Arabella and the Battle of Venus, by David D. Levine

I really enjoyed the first book in this series, Arabella of Mars, and I’m glad to say that Arabella and the Battle of Venus lived up to all my expectations and then some. David D. Levine has crafted another excellent adventure story in his science fiction alternate history setting. If you like Regency-era drama, Age of Sail adventure, and historical science fiction, these books will (heh, it’s funny if you’ve read the books) float your boat.

If you took my advice and read and enjoyed the first book (yes, I advise you to enjoy the book), I think you’ve got a safe bet with this one. Arabella and the Battle for Venus is a solid sequel. Reading it was a delight, though I did squirm a little bit (more on that in a moment). It offers another excellent adventure while cleaving to the genres of the first book, and reminds me of the enjoyment I found reading Hornblower books in sixth grade but with altogether more depth… and the promise of additional depth to come.

Now, mild thematic and book jacket-level spoilers.

There is a little more weight lent to the romantic subplot this time around, as one might expect from a story about a young woman racing across a war zone to free her fiancé from a POW camp. I hadn’t expected there to be any other romantic complications, though I should have, and those stressed me out a bit! They’re what made me squirm, maybe for the same reasons rom coms do. I’m still not sure I fully understand that part of myself. But—despite my squirming—I think the book and characters are probably better off for those complications. They help to grow Arabella emotionally from where she started in the first book, and I appreciate that.

I’m going to take a tangent here, weaving back through the first book. I’ll eventually return to this book, and my tangent will have some vague thematic spoilers without hitting any concrete plot points.

My biggest concern with the first book was that it wasn’t clear to me whether Arabella—the character or the books in general—would more clearly confront the colonialism and racism of the setting over the course of the series. The first book had some confrontations with these ”isms,” in fairly constrained contexts, but our point of view character Arabella did not seem fully aware of their pervasiveness or their larger ramifications. Nor did she seem cognizant of the implications of her own life on Mars as an Englishwoman living among Martians.

In short, the Arabella of the first book was convincingly blind to problems that her privilege didn’t require her to face. Honestly, that felt very real. I think it was an understandable writing choice, and a solid one.

Crucially, this is not to say that Arabella was willfully blind or actively in denial. She set herself on the right side of those conflicts when they arose, opposing and loudly disagreeing with racist arguments. But it wasn’t clear whether the later books would also dig into the inherent colonialism of the setting.

So. I hoped, and I read into the titles of the two following books and the jacket blurb of this book (Battle of Venus), and I made some assumptions from my sense of the author. All of that, plus the tonal hints of the first book, encouraged me.

Having finished book two, it looks like I was right to be encouraged. I’m glad to say that Levine does continue to bring these issues to the fore. Problems and disagreements slowly and seamlessly bubble up into Arabella’s awareness through her immediate context. The positions Arabella takes and the solutions she finds all suggest that Levine is continuing this thread of growing Arabella’s awareness of the injustices around her, and that these things will all come to a head soon.

Now, Arabella doesn’t feel especially radical from a modern perspective. Arabella’s positions and opinions—as they’ve developed so far—don’t feel revolutionary. Except… they kind of are.

Context matters!

Arabella has a keenly felt sense of justice. She has a disregard for her society’s gender norms that is heartening to a modern reader and would probably place her at the forefront of the women’s suffrage movement in her time, which was (contextually) a pretty damn radical place to be. Her opposition to racism and racist arguments is similarly steadfast, and admirably radical for the time. And that opposition extends to the casual anti-Martian & anti-Venusian racism she encounters, which I think is present to set up for her bigger and more overt confrontation with colonialism in the third book—though that’s merely genre-savvy speculation, since I haven’t read book three yet.

Basically, it looks like Levine has planned all this from the outset, just as I’d hoped. He pulled apart Arabella’s various stages of personal growth and burgeoning awareness into three books, allowing her emotional and political arc to develop across multiple perfectly solid adventure stories. If he’d tried to write this personal arc all in one go, the book would have felt congested and emotionally tumultuous—Arabella’s growth would have felt implausibly rushed and unreal. Instead, because Levine paid attention to spacing this arc out across narrative time and separate books we’re able to enjoy Arabella’s personal growth without ever choking on it.

