Arabella of Mars, by David D. Levine

Review copy provided by Tor Books

David is one of those lovely people on the border of friend and acquaintance. He is certainly the close friend of several of my close friends. I wanted to make sure to get this book read and reviewed when it was coming out, even though it arrived at an inconvenient time, because I like David personally and want to see him do well, and he’s gone through some incredibly hard stuff the last few years.

Sometimes that kind of personal disclaimer does not fit the review that follows. I fear this is one of those times.

Look, the prose and the adventure plot flow smoothly in Arabella of Mars. It is well-written in that sense. It is a Regency adventure if Mars was part of the Regency-era British empire, if clockworks and odd gases and a crablike Martian race were part of the world in which the British were fighting Boney. The adventure plot is primary–the stuff about automata and Martians sort of is background–but if that’s what you want it does that thing, and there is clearly more, it’s clearly the beginning of a series.

But it is yet another plot where the plucky heroine is being distinguished from other girls because she does not like girl stuff. This doesn’t end up looking like “be yourself, society and its gender norms are stifling” if you never have plots in which plucky boys are distinguished from other boys by not liking boy stuff. If you don’t have any other human females who are interesting people and do happen to like “girl stuff.” (In the entire book. Ever. There is one other female character who does more than scream, faint, or act annoying, and it’s another species–who gets very, very little page time.) If “girl stuff” is always and forever the same. It just ends up looking like girls and our stuff suck. Which is bad enough when it’s a woman writer who may have been smooshed by social expectations, letting her frustrations out on the page. When it’s a male writer? Sorry, but I just feel like I’ve been thrown under the bus. Or maybe I’m plucky and not like other girls because I like science and science fiction? Yeah, thanks, but don’t do me any favors–I count as a girl.

This gets worse with a passage in which Arabella decides not to fight “like a girl” but rather to fight “to win.” Despite having had a female Martian warrior as her main role model–making this kind of internalized sexism pretty odd–she associates women fighting with ineffectual scratching and hair-pulling. Not with, oh, say, fending off your rapist desperately and succeeding. So much fail. And–if this is meant to be Arabella’s internal viewpoint, if this is meant to be a devastating portrait of internalized sexism, then having any women characters at all besides Arabella herself who are effectual and interesting might be nice. Instead, no. So…yet another lesson in “being like a woman is being ineffectual, you need to be like a man to be effective and worthwhile” from Arabella of Mars. Good to know, thanks.

And it gets worse again when one her most dramatic acts of heroism is praised explicitly as being really great for a girl. This would be good for a man, but gosh, it’s really great for a girl. And again, that’s definitely something someone from a sexist culture would think. But it’s not challenged, it’s not undermined, it’s just there: yep. Arabella, really great–for a girl, I guess.

Do I seem angry? I am angry. I am angry, because I expected better. Because I am so tired of books that are fun romps being fun romps on my face in hobnailed boots.

I want David to do well. I want him to sell future books. But I want him to sell future books in which he doesn’t do this stuff over again. In which he can play with swashbuckling and clockworks and atmosphere between the planets and not have the same tired depictions of misogyny to do it. If it had been someone else, I probably would have quit reading at the halfway point, where she didn’t fight like a girl, she fought to win. But because it was David, I thought, oh, surely he’s going to flip all this on its head. Surely Arabella is going to run into some other human women who are not shrieking, sniveling incompetents. One? One other human woman? Surely the nauseating levels of internalized misogyny are not going to be consistent throughout. Surely someone who was raised by Martians will not be surprised when a Martian warrior is a woman–how completely implausible in context was that.

Be less sure than I was, friends. If you’re waiting for that, wait for the sequel. Because I still believe David Levine can do better than he did here. But if you’re going to try it….

Please consider using our link to buy Arabella of Mars from Amazon.

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