Book Reviews: Martian Girls, Home and Abroad

25 Aug

Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn & Mars Girls by Mary Turzillo

Two young adult (YA) novels featuring feisty teen heroines from Mars recently landed in my to-be-read pile. Beyond the surface similarity between their protagonists, the two novels diverge completely, each with unique focus and drive, and different kinds of success.

Newly out in trade paperback from Tor, Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn is the simpler of the two, written with familiar themes (adversity-conquering intellect, exceptionalism) that recall YA science fiction adventures from ‘Golden Age’ writers like Heinlein. The plot of this stand-alone novel from Vaughn is even more broadly recognizable as a typical coming-of-age setup. A teen leaves the familiarity of home to enter an institution populated by antagonistic peers and aloof adults. The ridiculed outcast slowly proves the utility of her or his outsider perspective/experience, showing-up the cliques and saving the day.

In Martians Abroad this teen (who serves as the point-of-view protagonist) is Polly Newton, daughter of the director of the Mars Colony’s operations, and ‘twin’ sister to Charles, whose embryo was frozen later than Polly’s but was simultaneously ‘activated’ to give the siblings equivalent ages from their first viable breaths. Their mother informs the twins that she is sending them to the prestigious Galileo Academy on Earth to continue their education and secure futures beyond the possibilities offered on Mars. This surprise crushes the plans of aspiring starship pilot Polly. While Polly struggles against this forced predicament, her suave and genius brother appears to embrace them. Ostracized for the weakness of her body in Earth’s gravity and for her ignorance of Earth culture and history, homesick Polly becomes increasingly unhappy and alone, while Charles assuredly navigates the experience with emotionless acceptance and a keen perception that there is more going on at Galileo than meets the eye. Strange occurrences of near tragic accidents coupled with coincidence allow Polly to prove her courage and the practicality of Martian resourcefulness. But they also put her family’s future, and her own life, in danger.

The adolescent travails of a bright, good-hearted girl, and her transcendence of hostile peers and irresponsible/absent supervision, result in Martians Abroad never straying far from YA clichés. However, that simple familiarity makes the novel plain fun and satisfying to read, because you are there in Polly’s corner throughout, sympathizing. And for at least the majority of the novel, that enjoyment should fuel most readers.

But, the novel’s close could cause let one down. The ‘twist’ ending is fairly predictable; I figured it was coming, but was uncertain just how motivations and events could be rationally explained. Answer: They aren’t. The eventual reveal of the driving force behind key plot points comes abruptly, and strains credibility with a logic of motives that would feel at home in a Scooby Doo episode. Despite this, I was fine with rolling my eyes, ignoring it and appreciating the fun I had getting to that point with the fantastically written Polly. Honestly, if I had read this when a young adult, I wouldn’t criticize it at all.

It’s unfortunate the denouement benefits from turning off the critical brain and simply enjoying the YA thrills of Martians Abroad, because Vaughn does put some good substance into her novel. Foremost are lessons against ethnocentrism. The Terran elite of Galileo Academy view Martians with dismissal and scorn, failing to see the value of Martian culture and experience, of the necessity for a different way of existing in the hostile environment of the colony. Growing up having to deal with that hostile Martian environment gives Polly a frame of mind and tool kit for dealing with unexpected catastrophe. It also provides Vaughn with a way to put some excellent science fictional trouble-shooting into the novel. This gives the story some richness beyond ‘just another YA tale that could be set anyplace’ and helps recall the style and feel of classic SF books with updated sensibilities and a strong female protagonist.

Mars Girls by Mary Turzillo from Apex Books features greater complexity in its fast-paced YA adventure, but as a result does lack the old-fashioned flavor and ease that highlights Martians Abroad.

Like most girls her age, Nanoannie Centime craves the latest fashions and an active social life, preferably with a nice guy to get to know. Above all, she yearns for some adventure and excitement away from the safe, familiar environment of human-settled Mars. Her best friend, Kapera Smythe, has leukemia. Just before departing for Earth for treatment, unknown parties raid the Smythe Pharm and Kapera’s parents go missing. Kapera contacts Nanoannie for help, and Nanoannie quickly finds herself in more adventure than she ever imagined. With their lives in risk from corporate agents and members of a missionary sect, the girls begin to uncover the mysterious plots underlying the Smythes’ disappearance. Despite large stakes political and social, Nanoannie’s only concern is the future of her friend, and a chance to meet Kapera’s alluring brother Sekou, who Nanoannie fragmentarily knows only from Kapera’s writing and an old photo.

Written in chapters that alternate between each girls’ point-of-view and featuring overlapping instances of capture, escape, and re-capture, the plot of Mars Girls can be a bit jumbled and hard to get into at first. Turzillo does help prevent confusion by clearly separating Nanoannie and Kapera in personality and the style of their texts. Kapera’s chapters are related through the entries in her diary, ones that Nanoannie eventually also gets to read fully. Ironically, even with a diary seemingly so ‘personal’, Nanoannie is the character that readers get to know deeper and the novel does feel dominated by her lens.

As with Vaughn’s novel, Mars Girls deals with adolescent angst, coming-of-age against the wishes of authority, and making difficult discoveries about reality without adult guidance being available. Turzillo puts other well-developed layers into her novel, starting with a healthy dose of science relevant to the story, as well as slang that adds to the believable voice of the tween/teenage SF characters.

Most notably, Turzillo creates a range of interesting religious faiths for the settlers of her Mars. I won’t go much into them here, because she was kind enough recently to write about what she developed, and why, in a  Skiffy & Fanty guest post. But for those that haven’t seen that yet, I will tease that these nice touches to the novel include a hybrid Jesuit-Mormon faith and the Facers, who as Turzillo puts it: “wear a ‘face-bindi’ bioactive replica of the Face on Mars, which changes expression capriciously.”

YA SF featuring Mars and great heroines seem to be a recurring theme suddenly. I’ve only just gotten around to reading Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine, and am about to start its sequel for review here soon. Despite that small bit of overlap in elements, I’ve enjoyed the uniqueness of each of these novels. A part of me wishes that a single work combined all of the best parts of each into one perfect whole, without any flaws. But that would then lose the unique voice and feel, purpose, that each has. You may like parts of them all, or maybe go for one in particular. Either way, having options of multiple fresh YA female-centered voices in such a classic SF setting as Mars is a great thing.

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