Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Review: Arabella The Traitor of Mars

Arabella The Traitor of Mars Arabella The Traitor of Mars by David D. Levine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was very capably written, and on paper I should have loved it; determined young female protagonists who are intelligent and competent and independent are a feature I look for in books, and here we have one. Somehow, though, I never connected with Arabella emotionally, and while I didn't dislike the book, I also didn't love it.

There could be several reasons for that. One reason may be the stiff, cool language of the (alternate-universe) Regency setting. I've enjoyed and emotionally connected with books with that kind of setting before, though, such as Melissa McShane's Extraordinaries series. It wasn't my dislike of the gory battle scenes, though I'm not a fan of those; they came late in the book, when I was already feeling disengaged.

The other main problem I had, and perhaps the main reason for my coolness towards the book, was that I was working so hard to maintain suspension of disbelief. The basic setting (a solar system in which there is air everywhere and sailing ships can voyage through it between the planets) requires quite a robust effort to swallow by itself; I'm OK with the planetary-romance conceit of an inhabited Mars full of canals and an inhabited Venus full of jungles, but the physics of the air-filled solar system made no sense to me, and nor did the idea that people pedaling to propel the ships would make a significant difference to their interplanetary speed. I have a similar struggle with the dragons in the Temeraire series (who cause suspiciously few supply problems, and can fly amazingly well, for such enormous creatures). I appreciate that part of SFF is suspending disbelief, but some premises make it harder than others.

On top of this unlikeliness, too, there are a few others layered. For example, the inciting incident of the whole book is that the heroine refuses to accept the Prince Regent's plans to conquer Mars and exploit it for Britain. I appreciate that, as he mentions in his afterword, the author was trying to write an anti-colonialist novel, but I'm afraid I never believed Arabella's rebellion against the comprehensively held mindset of her time. Even when I reminded myself that the American colonies had rebelled and thrown off British colonial government, I still couldn't help thinking that that was emphatically not because anyone there respected the native inhabitants and considered resisting colonialism as such to be a matter of self-evident natural justice. On top of which, Arabella is an example of the White Saviour trope; real resistance to colonialism was almost universally driven by indigenous peoples themselves, and although the Martians play an important and respected role in the resistance, they don't initiate it and they're not at all the centre of the plot.

And then there's a fortunate and somewhat unlikely coincidence at the all-is-lost moment that saves the day, putting a further heavy burden on my already overstrained suspension of disbelief.

Ultimately, I think I didn't love it because I didn't believe it.

I haven't read the previous two books in the series; there's enough catch-up at the beginning that I wasn't confused about the events of the backstory, but it may be that I would have been more emotionally engaged, and perhaps even believed more easily, if I'd been through the process of following Arabella's earlier adventures, rather than having them briefly summarized. Who knows?

Your experience of the book may be different, and I will say that the writing craft is at an admirable standard. I couldn't quite bring myself to drop it down to three stars, but it's at the lower end of four, for me.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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