The Mars House by Natasha Pulley

02/04/2024
The Mars House by Natasha Pulley

Natasha Pulley debuted a few years ago with a gentle historical fantasy The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. She followed this up with more fantasy, a time travel tale (The Kingdoms) and most recently a more realist (or at least as realist as Pulley gets) historical novel about the Russian nuclear program (The Half Life of Valery K). So it is perhaps no surprise that she has now pivoted fully to the science fiction end of the speculative fiction spectrum with her latest novel The Mars House. But despite tackling a slightly different genre, Pulley has not abandoned her trademark issues and quirks.

When The Mars House opens London is drowning due to climate change, ballet dancer January Stirling agrees to be evacuated to Mars where workers are needed to support the colony. Two years later and January lives in a converted nuclear reactor and has a menial job. He refuses to undergo the dangerous therapy that will allow him to become a Martian citizen but rather remains one of the “Earthstrong”, refugees who have inordinate strength in Mars’ low gravity, and so has to wear an exoskeleton when he is in public to moderate his strength. Enter wealthy anti-immigration politician Aubrey Gale, who wants all Earthers to undergo the naturalisation therapy and is running to be leader of Mars (the Consul). But Gale needs Earther support so they (there is no gender on Mars) have a proposition for January – enter into a five year marriage contract with them to help Gale understand the Earther position (but also give him some much needed good publicity. January agrees but in doing so also takes on that fact that Gale’s life is the subject of a popular reality TV show and that the political situation is much more complicated than just pro v anti naturalisation

Given the need for all of this set up The Mars House takes a long time to get going and the marriage arrangement itself initially feels like a contrivance. But there are other mysteries seeded into this lead in (including what happened to Aubrey’s brother River and former partner Max, son of the current Consul). And once January settles into his role (including agreeing to spy for the Consul) and things start to go pear-shaped the narrative becomes much more interesting and engaging. That is until close to the end when everything comes to a screaming halt so that all of the plot drivers can be explained through flashback.

As already noted, The Mars House has some oblique connections to other Pulley books (the Pulleyverse?) including references to a watchmaker who now fixes mobile phones called Mori and at least one octopus reference. And in other ways this is pure Pulley – it centres around an extremely gentle but resourceful main character involved in a slow build queer (or a least non-gender specific) romance, has some sentient creatures (in this case mammoths rather than octopuses) which are critical to the plot, and has a plot driven by an unsubtle, unfriendly moustache twirling villain. In this book, Pulley also tries to tackle the issue of immigration and anti-immigration sentiment and while this aspect is critical to the action some of the debates feel heavy handed and the ultimate resolution: immigrants are people too, is a little bit pat.

For Pulley fans The Mars House delivers. Others may need to overcome a fairly slow and issue-heavy start but are likely to find that once the characters are established, the action kicks in and the level of jeopardy rises that they are won over and The Mars House becomes a very hard book to put down.

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The Mars House by Natasha Pulley

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