Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli’s Red Desert four-part series reads like a single captivating novel with a fascinating character named Anna Persson at its core. She’s an exobiologist sent on a mission to colonize Mars, yet her impulsive, angry, headstrong nature breaks the psychological mold of an astronaut and plunges her into one difficult situation after another.
Consider this quote from Anna on finally having to admit to her lover, Jan DeWit, that she will leave him forever for the sake of her mission to Mars:
“He had considered me an egoist and I had hated him because of that. Because I actually felt that, if I had abandoned the mission for him, then I would have been an egoist. Because I wanted him more than the mission. But life has always taught me that the things we want most are those which make us suffer, as it happened to my mother. You live better if you stay away from them.”Red Desert: Point of No Return – Kindle edition location 582
Yeah, she can be difficult, but in a way we all are, mixing up the need for love with the fear of suffering at its possible loss. This sort of self-awareness, and her frequent acting impulsively in contradiction to what she says she wants, is quite believably human.
Monticelli is careful with the science of the Mars expedition, yet manages to combine her basic sf narrative with elements of a first contact thriller, an all too human crime drama and a complicated love story. The writing is taut, economical and propelling throughout, no matter how many unexpected turns the story takes. And there are quite a few.
We start off in Red Desert: Point of No Return with Anna fleeing the base station on Mars, apparently bent on a suicidal journey in a rover to the vastness of the Valles Marineris, that great gash cut deep into the Martian surface. A series of flashbacks and shifting perspectives provided by other characters fill in events that have led her to fear the mission’s surgeon, Hassan Qabbani, whom she is also strongly drawn to.
We’re still not sure, despite Anna’s suspicions of Hassan, how two other crew members died by the time Anna ventures out of the rover and stumbles down a cliff. She passes out, sure she is dying. But she is rescued by people who shouldn’t be there. They are survivors of an earlier mission, all of whom were presumed lost.
That mystery pushes us into the second volume, Red Desert: The People of Mars in which we meet the survivors and their offspring, now numbering a dozen, all of whom appear a little bit too healthy and happy in the habitat supposedly lost on that first mission. That mystery is explained partly but only deepens as Anna discovers an alien virus. From that point, we are clearly dealing with a first-contact story that is elaborated in Red Desert: Invisible Enemy.
Monticelli is especially good at capturing the clash between contrasting experiences in the intimate encounters between characters. Anna, attracted enough to Hassan to throw herself at him for comfort, boils with anger when she finds him in an apparently intimate moment with the only other female on the mission to Mars. We later see the same scene from Hassan’s point of view and capture his bewilderment at Anna’s apparently contradictory behavior. But it’s not until the fourth book in the series that Anna gets a more objective look at what actually happened.
Events come to a head in Red Desert: Back Home. We get deeper into the backgrounds of the major characters, while their behavior is influenced by the alien entity that is constantly trying to fulfill its mysterious intent. Monticelli reveals one twist after another in rapid pacing as she carefully unravels multiple mysteries.
The story can be challenging to follow at first, since it’s told through multiple points of view and switches among several time lines. But it all keeps coming together and left me demanding at every stage to know what happens next.
We often don’t know what to make of Anna’s stormy behavior in which she is torn between two lovers. Yet what she does is always interesting and keeps us involved. That’s no mean feat for a writer, daring to create confusion about motives while keeping readers closely following the twists and turns in the relationships.
Those twists always relate back to the science fictional story as well. We find that some of the strange behavior and events that are hard to fathom in terms of human motivation turn out to be related to infection by the alien virus. I can’t reveal more about that without major spoilers. Suffice it to say, the tension is sustained through all four books.
The books are presented as a series but read more like a single novel. I would love to have the four books in a compendium version, but since this is independently published work, further editions as well as translations of the author’s later novels will depend on sales. So if you enjoy Red Desert, you really should talk it up on social media and review it on Amazon and Goodreads. It’s a fast-paced, action packed series that cuts deeply into human nature.