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The Strange by Nathan BallingrudTitan Books edition5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsA book like The Strange is one of those wonderful surprises that makes reading SFF such an unbeatable pastime. A book like this is a bolt from the blue — or maybe the red. Nathan Ballingrud delivers one of the most sublimely executed adventures I’ve read in quite a while. And he’s done it not by trying to produce bleeding-edge hard SF or space opera, but by hewing closely to the old-fashioned conceits of planetary romance, a genre that rose to popularity over a hundred years ago and that’s held its own ever since.

This is a space western set on Ray Bradbury’s Mars, essentially Charles Fortis’s classic True Grit played out among the haunted dunes of a red planet colonized by humans since the mid-19th century. But Ballingrud is not simply mining nostalgia. Once his alternate history is established (The Strange takes place, not in the future, but in 1931), the book has the voice and character of a story that could only have been written in the 2020s. Old and new sensibilities are brought together to brilliant effect.

Anabelle Crisp is a 14-year-old girl living in the Martian colony of New Galveston, which lies a short distance from Dig Town, a mazelike mining settlement digging up a mineral called the Strange. This is the kind of name alien minerals have to have in a planetary romance saga, not some stuffy mouthful of Latin. Much of the goal of worldbuilding in stories like these is about feeling it, and from the moment we learn about the Strange, we know all we need to know about how unknown the majority of this vast red frontier is to the human settlers who have come here to seek their fortunes. Immediately, a Mars that seems easy to tame because people can breathe on it turns out to be no less mysterious and deadly than the vast plains and mountains of the American West, back when the Donner Party thought they were taking a quick shortcut.

The settlers ship the Strange back home to Earth, because it has the ability, somehow, to add what Anabelle calls “the illusion of intelligence” to the Engines, the clanking mechanical robots to which humans have assigned all of life’s menial tasks. The Strange does something else to Engines, which everyone finds out a bit too late, but that’s just the clever way Ballingrud slips his commentary into his narrative. Isn’t it just like people to rush in, exploiting a natural resource panacea as hard and fast as we can, leaving any possible negative consequences to be worried about later?

As the book opens, “later” has begun. Anabelle’s mother Alice left for Earth a year before on a family matter, and shortly afterward, with no warning or explanation, all contact with Earth was lost. This event is now referred to as the Silence.

Now Anabelle works with her father Sam at the family business, the Mother Earth Diner. The night that changes her life and the course of her future begins when a desert-dwelling bandit named Silas Mundt saunters in just before closing and robs the place of food and gear. Silas and his cohorts get away, but Anabelle is devastated that one of the stolen items is a cylinder recording of her mother. It’s all she has to remember Alice by. Her father seems utterly dispirited, and she is appalled at the near-total lack of effort the local law puts towards capturing the bandits. The Sheriff cites the need not to disrupt relations with the miners, and the dangers of following who-knows-where in the Martian wilderness. The Sheriff also tells her, “You’re going to have to accustom yourself to disappointment, young Miss Crisp.” This will define Anabelle’s entire outlook toward the world of adults from here on.

Despite the fantastical nature of the setting, The Strange gives us deeply rendered characters, even those who fit cleanly into genre archetypes, and resolves its narrative goals in a far more convincing and realistic way than a great many escapist adventures I’ve read that strive to make the worlds they offer us seem much more grounded and “real.”

Anabelle, for instance, is every inch a kid of fourteen. This is absolutely not a YA novel, but among young adult SFF in particular, I feel as if I’m reading about too many young heroes who don’t ring true, written by authors who are dreaming up a highly romanticized ideal of what they wish their own adolescent and teenage years should have been, and not what they were. Hypercompetent teen warriors who dive into the fray and bring down injustice and evil like Marvel superheroes might scratch an itch, but they don’t read like kids. Anabelle’s a kid. She does have bravery and stubbornness and “true grit,” and all the righteous outrage of a young person who knows the world should be better but can only watch in dismay as the adults around them fail and fail and fail again. (Ballingrud was largely inspired by his daughter, whose own uncertain future in a world the adults have broken is naturally concerning to him as a parent.) But Anabelle is also immature and petulant, and has to learn that you don’t always get what you want when you want it, and that yelling and screaming won’t get it to you any faster. And she has to grow into empathy, even for the worst losers and failures among the adults she meets.

The robbery on its own is not what does her family the worst damage. The way things accelerate in its aftermath is. Before long, Anabelle is alone, setting off on a foolhardy quest to find Silas’s hideout, wherever it may be. Alone, but with reluctant companions. Watson is a Kitchen Engine, basically a robot dishwasher not exactly built for rough country. But we’re going to feel the emotional attachment to him we always feel for loyal non-human characters in adventure stories. Joe Pruett is the pilot of the saucer that was scheduled to make its regular return to Earth when the Silence struck (and yes, we do find out why it never went back anyway). He goes from a figure of pathos and contempt, ruined by alcoholism, to someone truly tragic, and Ballingrud’s deft touch at character development allows us to see, even as Anabelle cannot, just how many different things have made him a broken man. We may not like him, but his struggles earn sympathy, while Anabelle, whom we naturally root for, is often not at all sympathetic in many of the choices she makes, which can be hotheaded and selfish and put the lives of others at risk.

Anabelle’s Rooster Cogburn in this quest is Sally Milkwood, a trader and occasional freebooter who was actually one of Silas’s partners in the initial raid on the diner. But she agrees to lead Anabelle to Silas, mostly for Joe’s sake, and also because Anabelle has some growing up to do. And a lot of that is going to hinge on learning some things she’s never known about the planet that has become her forever home through no choice of her own. A bond is built between them, but Ballingrud never allows it to slide into the trite cliché of Sally becoming a surrogate mother or anything. That’s weak writing, and Ballingrud has too much respect for his vision and his audience to fall back on it.

I loved how everything in this book paid homage to classic concepts, but kept finding ways to take its story down unexpected trailheads. It is indeed strange, and in the best way. What begins as a retro-future action western becomes a coming-of-age story, that shifts into an almost mythopoeic weird western, even bringing in fungal horror, because why not. There are elements of gearpunk and ghost stories, some pinpoint critiques of colonialism, and even nice little nods to H. G. Wells here and there. Bradbury is never openly referenced, but it’s as if you can feel his shade lurking in the distance, nodding its approval.

And I loved even more the way that some questions and mysteries remain unresolved, while conflicts that do resolve don’t do so in expected ways. We’re not in one of those generic tales where the big bad is defeated with such finality that everyone at the end is able to go back to their old lives, none the worse for their ordeals. Does Anabelle end up with what she wanted, or does she get what she needs? It sometimes turns out that the end of an adventure puts you where you were meant to be, instead of where you thought you were going.

The Strange is a story on an epic scale, with an intimate focus. It’s a rare example of a tale with almost too many moving parts still managing to slot themselves together so well that I can’t think of anything I would change, given the chance. I put the book down when I was done and felt only satisfaction. I know that a great deal of effort goes into writing that seems effortless, and I have to give all respect to Nathan Ballingrud for what he’s achieved here. I’ve read so many self-important novels that feel like they’re reaching so hard for greatness. It turns out that storytelling with high ambitions but an unpretentious approach can pull off greatness far more often than you’d think.