Fangirl Fridays – David D. Levine and Arabella of Mars

This week, I’m fangirling about the first novel by David D. Levine, an author whose work I’ve admired for a long time. Years ago, I marveled at the way he designed how computer programs looked and worked, but it’s a whole lot more fun to explore the marvelously imaginative realms he so cleverly crafts in his remarkable collection of science-fiction short stories. So the instant I realized he had published an entire novel, I couldn’t wait to dive in!

Arabella of Mars is a swashbuckling historical adventure that was a bit reminiscent of old classics plus a few of my favorite new things. It was like Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs crossed with some Patrick O’Brian and Jane Austen — with a smattering of Joseph Conrad, a goodly serving of Black Sails, Dr. Who Easter eggs, and a whole lot of Arya Stark thrown in.

Set during an alternate version of England’s 19th-century Regency period, it tells the story of Arabella Ashby, a young woman of aristocratic family and soon-to-be-marriageable age, who is raised on the colony of Mars and then abruptly whisked back to London society when her mother begins to fear she’s becoming too unladylike to find a suitable husband.

Of course, “unladylike” is just another word for “interesting”, so I liked Arabella immediately and began cheering for her to escape.

I’ll tell you what happens to Arabella and more about her fascinating world after the jump.

Arabella was raised on a British colonial plantation on Mars and tutored by a Martian nanny in the wisdom and ways of the indigenous culture — and also in survival, self-defense, practical clothing, and critical thinking. It’s hard to go from outdoor tomboy shenanigans to long afternoons of needlework and the vapid veneer of aristocratic drawing rooms.

Dismally dispirited, Arabella soon becomes aware of a brazen plot against her family on Mars, so she runs away to thwart it. At the tender age of 16, she impersonates a young lad to sign up as a laborer on a steampunk starship, which looks a lot like a wooden clipper ship with hot air balloons.


Levine excels at building worlds and exploring technologies using vividly descriptive prose that makes it easy to picture in your mind. He also strives to stay true to real life history and physics, with a teensy twist or two. In Arabella’s world, Isaac Newton once discovered the principals of interplanetary space travel while pondering bubbles rising from his bath, and now ships made from a special Martian wood sail on interplanetary currents of air. (Though Arabella was halfway to Mars before I realized she was breathing in space. I found it easy to just go with the flow, so to speak, in this intriguing universe.) There is a steep and scary learning curve for Arabella as she becomes immediately swept up in the rigors of being an airman and surviving the innumerable, potentially lethal threats you’d expect on a long sea voyage, exponentially exacerbated by the fact that it’s space travel.

Les Edwards’s interpretation of
Bradbury’s brilliant prose
(Momentary digression: Though the stories are very different, the vision of ships sailing to Mars struck a nostalgic chord for me. It brought to mind a vision that Ray Bradbury seared deeply into my brain in high school, from The Martian Chronicles, of blue-sailed sand ships gliding across the shifting Martian sands, “turning as lightly as moon thistles”. So Mars and sailing ships were a natural combination for me.)

Arabella is a spunky, no-nonsense gal who adapts to her environments quickly and figures out how things work and how to fit in. She has many opportunities to tap into her extensive education, acquire new skills, and discover her deeply heroic nature. She’s a quick learner, so before long the enigmatic ship’s captain Singh is providing private lessons on navigational calculations and taking her (the lad) into his confidence. Which begins to complicate her plans and make her gender deception increasingly uncomfortable.

Arabella also has a knack for understanding the intricate mechanical automata that inhabit her world. She grew up tinkering with her dad’s eclectic collection, under his supervision and tutelage, and this skill of course proves invaluable to the story.

One of my favorite characters in this book was the ship’s navigational automaton, Aadim. He’s like the less neurotic ancestor of the onboard computer Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Different cool space-travel technologies,
same blurring of lines between natural and artificial intelligence

Back on Mars, the dark side of British colonialism is bubbling over with a vengeance, and Arabella must use all her wits and youthful training to try to save herself and those she loves, possibly even the entire colony, plus set the stage for the next book in the series. But she’s one of those kickass heroines that the Wenches love, and I love the way she rises to every challenge!

Levine loves getting into character
for book readings
Levine has written quite a few short stories in the science-fiction genre (including Damage and the anthology Space Magic), and one called Tk'Tk'Tk won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 2006, but this is the first full-length novel he has published. Having mastered inventive explorations of gadgetry and artificial intelligence, I thought it was a real treat that he added a full cast of engaging characters and expanded the scope of his storytelling enough to fill a book series. And he really gets into his books: before writing Arabella, he lived for awhile in a simulated Mars base, which he describes as “a big tube in the middle of the Utah desert with five people I’d never met”. Sounds like a man truly passionate about exploring brave new worlds!

I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the feisty Arabella. (Plus a few other characters, but that’s all I’ll say because spoilers!) And tagging along on a rollicking romp across space to visit a disturbing version of Mars in an alternate universe teeming with an infinite array of possibilities. Levine has promised more books in the Adventures of Arabella Ashby series, and here’s what he has in mind:

Book two has the working title of Arabella and the Battle of Venus. Just as Arabella had to travel from Earth to Mars to save a member of her family, now she has to travel from Mars to Venus. {snip} I like to say that book one takes place on Mars and is where Arabella becomes a man — by which I mean a person with agency. Book two takes place mostly on Venus and is where Arabella learns to become a woman, by which I mean a person with empathy who can work with other people. Book three takes place largely on Earth, and this is where Arabella learns to become a leader. Source

I’m smitten with Arabella’s smart and sassy sense of adventure, intrigued by her story arc, and can’t wait to see what Levine envisions for Venus, so I’m most definitely looking forward to the rest of the series! And if you are a fan of science fiction, historical adventure with a bit of steampunk, or just good old-fashioned storytelling about new-fangled worlds, you might like to meet Arabella, too!


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