Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I think David D. Levine has invented an entire new subgenre with this book. I'm calling it "Pulp Steampunk Regency." Pulp because it harkens back to the sort of rip-roaring adventure that was first promulgated by Jules Verne; Steampunk because of airships and automatons; and Regency because the book is set in the England (and Mars) of 1813, with all the retrograde views of women, people of color (and, as it turns out, aliens) that the time period entails.
But whatever you want to call it, it's a helluva rocket (or rather airship) ride. To modern eyes, of course, the "science" is complete nonsense. There are no "swamps of Venus" or a breathable atmosphere on Mars, much less an atmosphere (and soil) that allows for the growth of forests. There is no "intraplanetary atmosphere," or an ocean of air between the planets themselves that replaces hard vacuum and permits airship travel to Mars, Venus and presumably other planets in the solar system. But this is no more ridiculous than the FTL drives that have been a mainstay of SF for nigh on to forever. I can forgive a lot of things if a world and its rules are well thought out and the characters are engaging. This book qualifies on both counts.
Our protagonist Arabella Ashby undergoes quite a bit of personal growth over the course of this story. She learns her own strength, both physical and mental, and though at the end she is forced to marry to assure the succession of her family's Martian estate (because the British Empire of 1813 encompasses all the settled planets, apparently), her husband-to-be turns the formula on its head by being a person of color. The author actually handles the racism/sexism/classism elements of the time period pretty well, all things considered. This is a book that sneaks up on you--the further along I read, the more I liked it. (And Levine's airships are much better than some, for instance Jim Butcher's.)
This particular storyline is wrapped up by the end, but a few lingering questions assure a sequel. I'm looking forward to it.
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