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.

A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine

Arkady Martine has written another excellent book. A Desolation Called Peace branches out from the space covered in A Memory Called Empire, and while I know there’s more that could be squeezed from the first book’s subject matter I think this evolution serves the story (and the reader) well. And don’t worry, Martine doesn’t abandon anything she built before. Instead, she calls forward elements which had been waiting in the wings; it’s more of a shift of focus than a dismissal of the old.

Specifically, where the first book asked “what does it mean to be human, or a person? Who draws the line, and where?” as a running background theme, this book puts that front and center. And I love that. Those questions are important at any time, but they’re integral elements of a totalizing imperial worldview, and as such they’re critical to this story and setting. Honestly, those questions are part of what I love about science fiction in general, and they’re a big part of what I love about this series in particular.

Now, this book felt a little slower to me, more gradual or less heart-in-throat until nearer to the end. But it’s no less fraught. In many ways, the excruciatingly complicated fusion of the personal and political feels more poignant here, even as the book and that fusion explore new themes. And yes, Martine is still good at digging into the ways hegemony wraps itself around everything, strangling like a ligature until conformity (or death) is achieved.

Now, about this book feeling slower… I wasn’t sucked in head first the same way that I was for the first book, not until further into the book than last time. I’ve had a hard time telling how much of that comes from different reading circumstances, like changes in the time I set aside for reading, versus how much comes from differences between the two books. Either way, I’m pretty sure it took me much longer to read A Desolation Called Peace than it took me to read A Memory Called Empire

But the magic that Martine conjures in the first book is still present. A Desolation Called Peace is still full of heartfelt complicatedness, and confusing wants and desires and struggles, and its *really good*. The conflicts brought to the surface here are wonderful. I like seeing them on the page. I haven’t seen them in other books any time recently, and it feels really good to see Martine explore the ways in which hegemony and empire worm their fingers into everything, no matter how intimate or pedestrian.

Unlike with some other series (e.g. Becky Chambers’ books), order matters here; you should absolutely read A Memory Called Empire before you read this one. If the first book wasn’t to your liking, I’m afraid this one probably won’t be either. But if you’re not a light reader, and if you want good intrigue, ethical dilemmas, questions of humanity, interestingly alien aliens, and the baggage of empire… this is your deal.

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

Arkady Martine absolutely knocks this one out of the park. 

A Memory Called Empire is a lot of things, but at its heart is a bittersweet tension of love, admiration, and despair for a culture and civilization which will destroy one’s own. It’s about being caught on the outside, stuck as an outsider despite so much work done to fit in. And it’s a thriller about loyalty and betrayal, both expected and not, from without and within.

It’s an excellent book, as I said when I mentioned it a couple weeks ago.

I’ve struggled to write anything more here, and thrown out a few hundred words that might spoil the book for you. Exploring what Arkady Martine does so well without giving away her story is… challenging for me.

She’s managed to write a compelling culture, one in which I can see traces of several historical imperial courts and practices, and held it up for us the readers as a deep and multi-layered thing tantalizingly out of reach of our own comprehension. The fraught weight of meaning is present and palpable, but just enough is lost in translation for us to experience it mostly as our narrator does, unable to be a full part of it as anything but barbarians.

Speaking as someone who studied linguistics, and specialized in the production of ideology and ideological identity through political speech, this book is a delight. Speaking as someone who loves studying political science, international relations, history, and the rise, fall, and gradual mutations of empire, this book is marvelous. And as someone who deeply appreciates heartfelt stories juxtaposed with intrigue and danger—wow.

I’m trying not to ruin anything for you. Please just go ahead and read the book. It’s really good.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

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From the end of my reading-log entry for this book: “How the fuck does he do it? Read it again, write in the margins. Buy your own copy.”

What can I possibly say about Seth Dickinson‘s The Traitor Baru Cormorant?

I fear my words will scare you away. This book is painful, heartfelt, and beautiful. I cannot convey the magnitude by which this book surpasses others I’ve read. You’re missing out if you do not read this. Take care of yourself when you do.

I nearly finished it on a rainy day last spring. A twinge of self-preservation made me put down the book with several chapters remaining; I somehow knew to finish it when the sun was shining and I could take time for myself.

I was right. Finishing it, I cried as the book continued to do what it had always done: grab my heart and then methodically twist it into pieces, leaving just enough for hope.

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The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex

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This book is a quiet piece of genius. It’s hilarious, and far deeper than I had expected it to be. And somehow it delivers on its premise without beating you over the head, even as it makes its commentary abundantly obvious to anyone who’s willing to pay attention. I think I’d be hard pressed to find a middle grade adventure novel that I liked more.

I wouldn’t say it’s the best, because I don’t like committing myself to statements like that, but you’d damn well better do yourself the favor of reading this book.

Going back to Lloyd Alexander

I’d forgotten just how much I enjoyed Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three and the rest of the Prydain series when I was younger.  I think I also missed a lot of the gendered subtexts (many of which are pretty overt) when I was reading Alexander’s work the first time through.  Or rather, I didn’t pay much attention to them even though they were right up in my face.  Rereading Lloyd Alexander has been a bit strange.

I’m afraid I don’t have anything more deep for you.  I have to go back to work, reading more Lloyd Alexander and Colonial and Post-Colonial theory, and writing about both of them (though not at the same time).

Though actually, on that note, there’s an excellent quote for you from Chidi Okonkwo’s piece “Casualties of Freedom” that sums up 20th century foreign policy pretty well:

“The role of the West in Third World poverty and instability has been that of pirates who, having plundered and sunk a merchant ship take up positions along the shore and shoot any survivors trying to swim to safety.”