion of it; and lastly discuss that Hugo potential.
Profanity: NONE, with only the suggestion of it. Those suggestions take this form: Do you know what “d—-d,” “d—l,” “b—–d,” or “f—–g” mean? That’s how the author writes them. You could probably figure it out. That is the extent of the profanity in this novel. Go back and look at that second one again. “d—l” means devil. I didn’t know that was a swear word, but I do understand why the author portrays it that way, considering this novel’s historical setting.
Sex/Nudity: One scene where a female character has her upper torso bared in preparation of a whipping. There is no description other than her efforts to cover herself, and as a result of what she couldn’t cover no whipping takes place.
Violence: There is some. The battle scene with a privateer corsair is very exciting, and some of the results are depicted. At all times, any violence in this is treated as sad, abhorrent, and to be rejected as unacceptable. A proper adult view.
So, as parental guidance goes: We have a WINNER! The most obviously fitting YA SF/F novel I have read in a long time. Parents, read it if you like, but I don’t mind recommending this to anyone over ten years old. Those under ten might not understand the societal norms on display here, but there is little to take offense at.
This novel takes place in 1813! Yes, that’s what I said: 1813! A Regency era where the galleons that plied the oceans blue also plied the route from Earth to Mars! It mashes up quaint manners and societal propriety with Mars, Martians, and space pirates. It makes the assumption that the scientific beliefs of the day regarding the makeup of space were correct: that it had a breathable atmosphere, was lit quite well, and had space currents the airships could catch, sailing away.
It follows Arabella Ashby, raised on Mars, whisked away at the age of 17 by a demanding mother who insisted she live a more proper life back on Earth. Arabella is attacked by a nefarious cousin, who is intent on getting to Mars to wrest the family estate there away from Arabella’s brother, Michael. Arabella escapes imprisonment and gets passage on a Mars Company airship named “Diana,” intent on getting to her beloved brother first to warn him of the cousin’s intentions. However, she must masquerade as a young man aboard ship and assume all the duties of a young man.
Because of her — er, his? — youth, she — er, he? — is appointed to be the Captain’s boy; someone who serves and the beck and call of the Captain, relaying messages, providing tea or dinner, generally keeping him at his best. (No, NOT the Captain’s boy you first thought of! Get your mind out of the gutter! Remember: propriety!) The Captain is enamored with his automaton named Aadim, which he can program to help with finer adjustments in navigation. Arabella also likes automatons, as her Father relayed his love for it to her when she was young. She begins to learn how to work the complicated mess of levers, weights, brackets, cogs, etc.
She hears some of the crew discussing mutiny. They are attacked by a French privateer corsair that very nearly overwhelms them. They survive, but the Captain is badly injured and comatose. It is up to Arabella and Aadim to navigate the battered ship to an asteroid to replenish and repair.
Ultimately they get to Mars, only to learn that the Martians are in full rebellion against humans and all their lives are at stake.
No more. Read it!
I LOVE THIS BOOK!
The false scientific assumptions are whimsically pleasing. The romance and adventure is stirring, causing me to keep reading long after the lights should have been out! The Martians are alien enough to be fully fleshed out with cultures and rules of propriety of their own. There are surprises all over the place, and the ending surprise portends astonishing things for the next novel, if there is one. Its recognition of appropriate and inappropriate behavior is given the utmost respect, which is simply delightful.
I did find one little hiccup in the events, but this is so minor I’ll say no more about it.
Really, READ THIS BOOK!
And for the record: I WANT THIS COVER ART TO HANG ON MY WALL! It is scrumptious! If you doubted that a galleon could set enough sail to travel in space, study this cover’s brilliant depiction of the brave “Diana.” It’s simply gorgeous!
Mr. Levine has received the Hugo and other awards for his short fiction, and that’s why this is in the category of First Novels. I would love for him to get it, but can’t quite commit that for three important reasons.
First, there doesn’t seem to be some deep truth that changes my life, or my understanding of others. Here’s the best I could come up with: this novel demonstrates that personal accountability includes word of ownership, followed by actions that demonstrate acceptance of the consequences, even if someone else is deciding the consequences.
Second, “Infomocracy” by Malka Older is also on this reading list in this category. I’m thinking it will take it. I also think “Ninefox Gambit” by Yoon Ha Lee will be nominated in this category, and this novel is unworthy of him. Yet, Yoon Ha Lee seems to have a lot of feel-good from the genre for short fiction, and that can sometimes mess up judgment.
Third, I don’t understand why this novel isn’t also included in the Young Adult category. Don’t some works get included into combinations of lists? I’ll have to research this. If it were in that category, I think it would be nominated for sure, and likely would win it.
I’ll say one more thing about this novel: Even if it doesn’t get the Hugo, it should go on every school’s reading list, and should be destined for “Classic” status right alongside “Treasure Island” by RLS.
Yes, it is that good as far as I’m concerned. A Classic that will be loved by anyone who loves adventure, romance, “other,” robots, powerful female leads, blah, blah, blah.
Seriously, read it and love it.
19 February 2017