Sophia McDougall – Mars Evacuees

sophiamcdougall-marsevacueesThe fact that someone had decided I would be safer on Mars, where you could still only SORT OF breathe the air and SORT OF not get sunburned to death, was a sign that the war with the aliens was not going fantastically well.

I’d been worried I was about to be told that my mother’s spacefighter had been shot down, so when I found out that I was being evacuated to Mars, I was pretty calm.

And despite everything that happened to me and my friends afterwards, I’d do it all again. because until you’ve been shot at, pursued by terrifying aliens, taught maths by a laser-shooting robot goldfish and tried to save the galaxy, I don’t think you can say that you’ve really lived.

If the same thing happens to you, this is my advice: ALWAYS CARRY DUCT TAPE.

I love Sophia McDougall’s short fiction; I think she’s one of the most talented short fiction writers out there. I still have to read her Romanitas series; the first book in said series is patiently sitting on my TBR-pile. But when I heard about Mars Evacuees, learnt about McDougall’s inspiration for the book and read the flap text, I was sold and really wanted to read it. So I was gutted to learn that I had missed snagging an ARC of the book at World Fantasy last year, but made up for it by winning a competition McDougall ran for an ARC. There was much rejoicing in Casa Librarian at that news. And Mars Evacuees was everything I expected. It’s funny, smart, well-written and has oodles of character. 

The book is set on a future Earth that has been invaded by mostly invisible aliens, called Morrors, who have started to freeze over the Earth as they need a far colder climate. This leads to mass displacement of refugees in in the polar and moderate climate regions worldwide due to what is effectively a modern day Ice Age. I thought that this was an original take on alien invasion and displacement and it inevitably leads to war. Meanwhile there is terra-forming on Mars and the Martian environment was wonderful. It’s inhospitable and deadly and even in places where terra-forming has advanced sufficiently for there to be plant growth, everything looks alien. The air is lilac, the water looks purple and red dust and rocks are everywhere. I loved how alien Mars felt and in unexpected ways too, for example since Mars is in fact smaller than Earth the horizon is far more curved than ours, something that throws Alice off in her distance calculation quite a lot.

Our narrator and one of the main characters is Alice Dare, daughter of the famous spacefighter pilot Stephanie Dare. I loved Alice, she’s got a dry and witty voice, but she sounds like the twelve-year-old she is. When the rest of her school is evacuated down to London to get away from the encroaching ice, Alice is pulled aside and told she’ll be part of a select group going to Mars. The upside is she’s going to Mars and she’ll be safe, the downside is that when she turns sixteen she’s expected to become a soldier and join Earth’s battle against the Morrors. She’s quickly paired up with Josephine Jerome, an English girl-genius her own age, who doesn’t want to be a soldier like the rest of the children; instead she wants to become a scientist. Together they try to find their place on Mars and set out to learn to be soldiers. I really liked the friendship that develops between Alice and Josephine. Alice is quite often baffled and exasperated by her new-found friend, but at the same time it’s Josephine who prods her into action and helps her feel better.

When everything goes to pot on Mars and Alice and Josephine decide to take action and get help, they are joined by brothers Carl and Noel Dalisay and The Goldfish. Carl and Noel are a great combination and I liked the dynamic of having a younger child along, not just because he looked at the world differently, but because it also influenced some of the actions of the others. The Goldfish was probably my favourite character in the book. I loved this huge fish-shaped teacher robot, which is responsible for the older kids’ year-group and keeps trying to educate them at the most inopportune moments. It has a large role as comic relief, but it is also a true teacher and takes on a character of its own. I enjoyed the diversity of this group, not just in age, but in character and ethnicity as well. There is one final character they encounter that I really enjoyed, hey are funny, curious, and strangely appealing.

McDougall builds up her story very well and the pacing is spot on, with enough spaces to breathe and get re-oriented between tension-filled scenes. The story is also infused with an amazing sense of fun and adventure and I found myself grinning at Carl’s antics and Alice’s dry comments more than once—well, quite a lot to be honest. There are real stakes to the story and there is true danger to the characters, so it isn’t all just fun and games. The final resolution is neat and perhaps a little too pat, but then again it is quite fitting to the tone of the book and the age group it was written for.

I absolutely adored Mars Evacuees. It was fun, it was touching, and it was exciting; exactly what a children’s book ought to be. My beautifully doodled and signed ARC will be carefully put away until my girls have reached the proper age and I can read it to them. Because this is a book made for reading aloud. I read some pieces to my girls when they couldn’t sleep and it read quite easily, with a good rhythm and no tongue-trippers. I highly recommend Mars Evacuees. It’s a fantastic read for any geeky child, whether they are truly still children or just a child at heart.

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