Review: Arabella of Mars

Posted: September 11, 2017 by in Books that are Mediocre (3/5 single_star) Meta: David D. Levine, Steampunk

Teenage Arabella Ashby was born and raised on the planet Mars–in a steampunk Victorian Era of inter-planetary ship travel. So imagine sea ships that travel between planets, Victorian manners and mores, and a Burroughs-like Mars landscape. David Levine’s ARABELLA OF MARS has been compared as a mashup of Horatio Hornblower, Burroughs’s Mars books, and Jane Austin, a conglomeration of all the things we love best about those three genres with steampunk thrown in.

Unfortunately it’s also dreadfully dull.

ARABELLA OF MARS starts out promisingly enough (even if the opening scene is trite and expository), with a spunky heroine Arabella living happily on Mars, free to enjoy adventures with her beloved brother Michael as they learn how to survive the harsh climate from her Martian governess. But their mother is horrified that her daughter isn’t acting like a lady and wants to take her home to England, where she’ll have more opportunity to find suitors and hopefully soon a husband (yawwwn, but ok, they’re on Mars, I decided to keep going).

Arabella dislikes England and Earth, and all the boring “gentlemen” of society, and frustrates her mother’s attempts to get her paired off. But after her father’s death, Arabella uncovers the treachery of a cousin (Simon) planning to kill Michael and inherit the estate, but without resources to follow him to Mars, hides her gender, signs on as a ship’s cabin boy for a cargo ship, and takes off to save her brother. By this point I’m 25% into the book, Arabella is on the ship, and despite the contrived set-up and predictable plot I’m thinking, hey the prose is ok (if Austen-y and coming across as trying too hard) and the author has made an effort to be authentic.

So sure, the ship feels authentic. So authentic that jargon is thrown at me and I don’t understand much of what’s going on, which makes sense because the book is told from Arabella’s PoV and that’s her experience. Yet while I follow Arabella’s (decidedly uncompelling and all stuff I’ve seen before) experiences on the ship, she becomes familiar with everything and I still have trouble visualizing what everything looks like and what’s going on. Maybe it’s because I’m tired of these journey stories that involve learning about something so foreign to the main character, or I don’t enjoy descriptions about gross living conditions or about scrubbing a deck (I’m a mom, I clean up after kids all day, I don’t need to read about cleaning). There are a few interesting things such as the mechanical navigator the ship’s captain uses to calculate the complicated things involved in interplanetary travel, as well as a ship dealing with weightlessness, but at the same time we never learn how in the heck they’re able to breathe on an open sea ship in space and why asteroids have enough atmosphere for a forest to thrive on (these aren’t the only questions that aren’t answered satisfactorily).

ARABELLA OF MARS is a journey from protected teen to heroine, and focused on the unimportant at the expense of what would have made it a better story.

Arabella is a brave and a hardworking girl, and she acts like a typical teen, but she seems able to switch from dirty shipman to debutante without much difficulty, that despite griping about the limitations for females she retreats into those manners without much complaint. She was difficult to find believable and therefore it was hard to feel attached. It was also hard to get to know the secondary characters; part of the problem was the mass of men on the ship and brief time with her family. As a result I felt distant from a majority of the characters, which made it hard for me to care what happened to them.

Things start picking up once they reach Mars and Arabella’s knowledge of the planet and its people become an integral part of the story, so we really get to see what kind of a person she is as she deals with the fallout of Simon’s interference. Unfortunately the end comes in a rush and is a trifle predicable, there’s the typical upending of backwards societal norms, and because I wasn’t attached to Arabella didn’t really care.

If you like the nitty gritty of a heroine’s journey, dealing with the details of a ship traveling through space, mixing Victorian England with Mars, and old-fashioned prose thrown in, then this book is for you. Otherwise I’d stick to the original (and much funner to read) A PRINCESS OF MARS (EBR Review) and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.

  • Recommended Age: 14+
  • Language: None since Arabella's PoV strikes out profanity
  • Violence: Peril and death, but rarely gruesome
  • Sex: Teen crushing


  • Brett says:

    I think the conceit that Levine uses is that the entire solar system has an atmosphere and he just chooses not to explain it, in the same way that Scott Westerfeld in “Leviathan” supposes that folks with optical microscopes are able to manipulate DNA well enough to engineer animals to specifications. We’re meant to just buy into the conceit.

    I was very “meh” about this myself; for all that Levine’s short stories have earned some significant hardware he shows as a pretty pedestrian writer here.

  • Martin La Paz says:

    You can mix genres, introduce impossible concepts without any explanation, and create characters that have skills that don’t really seem to derive from anything – and pass it all off as art – in this novel I guess it is supposed to be a kind of magical realism. This has always struck me though as a lazy way to tell a story. For me, fiction needs to be plausible above all, and by being so, it can help us get through this life with a little better understanding. And SciFi while it imagines things that never were, still usually strives for what COULD be. That is what I love about good speculative fiction. And I think writing it involves a fair amount of work. But that is me – I like visual art that at least calls up the natural, music with a melody or rhythm (preferably both) and stories that resonate.
    This writer has I think some natural story-telling ability and knows how to write a sentence. I think it would be great if he applied those skills to telling a story that at least has the appearance of making sense. Instead of telling a kind of long gag. I think he could do it.

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