Every once in a while you just want a change. Something new and different and then someone comes along and combines two things that were perfectly ordinary and they become extra-ordinary. Chicken and waffle, waffles and ice cream, waffles and anything really. Any type of food and a deep fryer. Peanut butter and chocolate…
Yeah. I’m hungry. Anyway, this time we’re talking about Jane Austen in SPAAACCCEE aka Arabella of Mars by David Levine.
It has space boats, Martians, privateers, mutinies, automatons, and it has one of this one’s favorite tropes: a girl disguising herself as a boy. A girl disguising herself as a boy in Regency England no less, where your class and breeding pretty much determined your lot in life.
Our story begins with Arabella being sent from her home on Mars back to England at the request of her mother. She thinks that Arabella’s education in tracking, hunting and all things Martian will make her unmarriageable. She’ll be wild and unladylike if she socialises with the natives anymore. Arabella is completely unhappy in England and the only thing that consoles her is working on her father’s automatons. Then her father dies and her brother is left their estate on Mars.
She learns that her cousin, Simon, plans to travel to Mars to assassinate her brother so he can inherit the estate. Her only way to prevent the murder is to try and get to Mars before Simon. Arabella disguises herself as a boy and gets hired on a ship called the Diana, headed by the dashing Captain Singh. Arabella is in charge of working with the automaton navigator but life isn’t easy on space boat. It definitely does not qualify as a space ship. Or at least not in the way you’re thinking.
There is air in space in this universe apparently. As far as I can tell the Diana is by no means covered and her deck is open. The nearest I can guess is it looks like the ship on the cover.
Anyway, Arabella’s journey is frought with dangers and of course she begins to fall for the Captain because it wouldn’t be regency fiction if someone didn’t get married at the end. Arabella shows signs being an outspoken, strong modernish heroine. She is interested in tinkering with automatons and hunting and tracking the Martian way. She is uninterested in finding a husband, and doesn’t hesitate to set out to save her brother. But Arabella is very much operating by Regency world standards. She’s plucky, but only within the limits of what Regency fiction will allow her to be. She’s never going to convince society that a girl dressing and acting as a boy is acceptable. Or that she won’t faint the moment someone discusses anything more intense than the weather. Or that being alone with Captain Singh will not impune her honor. There is no breaking of the gender rules.
You’d also think that race would not be such a big deal considering that the dark-skinned Other is now outshone by the Martian population, but that’s not the case. Captain Singh, an Indian man, still gets discriminated against. Not as badly as he might have if aliens didn’t exist, maybe.
Character-wise nobody really gets much development other than Arabella. Captain Singh is the only other character who gets any flushing out. He’s brave and fair and intelligent. That’s about it. He functions as wall for Arabella to bounce off of, someone for her to admire and eventually marry (because, honestly, he’s her least bad option). The two also rarely speak about anything other than the ship, which also doesn’t help their chemistry. So we barely know him and they hardly know each other. By the end you imagine their romance with a pretty bleak end.
The one thing that Arabella of Mars has in spades though is descriptions of the ship. Everything from how it deploys it’s three mast structure to the units of measurements the ship uses have been planned out. David Levine knows every inch of the Diana. I think more time was spent describing the ship than the plot. It would have been really cool if they had decided to include some blueprints for the Diana, so that we could get a good feel for it’s layout.
If a Regency style space vessel is something you’ve always wondered about then you will not be disappointed with this book. So while this book may not excel at character development or a complex plot, it does get a lot of points for style and concept. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen such an interesting combination of elements. I would have loved to learn more about how the regency world has been transformed by space travel and automatons. I would also have been interested in learning more about the Martian’s physiology and culture as well. Arabella of Mars might not be the most gripping sci-fi adventure out there, but if you’re looking for something different to read, it’s a good choice.