This is another good example of the dynamic I mentioned in my reflections on Murderbot.

Given all that, I suspect that Levine will stick the landing in book three. I’ll let you know once I’ve finished it.

Okay, that’s enough for now. Like I said at the start, I’m really enjoying these books. Unless those genres I mentioned above sound like torture to you, I suspect you’ll enjoy these books too. Try them out!

Wait, one last thing. Based on his Author’s Note, David Levine finished this book while losing his wife to cancer. Finishing a book is hard enough in good times. I can only imagine that doing so (and doing it well) while experiencing that loss must be tremendously painful and difficult. David, if you read this, thank you for this story. And thank you for persevering to share it with us. May Kate Yule’s memory be a blessing and a comfort for you.

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Arabella of Mars, by David D Levine

David D. Levine’s Arabella of Mars is an excellent Age of Sail sci-fi adventure story replete with the drama of Regency-era social expectations.  It has all the requisite ingredients: imperiled family in need of aid, dangerous shipboard voyages (between planets!), subdued romance, personal rebellion, social maneuvering, and a little bit of marriage. I inhaled this book.

I read perhaps a couple pages on Thursday last week and then spent almost all of Friday devouring the rest of the story. I very wisely did not take the book to bed with me on Thursday night, for which I’m glad. I probably wouldn’t have slept much if I had. As it was, I requested the next two books as soon as I finished on Friday afternoon.

This is the kind of story that I love… and having finished it, I have some concerns. I’ll focus on the things I loved first. Just know that (depending on the course of the next two books in this series) I might have to refile this from “delicious new candy” to “problematic fave“ on account of colonialism.

Also, there are a few things that I’ll cover here which might constitute very mild spoilers. I doubt any of them would surprise someone who’s already familiar with the genres involved, but if you want to avoid spoilers entirely I recommend you skip ahead to the last paragraph.

So. First off, I love the setting.

In the late 1600s, Captain Kidd sailed to Mars. There he explored, met and befriended the bug-like locals, and ultimately sailed back home. There are now human colonies elsewhere in the solar system (including on Mars), and ships which regularly make the voyage from planet to planet across the great rivers of air in between. Clockwork exists and automata are an advanced art, and coal gases are used in great quantities to fill the lift envelopes of airships until they’ve crossed “the falling line”—the elevation high enough for a ship to sail out of a planet’s orbit. 

A quibble: I’ve seen this book called steampunk, and I don’t agree. Not yet at least. There are genre similarities, but this story is deeply rooted in the British Regency-era of the Age of Sail. Heck, it’s all set in 1812 or 1813, and the Napoleonic wars are still underway. While certain setting elements overlap with steampunk (clockwork and automata, airships, alternative versions of space) the story has more similarity to Novik’s Temeraire books and other Age of Sail adventures (e.g. C.S. Forester’s Hornblower, or O’Brian’s many naval novels). What’s more, there’s no concern with industrialization or the pressures thereof. So while there’s a little steampunk-ish set dressing, and I can understand using that as a marketing term in 2016 when this book was published, I don’t think it’s accurate.

Back to the setting! Despite the alternate history, social expectations have remained much the same. British Regency Era gender and class conventions are still potent forces, shaping our protagonist Arabella’s world(s). Her taste of something different, what with being raised on Mars by a Martian nanny with very different ideas of gender and class roles, is tantalizing. Levine establishes all of this with admirable efficacy in his quick prologue, setting the stage for the rest of the story and all the conventions that will stymie Arabella in her quest to aid her family.

Actually, I admire Levine’s writing here in general. He’s adopted a markedly period voice, straitlaced and constrained in a way that emphasizes the social restrictions and expectations without sacrificing the feel of personal insight into Arabella’s world. He’s skillful, and it shows. Even when things are predictable (in good, genre-confirming ways) they don’t feel forced.

And, maybe because of all that, this book has lots of fun (mostly quiet) social commentary going for it. Arabella’s struggles and observations around gender and class feel fitting to the genre, and give us a window into Arabella’s growth of her own perspective on what is right, proper, and moral, departing from the ”received perspective” she starts the story with. I really enjoy that growth, and it feels good to see it take place.

But I can’t mention that growth without discussing those concerns I mentioned above.

