Sunday, March 19, 2023

The Strange

The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud
3/21/23; 304 pages
Gallery/Saga Press

The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud is a highly recommended alternate history science fiction novel featuring a wild west Mars settled by humans.

In 1931 in New Galveston, Mars, the Mother Earth Diner, run by fourteen-year-old Anabelle Crisp, her father Samuel, and Watson, a robot kitchen engine assists them, is robbed by Silas Mundt and his cohorts. They stole food, but also a recording of her mother's voice, which is one thing that Sam relies on listening too following the Silence. After Annabelle's mother left Mars for a trip to Earth a year ago, communication between Mars and Earth suddenly ceased. This event is the Silence. Then, when they finally reopen the diner after a few days, another group of miners starts an altercation that results in Annabelle's father being thrown into jail on a murder charge.

Annabelle, a feisty teen with an attitude, has had enough and wants vengeance and the recording of her mother's voice. After threatening Joe Reilly, the last Earth-to-Mars pilot of a ship stuck on Mars, she travels with Watson and Reilly to find Sally Milkwood, a supply runner. Then the group sets off to get the voice recordings from the man who stole them. Complicating the trip is the Strange, the mineral ore mined on Mars that permeates the land, air, and the bodies of everyone who comes in contact with it along with a whole lot of otherworldly events.

The Strange is a compelling and engrossing debut novel that I totally enjoyed reading even though there are some flaws along the way. The narrative is organized into three sections: What Happened, What I Did About It, and the Consequences Thereof. The whole western on Mars plot theme combined with a coming-of-age tale, a failing society, and the ever-present strange ore that changes things and people was fascinating.  Adding to the enjoyment is the trek across Mars to get to where Silas is to recover her property. There is also some ghosts, freaky moths and mushrooms in the plot.

Annabelle is a great character. She has numerous flaws, but she is also determined and obnoxious. In spite of her bravado, she really doesn't quite have a grip on the totality of what she wants, what she is asking of people, and what is really going on. She is a young teen and doesn't have the experience or knowledge adults would have, but she doesn't know that she doesn't know it all.

This is honestly a very entertaining sci-fi novel that crosses several genres in that category. The ending wasn't entirely satisfying, but don't let that stop you from reading it.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Gallery/Saga Press via Edelweiss.

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