Polly Newton has one single-minded dream, to be a starship pilot and travel the galaxy. Her mother, the director of the Mars Colony, derails Polly’s plans when she sends Polly and her genius twin brother, Charles, to Galileo Academy on Earth—the one planet Polly has no desire to visit. Ever.
Homesick and cut off from her desired future, Polly cannot seem to fit into the constraints of life on Earth, unlike Charles, who deftly maneuvers around people and sees through their behavior to their true motives. Strange, unexplained, dangerous coincidences centered on their high-profile classmates begin piling up. Charles may be right—there’s more going on than would appear, and the stakes are high. With the help of Charles, Polly is determined to find the truth, no matter the cost.
Martians Abroad is a fun space romp, but somehow feels a bit unfinished — as if this is the introduction to a new series, not (as it’s described on Goodreads) a stand-alone.
There’s also the issue that while this book is billed as science fiction, it reads very much young adult to me. The main characters, Polly and Charles, are 17 years old. Although we don’t learn their exact age until the end of the book, the story focuses on their assignment to a new school, and it’s clear that they’re about college age at the start of the story.
In fact, if you took out the sci-fi trappings, much of the story is straight-up coming of age stuff — being an outsider, figuring out where you belong, dealing with cliques, exploring one’s own path, standing up to authority. The fact that it’s set in a brave new world gives it an extra zing, but the ingredients feel very familiar.
That said, I enjoyed Polly as a character very much. She’s independent, focused, and strong, with a rebellious streak and a core of integrity that sees her through the challenges that spring up in her path.
The best part of Martians Abroad, for me, was getting to see Earth through the eyes of someone experiencing it all for the first time. Polly was born and raised on Mars, and to her, Mars is home. She has no desire to leave it, except to fulfill her dream of becoming a pilot. The brown-red colors and the dust are what’s normal to her. Coming to Earth, Polly has shock after shock. Her body has to adjust to Earth’s gravity, so that she feels sluggish constantly and struggles for breath. Her Earth-born classmates are bulky and strong in comparison to the off-worlders’ elongated builds and their brittle bones. Polly has bouts of agoraphobia when stepping outside for the first time and dealing with the open sky. In Polly’s home world, she’d be dead without enclosures to keep the air in and scrubbed clean. Over and over again, we see Polly confront our world, and it’s fascinating (and entertaining) to see how alien it can all look.
A few small examples: Attending a banquet with fancy decorations, including floral centerpieces and arches:
They were cut — I checked, they didn’t have roots, just stems stuck in water. They’d all be dead in a few days. This room had more flowers than entire greenhouses on Mars, and they were all dying. It seemed a little sad.
Polly’s first encounter with Earth-style breakfast:
“Good. I was going to warn you not to eat the bacon, it will probably make you sick. We don’t have the stomach enzymes to digest it.”
“What’s bacon?” I said.
“Fried pig muscle.”
And on the universality of sweets:
There was a cake — happily, I wasn’t going to have to get anyone to explain cake to me. We had round, fluffy, mooshy sweet things on Mars, because humanity couldn’t exist without dessert.
As Polly acclimates to her school and the planet, she begins to suspect that something sinister is behind a string of accidents that befall her class, and she puts herself in danger time and again to keep others safe and uncover the truth. The accidents provide the key points of excitement in the novel, and there are moments of great adventure and thrill… but unfortunately, the pacing is uneven, so we get these spots of action in between longer segments on daily life at the academy and Polly’s attempts to find a place for herself.
Heck, there’s even dress shopping in the mix. A makeover! Doesn’t that just reinforce the YA-ness of it all?
I don’t really mean to sound overly negative. This is a fun book, but it was a bit too YA and not enough sci-fi for my taste, and I had the odd experience of never quite having a real feel for what kind of book it was that I was reading.
Overall though, I enjoyed Martians Abroad. I can’t help wondering whether there’s more to come. As I mentioned earlier, although it’s billed as a stand-alone, much of this book feels like a long introduction. We’ve met Polly, her classmates, her school — the question is, now what? While the book works on its own well enough, it seems natural that there should be further adventures.
Title: Martians Abroad
Author: Carrie Vaughn
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: January 17, 2017
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley