Ray Gun Reviews
SF/F reviews — and ray guns!

Ares Express by Ian McDonald

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Ares Express by Ian McDonald
Pyr, 2010, 389pp.

On a terraformed Mars, peoples, goods, and raw materials are moved across the planet by atomic-powered steam trains the size of small cities. These trains are ruled by hereditary families of Engineers and Stewards and Deep-Fusion workers. When Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th decides that she does not want the marriage arranged for her by her train elders, she runs away from the train Catherine of Tharsis, the only home she has ever known. In running away from home she runs smack into a plot to destroy the world, a plot that only she and her grandmother can stop.

Ares Express is a sequel of sorts to Ian McDonald’s masterpiece, Desolation Road. Though the book has a 2001 copyright date, Pyr’s 2010 printing is the first North American edition.

McDonald’s Mars has been colonized through the use of artificial intelligences which have the ability to manipulate reality to tweak the planet so it is more conducive to human life. People have made Mars their home to such an extent that they count their lifespan by its orbit, and the reality-bending intelligent machines are venerated as angels and powers and principalities in complex native religions. When a self-centered man threatens to destroy this world, Sweetness finds herself the heroine of a story, one that may or may not save the world.

Regular readers of these reviews will know that Ian McDonald has become one of my favorite contemporary SF authors. He writes Ares Express in his usual breathless magic realism, idea piling upon idea, immersing the reader in his fully realized Mars, until the reader is swept along completely. The prose is not difficult but it is thick, for the lack of a better word. There are times when I had to take a break in reading, just to give my brain a rest. A break necessitated by a surfeit of goodness, like a well-baked German chocolate cake. But the story is well-worth any effort on the reader’s part.

Ares Express is not the same sort of novel-in-stories as Desolation Road. Even though there are a number of other point-of-view characters, this is Sweetness’s story. But the quirky, earthy, even flirty characters add to the richness of the tale. There is Grandmother Taal, who can work magic by carving letters into her flesh — but only over things colored brown. There is Sweetness’s father, Naon Sextus Solstice-Rising Engineer 11th, Engineer of the Catherine of Tharsis, who hasn’t spoken to Sweetness’s mother in over four years (four double Martian years) over a card game. There is Pharaoh, a stowaway on the Catherine of Tharsis from the slums who sold a body part for a chance at a better life.

There is Devastation Harx, founder of a mail-order religion, the Church of the Ever-Circling Spiritual Family, complete with floating cathedral. There is Cyrene Caius Ankhatiel Ree, cardsharp who will make you literally gamble your life away. A couple characters from Desolation Road even make some important appearances. The bizarre cast of characters add a rich texture to the world McDonald has created.

People looking for a straightforward yarn may need to pass on Ian McDonald. His prose alone would drive an anal retentive junior high English teacher batty. But for people who love getting lost in a tale, who want to swim in a fully-developed speculative fiction world, I would highly recommend Ares Express.

(Reviewed by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt)

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