Thursday, May 14, 2015

Book Review - Paul Magrs's Lost on Mars

Lost on Mars by Paul Magrs
ARC Provided by the publisher
Published by: Firefly Press
Publication Date: May 14th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 336 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Lora and her family have a harsh life on Mars. But they aren't like the townsfolk, they are heartier. With their homestead out on the prairie, growing their sustenance out of the strange Martian soil, they are true pioneers. For all the destructive forces on the inhospitable planet working against them they have each other. Even Lora's grandmother who is almost more trouble then she is worth has her place; she was part of the initial colonization of the red planet. Though something is coming, the harsh yet manageable routine of their lives is about to be upset when the disappearances start again. They've happened before, the whispers that Martians still exist and sneak into their dwellings at night and whisk people away never to be seen again. Though no one is willing to believe it is happening again. One night when Lora is staying in town she sees them. Strange creatures dancing through the streets. The next night her grandmother is taken. The small township is still unwilling to believe the truth in front of their eyes. The sheriff would like nothing better then to ignore this problem, and then his wife disappears too. Though Lora's breaking point is the disappearance of her father.  

With her father gone and her mother struck down with grief that she self medicates, Lora becomes the head of her family and she decides that they are no longer safe and should head out into the wasteland to save themselves. Calling on the townspeople to join them they pick up five more travellers. Ma, Al, Hannah, Toaster, Aunt Ruby, the Adamses, Madame Lucille and her husband all put their lives in Lora's hands. It's a harsh journey with untold hardships and eventually flagging spirits. Madame Lucille's husband is the first casualty, followed by their pack animals. When they are set upon by unknown creatures and separated, Lora and her brother Al learn that there is a secret City Inside. The complex city with all it's decorum makes Lora long for the simplicity of her family's homestead. Though the City Inside is now their home. A home full of secrets and dangers that might prove more deadly then anything they faced while trekking across the red planet. But their might also be hope there as well.

The wonderful thing about Paul's books is that they will never be what you expect. Some people might not like this, but personally I think that a great story surprises you and takes you to new lands and shows you new experiences that you would never have had if not for the words between the covers. To be surprised and delighted by the narrative voice is something that every true reader longs for. And Paul's voice is so unique, with each book he has written being it's own voice but somehow all part of him. When Megan from Firefly Press contacted me to see if I was interested in reviewing Lost on Mars I jumped on this opportunity. The promotional material gave me an interesting if eventually narrow view of what to expect. Seeing as Paul and I have previously discussed our love of Laura Ingalls Wilder, me being practically raised on the books what with being born in the same state as her, I was picturing Lost on Mars very much as Little House on the Martian Prairie. But, being Paul, he turned all my expectations on its head and gave me an odyssey that is Little House on the Prairie meets Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy meets Priscilla Queen of the Desert, with Roald Dahl and The Wizard of Oz and maybe even some Mad Max thrown in for good measure but all somehow something only Paul could have written.

Lost on Mars has two very distinct halves. There's the first half which is a pioneer tale of trying to survive the Martian wastelands and then there is the second half with the City Inside which is a Jules Verne Victorian epic that raises the book up to a new level that makes you extremely sad to part ways at the end while you keep your fingers crossed that the next installment won't be too far in your future. At first I was wary of this abrupt change in the story. The two worlds couldn't seem more apart yet somehow it was a natural transition. If not for this transition I don't think the book would have worked. By the time Lora and her compatriots are captured I had tired of their journey and the relentlessness of their life and bickering. The Martian abductors were a little too much like the Ninnies for me, and while I do like how the worlds of Paul's books are permeable and have a fluidity between them, the love I have for The Ninnies is so strong that I want them to remain their own thing. Therefore this switch up made the book click. It also added a level of mystery that Martians abducting people for dinner lacked. Plus the possibilities inherent in this new city are literally endless, which again makes me impatient for the next installment.

The reason that the City Inside is so fascinating to me, besides the fact that it's basically a Dickensian Christmas on Mars, is that Paul has this ability to imbue everything with life and personality; from cities to homes to utensils. Objects get sentience and smarts. Humans have a deep seated need to bring the world around them to life. Whether it's naming your car to your house, we anthropomorphize everything. One of my favorite characters on Red Dwarf was Talkie Toaster. He was uppity, full of his own importance, was always looking for a way to bring up bread products, and held his own with characters played by real actors. Enter Paul Magrs and his cast of characters. In his Iris Wildthyme books we have Barbara who is a vending machine, as well as Art Critic Panda, but he has said that he is in no way an object so I mustn't talk of him as such. In Lost on Mars Paul imbues life into a sunbed called Toaster. Toaster is easily one of my favorite characters. Besides being living history as well as a member of the Robinson family, the thought of him running across the Martian plains like a little gangly robotic dog makes me smile. He's just as real, if not more real, then some of his "human" compatriots.

As for those humans. For a YA book Paul doesn't flinch on showing the harshness of human nature. There is no sugar coating. Everyone is in it to save themselves, as seen when the ragged band of travellers stumbles on an abandoned ghost town. The adults descend on the supplies like a pack of jackals; and like those vicious carnivores they are willing to fight off anyone interested in their kills. The darker side of human nature is fully explored from cowardice to self interest. The townspeople are willing to ignore the disappearances because they don't want their lives upset. It's for the greater good to turn a blind eye, as has happened more times then we can count in our own very human history. They follow Lora because they can't be bothered to take the responsibility or initiative themselves. What compromises will man put up with in order to maintain peace?  What will man do to survive? A pack animal that is loved and cared for is nothing but food at the end of the day, even if it has learned language. This is very much mirrored by the Martians own thoughts. While humans may be their intellectual equals, with art and history, they need the food more. To see the humans actions mimicked by an alien race shows in stark detail the wrongness of our thinking.

But there was one thing above everything else that made me connect to this book and that's it's literary pedigree. The Martian landscape and the settlers lives have been shaped by literature, from books being the most prized of possessions to the naming conventions of pets and even their town, "Our Town." Even the ships they arrived on where named from literature! It's all the little asides, the little jokes slid in that reinforce the importance of literature and will hopefully spark the reading bug in anyone who picks up this book. When Lora's last name of Robinson was finally revealed, a smile spread across my face at the thought of the original Robinson family, that of The Swiss Family Robinson. But it's this lovely combining of literature and their lives that makes the world and in particular the City Inside a kind of dream state, as if you were to wake one day within your favorite book. The arrival at the City Inside with them waking within a poppy field to see the magnificent metallic green city was a frisson of Ozian joy. Not only is this a great story, it harks back to other great stories and sets itself up in the grand literary cannon of our times that is now so meta in nature.


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