Arabella and the Battle of Venus by David D. Levine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Last year, the first book in this series, Arabella of Mars, won the Andre Norton Award for Best Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. This book continues that story, set in the same swashbuckling, throwback world, to the time of Jules Verne-esque SF when no one knew that Venus wasn't actually a swampy jungle planet.
Real science is obviously out the door here, but Levine's universe is well-thought-out and cleverly weaves in some historical figures circa 1815, namely Napoleon Bonaparte and Lord Nelson. (This time frame and people seems to provide some rich inspiration--Naomi Novik's Temeraire series mines much of the same territory, if confined to planet Earth.) Arabella Ashby's fiance, Captain Prakash Singh of the Honorable Mars Company airship Diana, has been captured on Venus by Napoleon's troops, and Arabella hires another airship to take her to Venus, with the intent of bribing sufficient people to secure Captain Singh's release.
Of course, this does not go well. At all. This storyline is a lot darker than the previous book, and our characters are really up against it. The pacing is very good, and the plot ticks away nicely until the last third of the book, when everything explodes. Levine writes some of the best action sequences I have read in a long time--the Diana's escape from Venus had me on the edge of my seat, and the final battle between the English and French fleets was just mesmerizing. There are prices to be paid in stories like these, and in this case, Arabella is the one that pays--she loses a foot in the battle. If this is handled right, it will (hopefully) mean interesting things for her characterization in the next book.
This time period is rife with other issues as well--sexism, colonialism, slavery, et cetera, that I did feel weren't really touched upon. In this particular storyline, there wasn't really room for it, but it is something that I think needs to be broached. Perhaps that will be tackled in the next book. In the meantime, this is an old-fashioned, rip-roaring adventure, and highly recommended.
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