Stories in the Regency Era, and especially any kind of story involving the creation of colonies in a place with intelligent locals, will unavoidably engage with colonialism. I don’t think it’s possible to avoid in this kind of story, and pretending colonialism (and its problems) doesn’t exist is usually just a way to be an apologist for it. Fortunately, that isn’t the approach this story takes.

Okay, more implicit spoilers ahead, though they should remain pretty general.

For all that Arabella of Mars doesn’t ignore colonialism per se, it also doesn’t address it directly. Partly, I think that’s due to the narrator’s proximity to Arabella’s own perspective; there’s a lot that Arabella hasn’t examined deeply about the social order and her role in it, never mind the ways in which humans and Martians interact. There are, however, many overt hints that Arabella disagrees with or isn’t aligned with the common colonialist assumptions of her society.

This comes out in the little details: Arabella notices the ways in which English depictions of Martians are wrong, and they irk her; Arabella corrects others a number of times, and signals dissatisfaction with their racist and colonialist assumptions; and she is unwilling to embrace the racist and colonialist arguments of others even when they’re not focused on Mars and Martians. As I said, all the little hints are there.

Actually, reflecting on those little details, I wonder whether some of my enjoyment of this story is tied to similarities with how my mother spoke of her childhood in Uganda and the US.

Back to this book, Arabella’s rejection of English colonialism, or her opposition to it, isn’t fully articulated in the way that I think the setting (and the story thus far) calls for. Her own estimations of her fellow landed English gentry start mostly neutral and grow more negative. And she clearly feels more attuned to the social conventions of Martians (or even the crew she serves with) than to the conventions of her peers. But while she appears to judge the existing system as lacking and feels estranged from it, she’s still a part of it and hasn’t articulated a different position.

About par for the course in book one of a series, really. This is part of my reason for both liking the book and trying to reserve judgment.

Anyway. The story thus far feels poised to dive deeper into this struggle with colonialism. And so far, it feels like it’s aware of that. That’s all well and good. But it hasn’t (yet) made that confrontation its focus. If it doesn’t dive into that confrontation with colonialism, or at least face it along its narrative path, I’ll have to revise my opinion of the story.

So.

If you were avoiding reading the spoiler-ish above material, rest assured this is the *END OF SPOILERS*.

I like the book. I like it a lot, and absolutely recommend it to anyone who likes Age of Sail adventure with a splash of Regency drama and a hint of Jules Verne. If you want alternate history science fiction on interplanetary sailing ships, this is your best bet. And if you know a younger reader looking for these sorts of things, this is accessibly YA-ish to boot.

League of Dragons, by Naomi Novik

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I’m surprised to find that I’ve only reviewed one other book in this series in any depth.

 

As that review mentions, I’m definitely a fan of the Temeraire series. But more to the point, I think that League of Dragons is an excellent finish to this series. Better than many of the preceding books, which is difficult. Better than some of the really good preceding books, which is even harder.

In many ways, this book shows Novik doing exactly the opposite of what Stirling so loves; she somehow manages to cut out all the slow bits of the novel while keeping all the pieces that are important to the story. But that’s wrong, because it’s not like this is a non-stop action adventure. This takes plenty of time to devote itself to social intricacies, diplomatic considerations and the like… but Novik knows what matters, and she takes out everything else. She has a narrow focus on the heart of this story, and she has honed it until it delivers exactly that. Yes, there’s a little extra around the edges, but only enough fat to let you enjoy the flavor without overpowering the piece itself.

I want to stress, from personal experience, just how hard it is to do that. I can only imagine how much material must lie on the cutting room floor. There have to be scenes, long and involved scenes, which simply didn’t end up necessary to telling this story in the best way. The clarity and relative brevity of this story speak volumes about the discipline shown by Novik (and presumably her editor) in making this book, and I think I’ll return to this book to appreciate this for some time to come.

Funny. I’ve hit this point in the review, the one where I could start delving into further intricacies to tell you about particular bits of goodness, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s enough that this is a good series about dragons. That it is also a story about a British man in the early 1800’s who learns that, maybe, more people are people than he had realized is (exceptionally good) gravy. The fact that it somehow encompasses adventure and social intrigue and feels like period fiction in the best possible way only makes it better.

