In the year 2091, millions of miles away from Earth, 11-year-old Bell and a handful of other kids are growing up on Mars. Sent there as orphaned infants, they have never known another life, another home or another family. Along with several adults, they make up the American settlement, where their days seem rather mundane, except for the fact that they live in outer space, complete with dust storms, flying meteorites, planetary rovers and algae-based food.
The settlement has very strict rules. Chief among them is, “No contact with foreign countries, ever.” Any contact with the Martian outposts from other countries is forbidden. But the red planet is a mysterious and desolate place, and, feeling isolated, the children are eager to explore. They’re never told why they can’t visit the other outposts, so they venture out and discover new challenges, but are soon discovered and reprimanded. Though they long to return to the other settlements for camaraderie, they are eventually forced to seek help when all the adults fall ill with a mysterious virus.
Holm peels back decades of secrets to expose previous relationships and disagreements between the Martian settlements while exploring the tension between independence and community. She returns often to the metaphor of a lion’s pride, which Bell discovers in a book early on in the story. In a dangerous environment, lions and perhaps humans, too, must provide and rely on communal support to survive.
Written before the COVID-19 pandemic, the isolated setting and threat of unknown illness sometimes cause The Lion of Mars to feel eerily contemporary and timely. Three-time Newbery Honor author Jennifer Holm is known for her stories of family and relationships, but this is her first venture into science fiction. Although she constructs a lived-in vision of life on a Martian outpost that will please sci-fi fans, the story she tells remains rooted in the outpost’s ad-hoc family and anchored by Bell’s down-to-Earth narrative voice.
The Lion of Mars looks past the red dust to reveal how our communities shape us just as much as our environments.