When I can hear the swell of theme music from words on a page, and happy tears jump to my eyes because the heroine is triumphant in both her quest and her wholly requited romantic inclinations, that means I’ve read a damn fine Steampunk Adventure Regency Romance Novel. Of which I think only this one may exist (along with its successors) written by David D. Levine.
The order of description I gave is no accident. Arabella of Mars has more in common with Horatio Hornblower novels and Treasure Island than Persuasion or anything Georgette Heyer. What sucked me in were the excellently researched portraits of “naval” life, allowing me to learn alongside Arabella about the imaginative addition of airships and hot air balloon sailing between planets. The book is fantasy, it requires suspension of disbelief, but the part of the tale that touches on the impossible is easy to accept as young “Ashby” learns his trade and becomes a member of the crew.
But as a lover of romances, it is the relationships Arabella has with her shipmates, her captain, and her Martian caretaker that give the book a rousing finish.
[SPOILERS BELOW – READ ON AT YOUR PERIL!]
I gave the novel only four stars on Goodreads for two reasons: The main one was that the prologue, which gave me a glimpse into Arabella’s formative past, did not instill within me a strong affinity for the characters that explicitly motivate and drive the story. Arabella’s father does not fight for her, console her, or evidence the intelligence and affinity that Arabella ascribes to their relationship. That his loss affects poor Arabella deeply didn’t resonate with me.
Similarly, the brief interactions I saw between the heroine and her soft-hearted, beloved brother were so mild that I found myself rolling my eyes when Arabella waxed on about his merits. Her desperate adventure with the sole intent of saving him from a known threat fell hollow and made the first few chapters of the book hard for me to get into.
Once I was in, however, there were plenty of extremely well-written trials, fights, and perilous privateers to hold my interest and deepen my sympathy with Arabella. The pace and the plot of the second act were incredibly enjoyable.
The last part of the book, after Arabella is discovered to be a girl, was again, more difficult for me to enjoy. Her treatment by the captain and crew was so abrupt that I fell out of the story for awhile, tempted to skim. Similarly, Arabella’s strangely generous nature with the villain rankled, though it was *so very Regency.* In that perhaps Levine accomplished what he set out to do perfectly.
The surprises and emotional resolutions in the last section aptly guided the book into the final resolution, underscoring themes about colonialism, family, culture, and above all else, honorable personal behavior in the face of anger and difficult circumstances.
I recommend this book to everyone interested in any of the genres above, whether romance is your thing, alternate history, pure adventure, or steampunk-ish fantasy. It is fun and has lots for a diverse array of readers to love.