In the Shadow of Ares is a tale with a marvelous setting and a great central idea that, as it unfolds, wraps the reader up and will not let go. It is also a minarchist libertarian tale, in that the dangerous, punitive, and stupid aspects of government are laid bare while the readers are urged to hold government in check to allow the market to better flourish. There is a lot here to like, but there are also a number of defects that mar the work, though nothing to such a degree and of such a nature as to make one pessimistic about better future prospects for the first-time authors. They have shown that they can design and fashion a stirring tale; let us hope that they polish the next one.
Amber Jacobsen is the First Kid on Mars, the first child born there to parents who were among the earliest colonists. It is thought that Mars is too dangerous for children, and Amber’s parents have been chided for deciding to remain and have a child there. Even in her teenage years, she remains the only child ever to be born on Mars.
Having homesteaded some land where they live in an airtight “hab,” sheltered from the lethal conditions on the Martian surface, Amber’s parents, Aaron and Lindsey, have earned the ire of the Mars Development Authority, a quasi-governmental organization that no one will stand up to and that wishes to extend its power and control over every colonist on the red planet. In addition to the effrontery of daring to live free, Aaron Jacobsen has also made enemies with one of the officials at the MDA. When the MDA secretly sabotage the Jacobsen residence, they are forced to find another place to live.
They make their way to The Green, a relatively large settlement that figures to be of central importance in the new Martian society as soon as their land claim vests. This the MDA does not want to see happen, because it means they will lose all authority over them, both the authority spelled out in The Charter — analogous to the US Constitution — and any authority that the MDA has helped itself to.
Amber finds herself unwanted because of her age, though she yearns to be taken seriously. While trying to prove herself to the people of The Green, she also becomes deeply invested in the mystery of the Ares III mission, which disappeared a couple decades before under perplexing circumstances. She starts to suspect that someone who knows more than she is trying to prevent her from making any headway in her search and is willing to take criminal measures if necessary.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment in the story, for me, is that it creeps up on the edge of a real radical libertarianism, but then shies away (the second disappointment would be an implied support of intellectual property, which simply has no place in a libertarian order). There is no better example of this than the endless bickering with the MDA over The Charter. They argue about whether it is a living document or meant to be taken at its word, but never do they question the legitimacy of the document itself, nor the reason the MDA should be telling them what they can do on Mars as if it owned every stretch of the planet’s surface. This is not a criticism of the merits of the novel, merely a wish to see more Rothbardianism in my literature, especially in a work that comes so close.
There are other problems too, though they cannot hide the talent that is definitely there. The villains are caricatures, for example, and never quite elicit the response in the reader that the authors are going for, because they cannot be taken seriously. Not only that, but there is an implausibility to the interactions of characters, particularly enemies, that is difficult to get past at times. When the authors want to demonstrate something between characters, they lay it on good and thick. Even the familial interactions of the Jacobsens, which do not suffer the kind of overplayed antagonism of so many other relationships, never rise above the formulaic kind one can find by the dozen on any number of television stations when sitcoms are running.
More problematic still is the structure of the book, the layout of the plot. It takes a long time to discover what it is really about. This is strange given the intricacy of the central plot and how many setups for it were introduced early on, seeds that will bear fruit later. The authors, then, either knew what the book was about when they wrote the first act and simply did not want to get into it yet, or went back later, with things clearer in their minds, and added in needed details but without streamlining the story.
When the novel does find itself, there follow about twenty to twenty-five chapters that had me constantly reaching for my wife’s Kindle during every spare moment so that I could read a little further. Though character interactions were mediocre, the inner life of the main character as revealed to us makes us care about her. The actual investigation into the Ares III mission, especially as it gets going, is truly a wonder of well-placed details, plausible dead ends, and red herrings that fit together without, as far as I can tell, a single slip in logic. Bravo. Hollywood could use a couple writers who can make a mystery like that.
The villain is finally revealed and we get some gripping life-or-death action scenes, which are well set up and even turn out plausibly enough to keep my interest. When the laws of physics are broken too badly too often, I grow bored. I most definitely was not during In the Shadow of Ares’ climactic scenes.
I did grow bored in the score of chapters that followed the climax. The main point of the story has been resolved, for good or ill, the villain revealed, the chase and fight scenes enacted, and the winner declared. However, lots of unsynchronized story arcs have to be wrapped up, but the momentum has been lost. No one wants to munch on crackers and brie after the chocolate cake has been devoured. These items need to be rebalanced within the story, so that they can come to their conclusion during or before the climax, with one last chapter to show the result of The Green’s struggle with the MDA. A denouement cannot be a full quarter of the book.
The first Lightmonthly Read gave us a book that was at times tedious, but often a true thrill. To give a net grade would miss these details, but all in all I would say I had some fun reading it. I also think there is real talent in this writing duo, considering their obvious technical knowledge and their ability to forge a top notch mystery. One is left hoping that their sophomore effort will come with an increased mastery of the other aspects of storytelling.