If I could sum up this novel with one single word, it would have to be "weird." In a good sort of way, mind you, but weird nonetheless. Big, ambitious, and multilayered the way all Ian McDonald books are, Ares Express also possesses a healthy dose of fun, wit, and absurdity which make this work quite different from what McDonald has accustomed us to in recent years. If Jack Vance, Terry Pratchett, and Hal Duncan had ever teamed up to write a book, they would have come up with something akin to Ares Express.
Hence, those readers who found novels such as River of Gods and Brasyl a bit too cerebral may enjoy Ares Express on a very different level. Just buckle up and get ready for quite a ride! Things don't always make sense, and at times one wonders what the heck is going on and where McDonald is going with this story, but stick with it to the end. Ares Express is a satisfying and rewarding read.
Here's the blurb:
A Mars of the imagination, like no other, in a colorful, witty SF novel, taking place in the kaleidoscopic future of Ian McDonald's Desolation Road, Ares Express is set on a terraformed Mars where fusion-powered locomotives run along the network of rails that is the planet's circulatory system and artificial intelligences reconfigure reality billions of times each second. One young woman, Sweetness Octave Glorious-Honeybun Asiim 12th, becomes the person upon whom the future'or futures'of Mars depends. Big, picaresque, funny; taking the Mars of Ray Bradbury and the more recent, terraformed Marses of authors such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Greg Bear, Ares Express is a wild and woolly magic-realist SF novel, featuring lots of bizarre philosophies, strange, mind-stretching ideas, and trains as big as city blocks.
As far as the worldbuilding goes, since the book is set in the future of McDonald's Desolation Road, I was afraid that not having read that novel would mean that I might miss nuances and certain plot points. Yet Ares Express takes place sor far in the future that you can read and enjoy it without having read Desolation Road. As is always his wont, Ian McDonald's narrative makes the setting come alive. This is a semi-terraformed Mars whose imagery is nothing short of arresting.
Although Ares Express is doubtless Sweetness Octave's book, it's the supporting cast which gives the novel its depth and flavor. Grandmother Taal, Devastation Harx, the United Artists, and many more characters add more layers and help make this an unforgettable tale.
The pace is uneven throughout, and trying to make sense of what exactly is happening can be mind-boggling at times. There are POV shifts from one paragraph to another in certain portions of the novel, which takes some getting used to. But once you grow comfortable with the fact that McDonald is willingly pushing this story all over the place, everything settles down and it gets easier.
Though Ares Express possesses some of the qualities which made books like River of Gods, Brasyl, Cyberabad Days, and The Dervish House such fantastic reads, this book is a world away from the others. Wild, strange, picaresque, and funny, Ares Express will surprise you on several levels.