This is the second novel set in a girls’ boarding school on an engaging version of Old Mars, which is to say, the planet imagined by early SF writers, with a breathable atmosphere, canals and alien creatures which this British Empire’s colonists must step very warily around. It’s the start of a new term for the Crater girls, with Christmas ahead at the end of it. Of course, the Martian year doesn’t align with the Earth year but traditions must be observed.
The story is more discursive than the first, with successive episodes focusing on different characters, some new and some already established. This broadens our understanding of this strange new world and offers hints at the history that brought the British here. What exactly happened in the Great Triplanetary War though? Plenty of questions remain; enough to tantalise but not so many as to frustrate. That’s because the focus remains very much on the characters and their differing viewpoints and priorities. Seeing the school and its environs through these various eyes brings immersive breadth and depth to the narrative.
Among other things along the way, we are reminded that bygone attitudes weren’t all bad in the good old days. As a couple of the girls explore their gender identities, the tolerant responses of those around them mirror what can readily be found in the English literature of the 1920s and 1930s. Talking of literature, the language is a particular delight. Brenchley’s familiarity with the traditions he draws on means his prose is note and pitch perfect, without ever showing off his knowledge with tedious or pedantic obscurity. That simply wouldn’t be the done thing, would it?
There is plenty of action as well, as Brenchley draws on modern knowledge of Mars alongside SF tradition. A Martian dust storm can be very dangerous indeed, for the Mars-born and newer arrivals alike. Then there’s the lurking tension with the Russian Empire that was established in the first book. Not every threat is external though. As we should recall if we’re being honest with ourselves, teenagers can do spectacularly stupid things. So can adults, particularly if they’re putting their own selfish interests above a child’s welfare. All these elements will keep those pages turning.
The story concludes with these threads deftly plaited together. The various resolutions are highly satisfying, as well as offering the promise of more adventures to come. I look forward to the next instalment with eager anticipation.