Arabella of Mars (Adventures of Arabella Ashby)
by David D. Levine
Cover Artist: Stephan Martiniere
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765382818
Date: 12 July 2016 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Arabella of Mars by David Levine is a fun adventure story with an engaging female lead. Although the novel is a coming-of-age story for its 17-year-old main character, Tor is not marketing it as YA. The book works equally well for teens or adults. The book can be considered steampunk or nostalgia science fiction as England has a colony on Mars in 1812 (yet is still fighting Napoleon); crablike Martians exist; humans can breathe the Martian atmosphere; and airships sail the interplanetary atmosphere between Mars and Earth.
Arabella and her brother Michael grew up on Mars, on their father's plantation, and are tutored in the ways of Mars by their Martian nanny. But Arabella's mother is determined to turn her into a proper English lady and, when she is injured in a training game, uses this excuse to take all the family's females to England, separating her from Michael. But when Arabella's father dies, leaving their Martian estate to Michael, Arabella happens to tell her uncle that the current position of the planets means that a journey to Mars would be faster--and cheaper--than usual. Needing money, the uncle plots to travel to Mars, murder Michael, and, as the only remaining male, inherit everything.
Arabella escapes her aunt and rushes off to London with a goal of sending a letter to Mars to warn her brother not to trust their uncle. But she cannot afford the cost of a letter so disguises herself as a boy, becoming a cabin boy on a Mars-bound merchant ship whose captain wants to train her to operate the ship's clockwork navigator. Once on board she faces many challenges, from learning the ropes (literally) aboard ship, to fighting a French corsair, dealing with a mutiny, and handling a Martian rebellion all while trying to keep her true sex hidden. The suspense mounts as Arabella struggles to get to her brother in time to save his life even as obstacles and delays increase.
The book is fun and exciting with compelling characters in Arabella and the captain. There's a very slight element of romance as Arabella finds herself attracted to the Captain's intelligence and magnetism, but this remains merely an occasional fancy until the very end. The book is rich in details about life on board the ship.
Although this is the first book in a duology, The Adventures of Arabella Ashby, the book ends with the initial situation completely resolved.
Considering this was a first novel, the quality of the writing was very impressive. However, there were a few spots where the author clearly manipulates the plot in order to enable Arabella to save the day. For instance, the plot keeps the Captain unconscious at a crucial moment so that Arabella can be the only one who knows how to work the clockwork navigator. I also think the author could have done more to play off English elitism and racism, especially as the Captain is Indian (at one point the leader of the mutiny calls him a darkie). It does do a good job showing sexism, especially in the difference of how people treat Arabella as a girl compared to when she is disguised as a boy.
One has to wonder, however, why this is science fiction at all. The book has much of the feel of a 19th century sea adventure novel like Treasure Island just with airships and Mars substituted for sailing ships and the Indies. Only a couple of instances when the navigation machine, shaped like a Turk, shows signs of thinking for itself truly feels like speculative fiction.
Still, these are minor flaws in an exciting, action-filled novel. Readers looking for a fun, old-fashioned adventure story will enjoy Arabella of Mars. It's the literary equivalent of a popcorn movie. I look forward to the sequel.