Arabella and the Battle of Venus is a direct sequel to last year’s Arabella of Mars. In Arabella of Mars, David D. Levine introduced us to the character of Arabella Ashby, a young English gentlewoman from the early 19th century. Arabella’s 19th century is very different to our own. Here airships sail between the planets of the solar system—for space has breathable air—and both Mars and Venus are lifebearing worlds with their own indigenous native intelligent species. In this setting, Napoleon Bonaparte and his post-revolutionary France are engaged in war with the English on Earth and in space.
Arabella comes from Mars, where society resembles terrestrial India: the Honourable Mars Company rules vast swathes of territory taken from native potentates while engaged in constant low-grade conflict with the remaining Martian leaders, while indigenous Martians are second-class citizens at best. In the course of Arabella of Mars, she disguised herself as a boy and enlisted on the Company airship Diana to get herself back to Earth from Mars. When her imposture was discovered, she ended up falling in love with Diana‘s captain, Prakash Singh, an Indian. They eventually became affianced. (His ethnicity and colour were marked out for particular comment.)
Arabella of Mars had the virtue of novelty, but it plays in a very colonial sandbox, and its meagre attempts to subvert the colonial and imperial assumptions of its setting frequently resulted in reinforcing them, instead. From my point of view, it didn’t help at all that the novel fell prey to Smurfette Syndrome, and the constant characterisation of Arabella as Not Like Other Girls at all. I had hopes that these were the hiccups of a debut novel, and that future novels would move away from the sexism and imperial chauvinism that undercut the fun adventure story in Arabella of Mars—but unfortunately, Arabella and the Battle of Venus doubles down on the objectionable elements, while removing many of the fun adventure bits that made Arabella of Mars appealing despite its flaws.
Arabella and the Battle of Venus begins with Arabella receiving a letter informing her that her fiancé has been interned by Napoleon’s forces on Venus. Arabella immediately sets out to try to rescue him, although this time she hires a privateer, the rakish Captain Fox, and is compelled by her brother to take a chaperone in the form of the middle-aged and very proper Lady Corey. Problems beset their voyage to Venus, including but not limited to issues of navigation—Arabella and Captain Fox engage in mild flirtation and a slightly racy wager—and upon their arrival, they’re captured by the French. Arabella pretends that she is already married to Captain Singh and gets herself and all her companions transferred to the brutal prison camp/plantation town where the crew of the Diana are essentially being worked to death.
Here Captain Singh proves remarkably intransigent about the idea of escape—he’s against it—and so Arabella experiences the daily grind of polite internment for a gentlewoman. At least, until she learns that Napoleon is building a secret weapon—and figures out the Singh has been hiding things from her. Turns out, Captain Singh’s an intelligence agent, and his refusal to contemplate escape is because he wants to find out more about the weapon, first. Things come together in an explosive finale, with daring escapes and action among fleets of the air.
If that was all there was to Arabella and the Battle of Venus, it’d be a decent enough book. A little shaky when it comes to pacing, and with Arabella once again proving an annoying singular young woman—she doesn’t seem to get on with other women, although there are very few of them in the narrative at all for her to get along with—but a decent enough adventure story. But, alas, many charming asides and pieces of conversation and worldbuilding conspire to thoroughly alienate me: for example, Lady Corey lectures Arabella on the unsuitability of her fiancé, thanks to his ethnicity and his colour, and how neither she nor he nor their children will fit in polite society.
Moreover, if Mars is characterised as like 19th century India—though the narrative takes the view of the 19th century colonisers—Venus is depicted in ways not all that unlike portrayals of 19th century equatorial Africa. Other than Arabella and one of her crewmates, the black ex-slave and ex-slaver Mills, none of the novel’s characters treat the Venusians as even marginally worthy of comment, except to dismiss them as incompetent, greedy, selfish, cowardly, collaborators with Napoleon. While the narrative does endeavour to treat them more generously than most of the book’s characters, it generally fails: it barely allows them to speak, and hardly ever in their own words.
As a result, Arabella and the Battle of Venus leaves me feeling rather bombarded by the way it foregrounds its particular racisms without ever really showing the world from marginalised people’s points of view. For some people, this won’t be a barrier to their enjoyment of the novel. For me, it took all the joy out of reading about airships in space. As far as I’m concerned, Robyn Bennis’ The Guns Above does airships, capers, and 19th-century-esque warfare much better.
Arabella and the Battle of Venus is available from Tor Books.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign