Rating: 5 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel

 

The Mars colony of Tharsis is seven generations old. It is easy to tell who is Natural, a human born on Mars, and who is Earthstrong. Naturals are taller and thinner, built to live on a planet with a third of Earth’s gravity. Genetic modifications to help cope with the extreme cold and tech implants have become another part of everyday life. Earthstrong like January Stirling, however, have to wear special full-body “cages” to keep them from accidentally launching tools, people, and themselves, because of physical and gravitational differences. Tharsis has been divided up between areas for Naturals and the Naturalized (Earthstrong who not only underwent the punishing medical procedure to acclimatize to Mars, but also survived it) and space for Earthstrong.

January isn’t enamored of the two-tier society, but he is grateful to be alive, to have a place to live and a job to pay for the necessities. Then comes Senator Gale, waltzing in for a photo-op at the factory where January is lucky to have a job. After an unfortunate altercation where Gale’s clearly anti-Earthstrong policy ideas ram up against January’s own lived-experience of forced inequality, January suddenly finds himself whisked off to prison.

Aubrey Gale isn’t exactly anti-Earthstrong. They are just staunch in their belief that anyone as powerful as an Earthstrong on Mars ought to agree to undergo the naturalization process if they intended to stay on Mars long term. With one in two hundred sixty-seven Earthstrongers accidentally committing homicide due to gravitational differences and the impact on their bodies and movements, mandatory naturalization is for everyone’s safety. That factory worker trying to argue against facts is a challenge Gale eagerly accepts and they roundly trounce the Earthstrong. Gale enjoys the verbal spar and even lets an off-color joke about murder January aims at them slide.

The government, however, does not shrug off that unfortunate joke. Instead, the government sentences January to a stay in prison that, although brief, destroys his meager life on Mars. No longer employable, with no money and nowhere to go, January’s only option is to naturalize–the benefits being immediate citizenship on Mars and more. Just when January resigns to the idea of the procedure and the almost certainty that he will be maimed forever because of it, Senator Gale sweeps in with a mind boggling offer to rehabilitate both of their public images: marriage.

I won’t say “don’t bother reading this review, just buy the book,” but I will say “just buy the book.”

Pulley has crafted a stunning story that starts with a brief introduction to ballet principal, January Stirling, in a London whose normal is to be semi submerged, and who gets rescued from the sinking city by a Chinese ship that is taking climate refugees to Mars. The bulk of the story delves deep into the world, culture, languages, and norms of life in Tharsis. The Naturals are people who have been born on Mars and evolution has been assisted by medical upgrades that make life on Mars nothing like it was on Earth. They have their own government, language, culture, and customs. One big departure from life on most of Earth is the abolition of gender–hence anyone Natural or Naturalized goes by they/them pronouns. This went beyond language and extended into some genetic modifications to make physical gender traits far less distinguished.

Much of the plot is about Gale and January agreeing to enter into a mutually beneficial marriage contract of five years. The forced proximity gives them a chance not to simply appreciate the merits of each other’s pro- and anti-naturalization arguments, but to understand the experiences that led up to each of them having these opinions. Though there are arguments in the book, much of Gale and January’s differences in opinion play out right in the plot. For example, Gale suffered a devastating accident during a protest demonstration that left them gravely injured because of an Earthstrong person. Knowing this, once January moves into Gale’s home after the wedding, he offers Gale the key to his cage. The message is clear: only Gale can decide when they feel safe enough for January to be in their home not wearing the cage. Of course, there are reverse examples where Gale proves they can trust Earthstrong in return. Note: While I think it’s terrific fun that there is a “fake marriage” element to the story, I feel like it is just one nuanced facet amidst several other equally interesting and engaging aspects of the story.

The wind down at the end connected a lot of dots and I was thrilled to get the background behind the one scandal that Gale has a hard time shaking: the disappearance of their last consort. However, I just wished this part hadn’t felt quite so info-dumpy right before the big final resolution to the book (because this is one of those books where the drama keeps spinning even after the dust settles).

Overall, if you are looking for an engrossing space fantasy that intimately explores the idea of identities and power structures, class differences, not a little hurt-comfort and glimmers of unrequited love, and books that make you sneak in an extra chapter when honestly you just woke up at 2am to go to the bathroom, then I cannot recommend The Mars House highly enough.