Review by Mary Woods
- Themes: Mars, Planetary Colonization, Murder, Mystery, Family, Aliens, the Church
- Genre: Science Fiction
- Audience: Teen to Adult
- Year Published: 2020
- Author’s Worldview: Catholic
Part alien story and part murder mystery, The Vines of Mars is a tale of humanity’s first permanent settlement on Martian soil. A culturally diverse but close-knit group of colonists scrape a harsh living out of the Martian desert. Meanwhile, a mysterious alien plant, known as the Vines, is taking over the surface of the planet. Although the Vines have terraformed Mars’ atmosphere to make it breathable, the strange plant is also a danger to the colony: it will crush homes and attack humans in its relentless search for water.
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Tomas, a hardworking Martian farmer, knows the dangers of the Vines. He’s lost many friends and even family members to it: his sister, who ran away from the colony fifteen years previously, is presumed dead. So Tomas is shocked when a teenage boy who appears in town turns out to be his long-lost sister’s son. Somehow, his sister survived living in the lethal Martian jungle for years. Tomas sets out to find her, but discovers only her dead body, disfigured by flamethrower burns. The Vine didn’t kill his sister—someone has murdered her.
Tomas’ discovery sets off a series of events that begin to uncover the dark secrets of his small community. In his desire to discover the truth about his sister’s fate, he finds himself putting his own family and even the entire colony at risk. But every step of his investigation leads him closer to discovering the true nature of the deadly Vines.
I enjoyed A. R. K. Watson’s depiction of Mars’ first colony. Although the story takes place in the future, the isolated community feels like a small frontier town. Characters from many different cultural and religious backgrounds must work together to survive the planet’s unforgiving climate. I also enjoyed reading the details about the partially terraformed world. Although this version of Mars has a breathable atmosphere, it still has deadly dust storms and high radiation levels that the colonists must battle on a daily basis.
Religious themes are prominent in the story. Tomas is a practicing Catholic, but struggles in a realistic way both with his own faults and with the difficult teachings of the Church. One conflict that I thought was particularly well done was Tomas’ relationship with the colony’s Catholic bishop. Because of the seal of confession, the bishop finds himself compelled to conceal a crucial fact about the Vines that may endanger the colony. This painful conflict between faithfulness to the priesthood and the apparent good of the community was, I thought, well-handled.
Overall, the story presents an intriguing mystery with good character drama. The world is well-constructed with concrete, realistic details, but also includes a touch of the fantastic. The Vines of Mars is the first book in a planned series, so there are a few plot points that are unresolved by the end of the story. The exact nature of the Vines is still a mystery—one that I hope Watson will explore in her later books!
I’d recommend this book to teens and adults who enjoy stories about mysteries, alien encounters, and planetary colonization. The religious themes in the book make it particularly relevant to Christians, but do not exclude other audiences. The Vines of Mars sets up a fascinating world-building premise, and I look forward to seeing where A. R. K. Watson will take the story next.