Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli’s Red Desert series consists of four books; Point of No Return, People of Mars, Invisible Enemy and Back Home. I received all volumes as a pack, so I’ll just review the entire series in one post. While I was reading Red Desert, I suffered a bad cold and I misplaced my Kindle for three days, losing my place in the story by the time I’d found it. Inevitably, these circumstances affected my enjoyment of the novels.
These books are about a near-future attempt to colonize Mars, with mixed results. Our protagonist is the xenobiologist and astronaut Anna, who is slightly racist due to her own her own Middle Eastern father abandoning her mother. The other significant lead is her fellow astronaut Hassan, whose relationship with Anna pivots between antagonism and an unexpected intimacy. Complicating matters are the usual outbreaks of space madness that you expect when astronauts are isolated from their home planet, as well as traces of mysterious alien life.
The Red Desert books were originally written in Italian, and to be honest I think they deserve to be translated better than they have been. While it’s true that the sometimes idiosyncratic sentence patterns you find in translated literature are often charming, there were many times when I found awkward phrases in Red Desert that were far longer then they needed to be. I’d recommend that the entire series be retranslated, but a line-by-line edit of the entire series that focuses on condensing non-dialogue prose could work as well.
The constant flashbacks also confused me, although my headache should take some of the blame. The first book in the series, Point of No Return, flipped between Anna driving a rover from her Martian habitation to follow a strange symbol and her recruitment into the space program. After that, the story’s time and even focal characters leaped all over the place. I think the series would be much more comprehensible if events were arranged chronologically, although I’d make an exception for the flashback in the last book that explains exactly how Hassan first became attracted to Anna.
Refreshingly for science fiction, neither of our main astronauts are white males. Anna is a Swedish/Middle Eastern woman and Hassan in a Canadian Muslim who brings his Qu’ran with him to Mars. Surprisingly, I found myself far more interested in the subplot about Anna coming to terms with her ethnicity and reconciling with her father’s family than in her interactions with aliens. It is also nice that although their space mission is run by NASA, the agency’s American location is largely incidental to the story’s themes. No American triumphalism here!
To go into great depths about who Anna and Hassan discover on Mars would to include spoilers, so I’ll satisfy myself by saying that they encounter two parties. The first is involved in a scenario that I don’t think I’ve seen in science-fiction before, and the second manages to be simultaneously sympathetic and sinister.
Poor health and misplacing my Kindle prevented me from enjoying the Red Desert series from enjoying it as much it deserves, but even so I think the English versions are due another round of revision. Still, if you want to read some Eurocentric science fiction with non-white protagonists, you should probably check this series out.
I received free copies of these books in exchange for this review.