- Genre: Science Fantasy
- Series: The Adventures of Arabella Ashby 1
- Pages: 382
The year 1812. England and France are at war. Arabella Ashby has a pleasant life running through canyons on Mars. She lives there as a young lady with her family and their chitinous Martian servant. But this is not proper behavior for an English lady, and her mother decides to take her and her sisters back to England, Earth, where “the slightest display of audacity, curiosity, adventure, or initiative was met with severe disapproval.” When her father unexpectedly dies on Mars and her cousin Simon hears that the Martian estate is ripe to be appropriated, Arabella is locked in the pantry while Simon sails the interplanetary atmosphere to Mars. Arabella escapes and, disguised as a male sailor, follows her cousin’s trail.
Adventure on the high seas between Earth and Mars! David D. Levine takes his inspiration from the adventure tales and science fictional romances of the late 19th and early 20th century. There are shades here of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series, and the film Treasure Planet. The name Arabella sounds similar to the SF film Barbarella, a story with which it shares an adventurous spirit, although Arabella of Mars is more clearly written for a modern young adult audience. I hate to use the young adult label because of its negative connotations, but just as Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching novels are immensely readable, so is Levine’s writing a delight.
Speaking of writing, Levine adjusted his style to something more formal and old-fashioned to reflect the stiff Regency-era culture it is set in. It takes a moment to get used to, but it works quite charmingly and draws attention to Levine’s good vocabulary and writing skill. Plot-wise, not every twist and turn feels realistic and some characters make abrupt decisions that feel forced to move the story along. I suppose only Arabella is well explored as a character while the rest are closer to walking tropes. And I suppose too that Arabella’s story is predictable. She is a heroine with modern values who doesn’t fit into that society. Naturally, this is a coming-of-age story of a smart young woman in an unjust world.
I don’t want to be too nitpicky because this is a very readable book. It is also nothing really exceptional. It is just very solid with some interesting characters and locales and an adventure plot that chucks along at a reasonable pace. Just know what you get yourself into. If you are looking for some hard SF, note that Arabella of Mars is creamy science-fantasy fudge, where the science-fantasy element not even feels essential to the story. It might as well have been set in Australia during the British Age of Empire. There is a lot of sailing in air currents and Levine seems to know his business when it comes to sailing.
For an adventure novel, this story is terribly tame. Arabella has a well-balanced personality and her adventures on the ship keep granting her the right opportunities to prove her worth to the sailors. An odd education by her father taught her precisely the few things she needs to find her place on board. Every conflict is quickly solved and takes up no more than 20 pages. So, this is almost a novel with a dozen small short stories inside them, which may be an artifact of Levine being a short story writer. In a way, it reminded me of Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (2014) where small conflicts happen while a woman tries to adjust to an interplanetary voyage.
Arabella of Mars is beautifully written, but as a series of quickly-solved problems it did not thrill as much as I hoped it would.