David D. Levine held an AMA on Reddit not too long ago. I ended up asking a question of him, which he took the time to respond to! I’ll link my tweet on it here.
But hearing from him encouraged me to read his book Arabella of Mars.
From the start it was an odd read, something I had to adjust to right away. The issue wasn’t the tense or narration, but the way the story read. The setting was something like a Victorian age understanding of space, with Mars being settled by English colonists, and the vacuum of space replaced by an atmosphere and sailing ships.
Before I get to spoilers, let me say: I recommend this book if you like older literature and science fiction. It’s right in that sweet spot.
The book is in three parts. The first is her on Earth and her issues there. From there we end up in the air between Earth and Mars. Again, this book is based in an almost Victorian understanding of space. Third, the book is on Mars.
Right in the first few chapters Arabella is taken from her home on Mars and moved back to England to live as a proper noblewoman. While there, her father dies, relatives essentially kidnap her and plan to murder her brother, and they escape to Mars. This is, again, all in the first few chapters.
I will admit to two criticisms I have of this book. The first is at this point in the story, when Arabella is at her worst. It honestly surprised me that things could turn so grim for the girl. I felt like quitting the book here, but luckily I pushed through.
In the second part we have Arabella taken aboard the Diana. Arabella pretends to be a boy and tries to enlist in the Navy to get to Mars, but is luckily intercepted by a merchant captain who offers her a ship to learn on There’s a robotic navigator clearly inspired by the chess-playing Turk, and the Indian captain who seems to have a certain nobility about him.
Most of the adventures in this part are exceptionally well thought out and interesting. I found myself drawn into the story here, and concerned about both the “time bomb” aspect of getting to Mars as soon as possible, and tension of Arabella hiding her sex. It’s well-written! Almost reminds me of Treasure Island in this section.
Then we get to the third part of the book, when Arabella’s sex is revealed and she helps land the ship on Mars to find a rebellion of Martian natives. It’s an interesting situation, and here Arabella really shines. She knows the Martian customs and helps her ship from being destroyed. Then, she’s able to negotiate for food and water and get permission from the Martians to talk to her brother.
This is where my second complaint in the book exists: the Captain accompanies Arabella and seemingly has no purpose in anything. He has nothing to do. It honestly feels a little lazy given how well-written everything else is.
The ending of the book was satisfying, which is what you want for an ending (the resolution of which was set up from the beginning). In fact, all of Arabella’s problems seem to stem from her father’s poor estate planning, which is hilariously brought up towards the end as being the solicitor’s fault.
As far as everything goes, I would say the book is a satisfying read with plenty of adventure. My own love of military science fiction drew me in when we dealt with actual sailing ship situations. Arabella is basically treated as a new recruit on a Navy ship (even though it’s a merchant ship).
All in all, David Levine nailed it. I hope the next one is as great!
If you liked this, you might like some of my other reviews: