RogerBW's Blog

Arabella of Mars, David D. Levine 25 August 2017

2016 clockpunkish science fiction. In 1812 Arabella Ashby, daughter of a Martian plantation owner, is sent Home to Earth to learn proper ladylike behaviour; but she'll soon need to find her way onto a Marsman to return to the planet of her birth.

The first thing this book reminded me of was J. A. Sutherland's Into the Dark… but in a good way, because this is much better. Levine doesn't spend as much time as Sutherland trying to convince you that science inevitably dictates space sailing-ships, so when there are major problems with the physics – for example, the way that these sailing-ships are apparently propelled by wind relative to the air-masses that they sit in – I find myself more inclined to think that it's mostly there to serve the story anyway. We have breathable air between the planets because that's necessary to have Napoleonic ships in space.

There is some science, though: the ships are lofted on hot-air balloons (Newton's invention) up to the "falling line", where gravity effectively stops, and they need to carry fuel to re-inflate those balloons when they come to land. (One might have thought parachutes could work, but that needs a higher technology in fabrics.) This isn't quite the rigid copying of Napoleonic practice that Sutherland forced, but there are clearly still a great many parallels.

The key thing though is that this book is not about the ships, but about Arabella, who (for various good reasons) finds herself, in male disguise, signed aboard a merchantman with an intriguing captain, a clockwork navigator, and a variety of people who if they tend to be a bit sketched-in do at least seem like plausible sketches rather than just the characteristic which has to be in that slot to make the plot work.

"This mad scheme cannot succeed!" Arabella cried. "To put an end to one's own relatives for personal gain would surely render the inheritance invalid!"

"You underestimate my husband, Cousin. Despite his occasional follies, he is a barrister, and very clever. He will find some way to avoid suspicion."

It's somewhat young-adultish in that it's a bildungsroman with Arabella thriving essentially by her own talents and hard work rather than by outside assistance, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. (Perhaps she's a bit too good at everything, especially being the right person in the right place towards the end, but it just about holds together.) The setting doesn't feel quite as gritty as some Napoleonic portrayals. Mars is basically the Raj with aliens.

In the end it's not a world-changing book but it is quite an enjoyable one. Followed by Arabella and the Battle of Venus.

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See also:
Into the Dark, J. A. Sutherland

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