Genres: Sci Fi
Mars, the Red Planet, farthest flung outpost of the British Empire. Under the benevolent reign of the Empress Eternal, commerce and culture are flourishing along the banks of the great canals, and around the shores of the crater lakes. But this brave new world is not as safe as it might seem. The Russians, unhappy that Venus has proved far less hospitable, covet Britain’s colony. And the Martian creatures, while not as intelligent and malevolent as HG Wells had predicted, are certainly dangerous to the unwary.
What, then, of the young girls of the Martian colony? Their brothers might be sent to Earth for education at Eton and Oxbridge, but girls are made of sterner stuff. Be it unreasonable parents, Russian spies, or the deadly Martian wildlife, no challenge is beyond the resourceful girls of the Crater School.
~learn sign-language or be eaten by aliens
~no one gets in trouble like twins get in trouble
~space travel is Weird
~Russians on the moon
Before magic school stories (well, before most of the more well-known ones, anyway) there were English boarding school stories. If you were born in the early 90s like myself – and in the right part of the world, since I doubt many countries outside the British Isles stocked these stories in their bookshops! – you might just have caught a few of the later ones, or the ones that were popular enough to have some serious staying power; Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl series and her St Clare’s books were the ones some well-meaning adult gave me. Usually but not always featuring girls in all-girls schools, this particular sub-genre combined slice-of-life (midnight feasts, team sports, and prep, which is a fancy word for homework) with adventure, while hammering home values like comradeship and school spirit and a surprisingly hard-core sense of honour…and a whole lot of patriotism/nationalism, because England is the best and the Empire is forever.
…You can maybe guess why it’s not much of a thing anymore. Even if the books tended to be quite gentle and sweet, once you get old enough the ‘Rule Britannia’ thing becomes a bit too hard to swallow.
Brenchley, though, announced a while back that he intended to write a boarding school story in the English style – but set on Mars.
And it’s ridiculously fun.
Mars is a colony of the British Empire, but England is far away and can mostly be ignored by the reader: the characters and the school they attend – the Crater School – consider themselves Martians first, and any references to how girls ought to be are always phrased ‘Martian girls never’ or ‘all Martian girls do’, not ‘English/British girls’. The Crater School is a girls-only school housed inside a building that was intended to be a kind of hotel or resort, and due to its eccentric creator resembles a castle, complete with portcullis. The hotel didn’t work out, but it makes a pretty delightful setting for a school. (Who wouldn’t prefer a school with towers and secret passages?) The British Boarding School tropes are present and accounted for – school houses, prefects, a head-girl everyone wants to be and no one wants to mess with. The only thing missing is a French teacher – either Crater girls don’t learn French, or perhaps we’ll meet her in another book.
This book, though, is focussed on a pair of twins – Tawney and Tasha – who’ve been Crater girls for years; Levity and her younger sister Charm, new girls who want to keep their parentage secret; and Rachel, another new girl, but one who’s been separated from her sister – a sister who’s also her twin.
Hence the title.
Sometimes you want – or flat-out need – a book where nothing really bad is going to happen; where not only does no one need to save the world, but everything about the book feels easy and warm. Three Twins at the Crater School is a book you can relax into the way you would a warm bath or your favourite chair; it has that indescribable, undefinable quality that eases the tension in your brain as you read. There is plenty going on – encounters with Mars’ native wildlife, letter-writing campaigns in the name of justice, Russians on at least one of Mars’ moons, adventures in twin-swapping – but it all comes wrapped up in the cosiness of idealised childhood. These girls are brave and smart and fiercely loyal to their school and to each other, and there’s nothing they can’t overcome by being brave and smart and loyal.
It’s that kind of story. Not infantalising or patronising, just…a safe haven for anyone who feels too bruised for big epic-scale sagas just now. Warm and comforting and still plenty entertaining and clever.
On that note, Brenchley has done a marvelous job with the worldbuilding – naming the Martian wildlife after classical elementals (naiads and undines, etc), delicately crafting the relationship between Mars and its parent British Empire, the whimsical mystery of interplanetary travel – I loved all of it. It’s not heavy at all, but lightly and deftly imparted to the reader through the story, and it complements the, the vibe of the story so well.
I do wish Brenchley hadn’t included the reference to ‘coolies’ – sure, I guess it’s on-brand for the era the story is set in, but the story is also set on Mars, so, you know, maybe there’s no need to stick that closely to ‘historically accurate’? Especially since it was the most unnecessary detail; it would have been so easy to either cut or rephrase the sentence that used that word.
But I can’t deny this was one of the most fun, cosy, comfortingly-escapist books I’ve read in a while: I loved it, and I’ll definitely be pouncing on the sequel when we get one! Because the Crater Girls are definitely not finished having adventures yet…