While I knew, even as I read it, that it was hardly high literature, I adored 'Arabella of Mars' (click here for the review) and eagerly looked forward to a sequel. Well, here that sequel is, and it's just as much fun in all the same ways.
As with its eminent predecessor, it's an intriguing mash-up of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Rafael Sabatini, with all the fantastic adventure that those names might suggest. While ERB's best known science fantasy series was the John Carter novels, which were set on Mars, he also wrote the Carson Napier books, set on Venus, and, as the title of this book suggests, that's where we spend much of our time in this book.
As we begin, Arabella Ashby is happy on her home planet of Mars in the year of 1815, the only reason that she's not blissful being the continued absence of her fiancé, Prakash Singh, captain of the Diana, a ship of the Honorable Mars Company. He's long overdue but Arabella finally receives two snippets of old news at once that both explain why and shape the rest of the story.
The first is that Napoleon Bonaparte, the Great Ogre, has escaped his imprisonment on the Moon and fled to Venus. The second is that Captain Singh and the Diana have been captured by French forces, with the ship impounded and its officers and men held as prisoners of war. Arabella promptly visits Sir Northcote Parkinson, the Governor-General of Fort Augusta, to see what can and will be done, only to discover that what can and will be done is not a heck of a lot because the nations of England and France aren't actually at war and because Napoleon isn't actually the Emperor of France anymore because he was deposed last time around. War can only be fought between nations and pronounced by kings, so this whole mess is an anomaly that can't be easily straightened out.
All of which means, of course, that Arabella promptly charters a ship to take her to Venus to rescue her fiancé and stir up the whole hornet's nest in the process. It's a clever set-up indeed to put us into motion, but things settle down rather quickly for the long voyage. I enjoyed it, but it did feel like Levine was trying just a bit harder than was necessary to generate adventure on the way. The journey from Earth to Mars that took up the majority of the first book was much better grounded, if that's an appropriate word to use, and the action and adventure that occurred had better reasons to do so.
Here, it only takes half the book and its action serves mostly as background to the development of a few characters. We underline Arabella's skills with automata and navigation, while setting up a couple of key players. One is Daniel Fox, captain of the Touchstone, a privateer vessel flying under a Martian flag, who is a lot more than the bad gambler he initially appears to be. The other is Lady Corey, an eminent widow and neighbour, whom Arabella's brother Michael sics on her as an unwanted chaperone. There are good reasons to develop this pair, but we have little idea what they are during the voyage, so they're mostly a distraction from Levine's fanciful justifications as to why spaceships are just that, ships in space, sailing the currents between worlds.
Of course, it will be no surprise to find that we end up on Venus soon enough, with the rescue mission a quick failure and those on board the Touchstone captured and forced to work in a plantation alongside those of the Diana. This does, at least, allow Captain Singh to rejoin the fray as we begin the second half, reunited with his fiancée, whose skills with navigation did allow them to reach Venus before the brutal Fouché, the Executioner of Lyon, enroute to take over the position of Napoleon's chief gaoler.
Like the first book in the series, the bookends are very much in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs while the journey between them is in that of Rafael Sabatini. The difference here is that those bookends are a good deal larger, especially the one that comprises the entire second half, as the English prisoners fight to survive in the sweltering climate of the Marieville plantation, forced to work for their enemy.
I liked this second half much more than the first, because everything in it had good reason to be there, right down to the interesting focus on language and cultural tolerance that Arabella exhibits over her notably less-open chaperone. We don't see as much of Venus as we'd surely like, inherently given the circumstances, but I found the cultural discoveries about the froglike natives fascinating. The other fascinating cultural inclusion is 'parole', which is a gentleman's and an officer's word and bond to degrees that we might find ludicrous.
As with 'Arabella of Mars', there's little to surprise here. Levine is working very much to an established template, but he does it well. This one runs just over four hundred pages but I raced through it in only a couple of days because it's hard to put down. Even when I knew roughly what was going to happen next, which was rather often, I wanted to see it play out. Only towards the finalé, when more recognisable folk from history make their appearances (Fouché was real, but he's less well-known than certain others who show up here), do we get some surprises, because Levine mirrors history only to a degree.
I enjoyed this novel a little less than its predecessor but that's mostly because 'Arabella of Mars' was so emphatically entertaining. This suffers from the problems many first sequels suffer, most notably that a continuation is never as enticing as an introduction. However, there is growth here and I'm eager to see how Arabella Ashby fares in book three, what parts Captains Singh and Fox will play and into which wild adventure they will all no doubt be thrust. While sailing in space is fundamentally important, I'd like the next book to be even more planet-bound, perhaps exploring some of Mars and the Martian culture, but I will be seeking out book three wherever it happens to take us. ~~ Hal C F Astell