Arabella of Mars is very much a nod in the direction of Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars – plucky teen girl crossing between Mars and Earth. It’s been a while since I read Podkayne, and I don’t know that the similarities in plot go much further. Sadly, some of those in attitude do.
Arabella is nicely written. It’s immediately engaging, and has a warm energy perfectly suited to a YA novel. Arabella herself has all the courage, determination, and intelligence you could hope for in a young heroine. The world is interestingly anachronistic – a throwback to a time when the space between the planets might have been filled with air, and when sailing ships might cross it.
The problem for me was that the gender roles were anachronistic as well – firmly stuck in that same old outlook. While the book has a steampunky, Regency feel, I think that when you’re inventing a world with such drastically different natural laws, you’re not required to keep all the same societal rules either. While Arabella fights against the strictly limited role assigned to her gender, the book ultimately falls into the same tired trap as novel of 50 years ago might have. Brave, clever Arabella falls for a much older male authority figure, and in the end relies on a man for salvation. In other word, an ending that almost completely undermines the counterculture narrative of the story. And Im not even mentioning the colonized-but-okay-about-it native Martians.
It’s a shame, because so much of the book is so well done. But the resolution of the story is one Heinlein might have written last century. I have to put it down to a very good effort, with a substantial failure in outlook.