Before Mars includes some psychological thriller elements in its sci-fi


Even if you haven’t read the other Planetfall books by Emma Newman, there’s a lot to appreciate in Before Mars, including its thriller aspects.

It’s hard not to think of games like the original Dead Space when reading Emma Newman’s Before Mars, sent my way by Ace Books. Granted, at the risk of a potential spoiler, there aren’t any necromorphs around. However, the eerie sense that there’s something missing in Anna Kubrin’s mind reminds this reviewer quite a bit of Isaac Clarke’s first encounter with the necromorphs and his missing girlfriend, Nicole Brennan.

However, there’s a lot less action and a lot more of a psychological thriller when it comes to Before Mars. Sent there mostly to produce art of Mars using actual materials from the red planet (but also as a geologist), Anna’s troubles start pretty much as soon as she steps foot in the Mars Principia base. In a lot of ways, Newman does really well dealing with Anna’s struggles to reconcile everything that’s going on around her — how Anna logically walks through what she’s seen and done, trying to make sense of it all.

It’s when we get into characters that only appear as messages from Earth that the trouble begins. Anna is, after all, married, and she spends a significant portion of the book ruminating over the troubles she’s had as a wife and mother. It’s not that it’s necessarily boring, and it makes sense by the end of the book, but it’s hard to understand just why there’s so much of it. The stories about her family are quite a bit more engaging — it’s hard not to like Anna’s mother, for example.

When it comes to the still relatively limited cast, however, there’s more to like. Newman includes a nonbinary character among the other crew of Mars Principia, but Petranek, as ze is known, has more than just “is nonbinary” as a character trait. Meanwhile, Banks, Elvan and Arnolfi all have their secrets as well. There is a true antagonist, yes, but that’s for this reader to know and you to find out if you pick the book up.

Will you be able to see every bit of the plot coming? Well, that depends on how well you pick up on the clues. Foreshadowing seems to be a strong suit of Newman’s, at least for the solution to the major mystery.

Furthermore, you can read this without knowing much — if anything — about the Planetfall series as a whole. While some minor nuances might be lost, a reader can easily put the details together to make sense of what’s going on and why certain things matter.

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Ultimately, Before Mars has a solid storyline, a strong supporting cast and a decent, if not great, balance between the different emotional beats it needs to hit.