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Book Reports: Arabella of Mars, Steeplejack, Behind the Throne

Your Humble Blogger hasn’t done a Book Report in far too long, it seems. I’m gonna jam three of them into this note, then.

Amongst the books I have recently read are Arabella of Mars, a YA steampunk bit of fun by David Levine, Steeplejack, a YA Victorian-fantasy bit of semi-seriousness by AJ Hartley, and Behind the Throne, a space opera by K.B. Wagers. All three have fighting female protagonists, and all three are in at least some measure about colonialism. It’s interesting.

Arabella really is a silly book, delightful and shallow, and the colonialism plays out straightforwardly. Our heroine (I will use the feminine) is raised on a Mars that is explicitly a British Colony, with a native aya who imparts both ancient wisdom and the skill in tracking and fighting that will obviously become important later. She is brought back to the Mother Country where she is stifled by the social rules for ladies (and the gravity) but runs away and gets passage on an interplanetary sailing ship, disguised as a cabin boy. On her return, she discovers a native rebellion; due to her extraordinary experiences and ability, she is able to resolve the issue, bring the rulers and the ruled together, and begin liberal reform. The whole thing is a liberal fantasy of the highest order. Arabella and her late father are of course liberals and loved by the natives they rule over so fairly and justly; the whole rebellion is sparked by the blundering of a greedy racist; the entire thing is resolved by the mutual affection and respect between our heroine and her native aya (coupled with the combat training the native has provided our heroine, of course). Oh, and the other colonialists, inspired by our heroine, abandon their misguided fear and hate. It is not, you understand, a very truthful book, but it is a lot of fun, and frankly it’s nice sometimes to luxuriate in a liberal fantasy.

Steeplejack is a more serious book. In a bizarre alternate-history version of South Africa, our protagonist comes from the community of Indians brought in by the white colonials to do the work. The machinations of the book pinch her into the beginnings of a native uprising that will certainly be disastrous for her community, whatever the outcome for black and white. Meanwhile there are maguffins to be chased and rooftops to be chased over, and a web of responsibilities and opportunities and magic and music and crime and all that stuff. It’s still a romp, but it’s a more fundamentally serious book than Arabella. The good people are less uniformly good; the bad more desperate than evil. While both protagonists find themselves outside the society they grew up in and unable to comfortably return, Steeplejack quite effectively (for an adventure yarn) shows how the cultures rubbing against each other force everyone into that position, the oppressors and the oppressed and the allies and bystanders as well. It’s also not quite as much sheer preposterous fun as Arabella, so there’s that as well.

Throne is not marketed as YA, and is not a pseudo-historical novel, and if I hadn’t happened to read them in near proximity I would not have thought to put them together at all. Our protagonist is—well, she ran away from home twenty years before the story begins and was not a child at that time, so let’s call her forty years old. She doesn’t seem forty to me, but she isn’t a teenager like the protagonists of the other two. She’s a princess who ran away for Plot Reasons and became a smuggler; her return to the palace is the signal for, well, more plot. She finds herself uncomfortable within the strictures of a society and position she had left behind, but as the heir to the throne she has a greater scope of autonomy to do something about it. Her home culture is a matriarchy, so she is in a position of extreme privilege. (Hm, Arabella is white, rich and British/human, but within that society she is low-status as a female; the titular Steeplejack is low-status as a woman of color, but is higher status than the natives. Each occupies a position on the Chain of Peoples that defined both by the links above and below. In Thone, the gunrunner princess has acquired low-status friends, but is herself at the pinnacle of the heirarchy. Hm.) The liberal-fantasy element is still there, as her political opponents, in addition to being murderers and incompetents and tools of foreigners, are illiberal conservatives who think that too many people have been given too many rights. Our hero, of course, sides with the radical egalitarians who are being blamed for the assassinations but who, again of course, are innocent. It doesn’t work quite as well (at least for YHB) simply because I so utterly reject the whole notion of hereditary monarchy; the gunrunner princess simply shouldn’t be in charge of anything, no matter where her sympathies lie. Still, the action is very exciting, and the book reads quickly and well.

And the point, really, is that in all three books the heroine is a Strong Female Character, not so much because she kicks ass but because she is the protagonist of an action-adventure story. Being a woman is not incidental—in none of the books could you swap the lead’s gender without screwing up the whole story—but neither are they books for or even really about girls (or women). To the extent that they are about something other than adventure, they are about colonialism and the experience of an ethnic group attempting to rule over other groups, and the experience of individuals coping with the ways they don't fit in to the ruling or ruled cultures. To the extent that it's remarkable that the protagonists are all both females and fighters, that's a remark about other books, not these.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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