Fiction Reviews

The Mars House

(2024) Natasha Pulley, Gollancz, £16.99, trdpbk, 469pp, ISBN 978-1-399-61854-0


Brace yourself! It’s a ‘genre-defying novel from one of the most exciting voices of our generation…’ Hackles duly raised by the promotional hyperbole on the cover, I approached The Mars House, Natasha Pulley’s sixth novel, with some caution.

Reassuringly the hype is at least half-right. I haven’t checked in with Natasha Pulley since her enjoyable slightly steampunk debut, The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street, but The Mars House is a whole different magnitude of good.

It begins with a marriage entered into as a political manoeuvre. Aubrey Gale, a fantastically wealthy Martian solar power magnate and a leading voice among Martian nationalists, provokes Earth refugee January Stirling into an argument on camera. When this backfires and threatens their political career, Aubrey makes penniless and unemployable January an offer he can’t refuse.

January is all out of options by this point and reluctantly accepts a five-year marriage contract, admission into the Gale household and participation in the televised reality show that is his new spouse’s life. Aubrey’s motivations remain obscure – is he sincere, performing for the cameras or even a Bluebeard figure? But working out what is going on in this mercurial genius’s head is the locked room mystery at the heart of The Mars House.

Once married, the two of them get to know each other better against a backdrop of (deep breath) attempted assassinations, high-society parties, a contest to elect the next Consul of Mars dominated by the question of climate refugees from Earth and a societal crisis caused by a once-in-a-generation dust storm turning the solar lights off.

As if still further complications were needed: differences in gravity between Mars and Earth mean that Earth natives like January have greatly increased strength and need to wear resistance cages to avoid causing accidental injury and death. Aubrey was severely injured in an ‘Earthstronger’ political riot and so has his own traumas here to overcome.

This summary may read like The Mars House is going in a lot of different directions at once – and it is – but it does make a lot more sense in context. Pulley’s world-building is detailed but playful and supple enough that it can contain all the different things she is trying to do. This is considerable win in itself.

That this novel doesn’t just contain these multitudes but does them all well and is tremendous fun is an even bigger achievement. Aubrey and January make for a rich and rewarding LGBT romantic pairing, while the walk-on players all demonstrate Pulley’s skill at characterisation.

One slight caveat to all this praise: her approach is distinctive enough that if you find a slight tendency towards cuteness off-putting (for example, the unexpected appearance of resurrected mammoths and friendly hotel-dwelling polar bears) this may not be the book for you.

But those genres then – are they well and truly defied?

Of course, anything set on Mars is going to count as science-fiction by definition. And parts of the story do involve solving large-scale engineering problems, although I’ll leave others to judge the veracity. But Pulley’s grasp of literary technique, her evident love of magic realism and her focus on romantic and political relationships do pull The Mars House closer to mainstream fiction than would otherwise be the case.

In other words, Mark Watney this is not, but this is irrelevant when you’re dealing with something this good. An early contender for my novel of the year, in or out of genre.

Tim Atkinson


[Up: Fiction Reviews Index | SF Author: Website Links | Home Page: Concatenation]

[One Page Futures Short Stories | Recent Site Additions | Most Recent Seasonal Science Fiction News]

[Updated: 24.4.15 | Contact | Copyright | Privacy]