I enjoyed the first two books in David D. Levine's 'Arabella of Mars' series immensely; there's something this steampunk can't resist in combining C. S. Forester with Edgar Rice Burroughs behind a plucky heroine. I have to say that I enjoyed this one too, for all the same reasons, but the downside is more obvious in what I presume is the last in a trilogy.
In many ways, I expected to like this one most of all, because it spends much more time on Mars than Levine has allowed thus far. For all that the first book was titled 'Arabella of Mars', little of it was spent on that planet, most of it taking place on the currents that carry Arabella there from Earth. 'Arabella and the Battle of Venus', of course, focuses on that planet. However, this one, even though it begins on Earth and includes another long space voyage, ends up on Mars and stays there until a sojourn over to Phobos.
Arabella and her husband, Captain Singh, are on Earth, as we begin, to visit the Prince Regent at his new pavilion, now that they're heroes of the realm, following their parts in the battle that ends book two. I liked this location, because it's purest exotica: Mars outside and Venus inside, reminding of the Egyptian craze of the twenties. Arabella is not so enthralled, because she sees how authentic it isn't, and what should be a positive trip goes even further south when the Prince Regent outlines his plans for England to invade Mars and bring civilisation to the savages there.
He even proposes that Captain Singh lead this mission, at which Arabella, realising that she identifies far more as a Martian than as an Englishwoman, rebels, putting her planet ahead of her husband, who is, of course, the epitome of the honourable and duty -bound subject of the crown. So she escapes on a stolen draisine (a sort of bicycle she's been working on in the Prince Regent's stables), rides from Brighton to Greenwich and persuades Captain Fox to take her to Mars on the Touchstone to warn the natives of the upcoming English invasion.
There is more to it than this, not least because Arabella conjures up a revolutionary approach to interplanetary travel that cuts many months off the trip to give her a major head start, and because Captain Singh gives chase in the Diana, having seen the error of his moral ways, but that's the book in a nutshell.
Apparently, some authors have written substantial commentaries on the way that these books treat colonialism and that doesn't surprise me in the slightest. Levine neatly tackled the racism and sexism of the times head on by choosing a female lead, even if she's forced to disguise herself as male as needed, and by having her marry Captain Singh, who's as far away from blonde-haired and blue-eyed Aryan as that name suggests. However, they both toe the English line, at least up until this point, and that's rubbed some up the wrong way.
Sadly, I'd argue that this is the most problematic of the three books, even though the author apparently tried to avoid that fate. My biggest problem with 'Arabella the Traitor of Mars' isn't that she's a traitor ('of Mars' rather than 'to Mars', which is a crucial distinction), or even that she's given very little growth here beyond that initial realisation that she's Martian first and foremost, but because she's so ruthlessly the focus.
Sure, she's the lead character and she proves herself again and again in inventive ways, but she does so at the expense of many other characters, including the Martians who should have shone here. If Levine sets up Mars as India and Khema as Gandhi (and ulka as opium, to rather mix the colonies), he forgets to actually give that latter character much to do. If you're wondering how the fight to achieve independence for India can be done without much from Gandhi, you've seen the heart of the problem. Yes, this grand battle for Mars is fought for the most part between the English and the English, a pretty unfortunate state of affairs if you ask me. Yeah, yeah, there are Martians fighting and dying for freedom but read this book then name more than Khema and Gonekh and I'll be really impressed.
Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed this book, because Levine knows how to build a ride. He gets his teeth into the inevitable naval battles, which are a little extended here, and he has a lot of fun with Arabella's strange course for Mars in opposition, winging it round Mercury and finding a space kraken waiting for them. This is history rewritten as fantasy with broad strokes and it's hard to resist its energy or enthusiasm. However, the more calm scenes are less strong, such as those unfolding during the year on Mars during which Arabella tries to build an army and a fleet to face the inevitable English. And even here, with Martian characters, we learn less about Mars and Martians than we did in a mere couple of scenes in the first novel.
If you've enjoyed the first two books, you'll enjoy this one too, but you may find, like me, that it disappoints a little as well, less in what it does and more in what it doesn't do. This is great fun, but it should have been a lot more than that and Levine misses a few grand opportunities by a country mile. There's a lot of battle but not a lot of character development and growth. There's a lot of Mars but not a lot of the Martian people and culture. There's a lot of rebellion but not a lot of consequence.
Maybe Levine will return to Arabella with a fourth book, but the way he ends this one suggests that it's being wrapped up as a trilogy with the third act by far the weakest. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For reviews of more titles in this series click here