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Ares Express by Ian Mcdonald
(Simon & Schuster, 7.99, 553 pages, paperback, published 4 March 2002, ISBN 0-671-03754-4; hardback edition published 2001.)

Sweetness Octave Glorious-Honeybun cover scanAsiim 12th lives on the Ares Express with the rest of her family. They are the Engineers of a fusion-powered locomotive the size of a shopping mall, one of many that ply the tracks of Mars thousands of years in the future, carrying passengers, freight and entire lineages of locomotive-based service clans.

Do you really need me to go on with a summary -- surely that ought to be enough to recommend any book?

Well, when Sweetness is promised in marriage to a stuard (McDonald's spelling) from another train she decides to jump, er, ship and find a new life for herself; but on leaving the Ares Express she finds, of course, that her adventures are only just beginning...

Ares Express is Ian McDonald's personal postmodern take on the increasingly crowded Mars mythos; an enthusiastic, good-natured and educated gallop through Mars's old and new, taking in some new inventions of McDonald's own along the way. However, despite the excellent writing and the extraordinary imagination at work here, Ares Express never really quite got up a full head of steam for me.

I enjoyed the strange hybrids of cyberpunk and steampunk in Ares Express; the petty rivalries of the various train section families; the floating, bicycle-powered, mail-order religion that attempts to overthrow the AIs who manage Mars (guess which is the evil one!) and the government-sponsored A-Team who expose the evil deeds of the rich and powerful (like a whole gang of future Mark Thomases or Michael Moores), embarrassing them into confession with practical jokes.

All of these work well on their own but somehow never quite gel together into a coherent whole story. The action is decidedly episodic.

I can appreciate what McDonald was trying to do, weaving new myths from old stories, but the more realistic Marquis of Queensberry sf rules sometimes seem uncomfortable beside the all-in-wrestling that is Magic Realism. Ares Express teeters between the two genres, which left me off-balance rather than staggered, as I should have been.

A failure, then; a glorious failure, soaring and magnificent in ambition, but ultimately a failure. I will, however, be looking out for Ian McDonald's other books after the wit and intelligence displayed in Ares Express -- because if this is a McDonald failure then I'd be very interested to see a success.

Review by Stuart Carter

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© Stuart Carter 19 June 2002