If you haven’t read the series yet, you have a great deal to look forward to. Except that book about Australia, which is unfortunately rather sluggish but let’s not talk about that. Go ahead and enjoy.

Curse of the Blue Tattoo, by L. A. Meyer

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Yup! This one is pretty good too!

It’s almost a different genre though. Where the first book (*very mild genre spoilers*) was largely historical fiction and adventure, with a dash of romance towards the end, this one is more of a school social drama (still historical fiction), complicated by romance and a dash of adventure (*end spoilers*).

I’d say it’s still worth reading, but if you were only here for the sailing ships I’m afraid you’ll be rather disappointed. On the other hand, there were a few ships on the side as set dressing and I’m sure there will be more ships in the next book. And, of course, it’s still tremendous fun.

However! I should note that there’s some sexual harassment featured in this one, more so than in the last. The first book had a little, which ultimately ends rather poorly for the abuser (thank goodness). This one has more, at lower intensity for the vast majority, in other situations. I don’t think it’s been too much so far, but I’m not sure that I like this as a pattern.

On the one hand, sure, it makes sense to include some of this. I’m more willing to accept it in part because it doesn’t overshadow Jacky in any way, and her reactions to it feel quite real. It makes it clear how uncomfortable and unwanted that behavior is, and how confusing and difficult it can be to react to receiving it. If nothing else, it might be a decent learning experience for young not-female readers, where they can come away from it thinking “oh, that’s fucked up, we shouldn’t do things like that.” But on the other hand, I don’t want to keep reading about sexual harassment and assault in every Jacky Faber book. If that is an underlying theme of the series… well, I’d really rather that it weren’t.

This hasn’t been a terrible sticking point for me so far. But it might become one, and it may already be one for you. Forewarned is forearmed, etc.

And again, I still like this one and I’m planning to read the next book damn soon. So it obviously hasn’t stopped me yet.

Bloody Jack, by L. A. Meyer

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Publisher’s Weekly certainly isn’t wrong. I’ll warn you though, some of the other covers for this series are bizarrely out of keeping with the text and themes. I’m talking about you, weirdly sexualized romance-cover blond girl.

Fortunately, reading this book doesn’t involve long hours of staring at its cover! It’s a fast read, and is excellent historical naval adventure fiction with a female protagonist. I’m not certain what to think of Jack’s characterization at a few points (Jack gets a period, feels emotional, I don’t know whether to say that it’s well or poorly done), but goodness the rest of the book is fun.

Fun. Yes. That’s a good word for this book. It’s wonderfully fun late middle grade / early YA adventure fiction, with just enough in the way of messy emotions near the end to leave it straddling the two camps while still feeling very much like a middle grade adventure story. It puts me in the mood to write more Miska, and also to read the rest of this series. It’s good stuff. I recommend it.

Writing Exercise: Experimental Miska Piece

In the course of writing an exercise piece for class, I ended up writing what might work as a short scene for my Miska story.  It’s a bit odd, given that I changed narration style, but the core conflict feels right.  I hope you enjoy it!

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Story Snippet: The Sequel to Rum Luck, pt 1

Today I have the beginning to a sequel for you, a continuation of the story I started in Rum Luck (rough draft of that story can be found here).  If you like Andre and Jerome, you’re in for a treat.  It does end rather abruptly, but there’ll probably be more soon.  Read on, and enjoy!

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Flash Fiction: Her Maritime Scowl

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This is a bit late, but this week’s (last week’s?) flash fiction from Terribleminds involved using a randomly generated phrase.  I got “maritime scowl.”  This is what followed…

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By Heresies Distressed, by David Weber

There’s an obvious joke or three to make here about being distressed by David Weber, but he doesn’t really deserve them.  The fact is, I continue to like his Safehold series, even if it is pretty predictable at this point.  Like I mentioned last time, Weber is serving up a recipe that is tried and true, and despite being well known and familiar it still tastes pretty good.

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By Schism Rent Asunder, by David Weber

In By Schism Rent Asunder, Weber continues the Safehold series that he started with Off Armageddon Reef.  He returns to his burgeoning Age of Sail adventure that pits a lovable and clearly heroic pseudo-England against a corrupt and controlling Mother Church, in what will soon become a holy war.  This recipe has been tried before, and it turns out that it tastes just fine.

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