Saturday 4 July 2015

REVIEW: Lost on Mars by Paul Magrs

Paul Magrs tends to write stories that take a whimsical, askew look at mundane life. While he does employ science fiction tropes, particularly in his Doctor Who work, the fantastical is never far away.Lost on Mars, as the title suggests, takes a classic sci-fi setting – that of a struggling human colony on the Red Planet – but injects a large dose of the fabulous. There are elements of Steampunk and horror in its make-up, but foremost it is in the tradition of classic children's literature. Lost on Mars is a potent coming-of-age story, in which our heroine, Lora, is forced to grow up in order to survive in a terrifyingly unpredictable world.

Unlike most of Magrs's work, which is intrinsically English, Lost on Mars has more in common with frontier stories like Little House on the Prairie. Our Town, the ramshackle settlement on the Martian plains, is home to Lora and her family, three generations under one roof, including Grandma, one of the original colonists who came from Earth at the end of the 21st century. In spite of the futuristic setting, life there is more like the late 19th century edge towns in the Old West, or Australia. Life involves constant hard graft, and Our Town is a safe place in a wilderness filled with unknowable dangers. Until the Disappearances start, and even the town provides no safety. There are some genuinely unsettling moments as people are slowly picked off by a largely unseen Martian force, and the overriding feeling throughout the book is one of ever-present uncertainty and danger.

Magrs's Mars (perhaps we should call it Planet Magrs) is home to a baffling array of life forms, from the unthreatening reptilian livestock the townsfolk depend on, to a variety of more sophisticated, and potentially deadly, Martian natives. Phantom-like Martians appear to be the cause of the Disappearances, and even Lora's unexpected friendship with one of their number does little to lessen the sense of menace that their presence engenders. Forced to flee Our Town, Lora and her remaining family and friends take their chances in the wilds of the Martian outback, where things only get stranger and more uncertain. The plot doesn't let up for a moment; as soon as it seems the true nature of the story is clear, everything is called into question by another unexpected revelation. The story ends up in a place quite unlike where it began, the nature of Lora's world now unclear. Every revelation is questionable, every answer suspect.

Lora is a fine protagonist, a fully realised character who develops from girl to young woman as her life changes and she grows into new responsibility. Her brother Al, although not as significant to the story at first, undergoes similar development. Family is at the heart of the story and the characters' actions. This is a new and fascinating world that Magrs has created, although some elements familiar to his readers show up, from mention of “Celestial Omnibuses” to the essential batty old ladies that he loves so much. Then there's Toaster, the adorable Servo-Furnishing, a sentient sunbed who acts as pet, butler and friend to Lora and her family, and whose first iteration appeared in the author's 2007 Doctor Who novel, Sick Building. It's also good to see that, although it is far from a focus of the novel, there is a queer presence among the cast of characters. Although the setting is new, this feels absolutely Magrs.

The first in a trilogy, Lost on Mars ends with some closure but with a stack of mysteries left unsolved. This is an excellent book for young readers and has plenty to offer old types too. It would make for an excellent Sunday night family drama, should the BBC survive long enough to revive the artform. Book two quickly, please.

Lost on Mars can be ordered from Firefly Press and is also available from Amazon. It is also available on Kindle.

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