For my birthday in October my daughters gave me two books, “Ghost Talkers” and “Arabella of Mars”. As I had been waiting for over a year to read “Ghost Talkers”, that was given higher reading priority. Supposedly things happen for a reason and I’m now glad that “Arabella of Mars” came second because it was the book I was reading at the ending of this U.S. election. AoM was the perfect amount of escapism that was needed to balance the stress of this election cycle.
AoM came to my attention through author Mary Robinette Kowal and my independent bookstore promoting it. A blurb on the back cover describes AoM as “…the delicious love child of Jane Austen, Patrick O’Brian, and Jules Verne!” and I’m not certain I could sum it up more perfectly except that someone else blurbed, “Regency space opera in its best form! An intrepid, intelligent heroine, wonderful characters, and a breathtaking conflict. Who could ask for more?”.
Starting in the year 1812, AoM imagines a Regency era in which Mars has previously been reached by intrepid explorer Captain Kidd through the discovery of currents that sail between Earth and Mars. Currently there is a colony on Mars and commerce between the two planets occurs at the stately pace of sailing ships traversing outer space. Instead of the East India Company there is the Mars Company sailing under the English flag. Travel between planets has similar dangers to sailing Earth’s seas with French privateers being a constant dread for Mars Company trading ships. In this universe Mars is populated and much like how the English in our history handled native peoples in the areas they claimed, the Martian natives have come to be servants in the homes and workers in the fields for the English.
Our heroine, Arabella Ashby, was born and raised on Mars. With a keen mind she shares her father’s love of automata and delights in learning how they operate and maintaining the delicate inner clock-spring mechanisms that make them work. Her Martian itkhalya (filling a similar role as a nanny) oversaw not only to Arabella’s well being but also her Martian education. Little did Arabella know how important those two things would be to the adventures that were to come. Idyllic times were not to last as at the age of 16 her mother insists that she and her two younger sisters return to their ancestral home of England in order to become proper English ladies, leaving Mr. Ashby and the eldest, only son Michael behind on Mars.
Arabella spends the several month voyage from Mars to Earth locked in her estate room to prevent her from doing anything rash. Upon their arrival the combination of months spent in free fall and the Earth /Mars gravity difference is so oppressive the Ashby ladies are carried off the ship and conveyed by litter to their lodgings. It’s not just the gravity that Arabella finds oppressive as she faces the eventual future of being forced into marriage with a dandy that isn’t worth a fraction of the type of men living on Mars. Desperately missing her Martian homeworld, father, and brother she spends time tinkering with automata while the household sleeps, to escape the notice of Mrs. Ashby who does not approve of this fascination. The fragile peace Arabella has found is destroyed when a special courier arrives with the news that Mr. Ashby had passed away suddenly, two months ago.
To give her space to grieve and a change of scenery, Arabella is sent to spend time with her cousin Simon Ashby, his wife Beatrice, and their new daughter. Simon is a foolish man who, unbeknownst to his wife, has squandered what meager inheritance he has on a get rich quick scheme, leaving them financially ruined. The Ashby estate has been set up such that it cannot be divided and Arabella’s brother Michael is currently the sole heir. Desperate to save his family from penury Simon locks Arabella up and immediately departs with a plan to murder Michael and claim the estate, leaving Arabella, her mother and two sisters destitute.
Refusing to accept this fate, Arabella makes a daring escape. Stealing clothing to disguise her gender, she travels to London praying to catch Simon before he can find passage to Mars. Only to discover that he has already left. Faced with the dilemma of how to get to Mars in time to warn her brother, Arabella seeks employment as an automata repairman. A chance encounter with Captain Singh in an automaton shop leads to her signing on to the Mars Company ship Diana, which is about to disembark for Mars.
As captain’s boy, Arabella has ostensibly been hired for her automata knowledge and is expected to learn how to operate and keep in good working order the automata navigator. However, she is also on the bottom rung of the ship’s hierarchy ladder. Even though assigned the worst jobs, she finds a lot to like in the rough life of an airman. One of the worst parts of her week is the time spent pedaling the sails that provide additional propulsion. While not always needed for current, it is necessary to maintain muscle mass during the voyage. The best part of her week is when she spends time with the handsome and kind Captain Singh learning about navigation. All she has to do is keep her gender a secret during the several month voyage and get to Mars before Simon can ingratiate himself to Michael.
Arabella is a delightful protagonist. She does not let circumstances get her down or get in the way of doing everything she can to save her brother’s life. A goal which she pursues with fierce determination, intelligence and courage. I loved the juxtaposition of seafaring and space travel as the characters man a sailing vessel traveling between planets. I liked how the author drew parallels between Arabella’s position in society as a woman and how the English men of the crew viewed their Indian captain. At the end of the book, I was pleased to find that this is the beginning of a series, The Adventures of Arabella Ashby, and that book two “Arabella and the Battle of Venus” will be out July 2017. Reading about Arabella’s adventures was a welcome respite from reality as the US presidential election came to a close and I’m glad it was the book I was reading at the time. Check it out if you are looking for some good escapism in the form of adventure and a touch of romance .