The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal
I have been eagerly awaiting this book for years! I have loved Mary Robinette Kowal ever since the Calculating Stars. Actually, I fell in love with her writing before that - she wrote a blog post on tor dot com before that book came out about her visit to NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab that was just amazing and has stuck with me for years. I loved the Fated Sky just as much (if not more so) than the Calculating Stars, and I went back and found a short story collection of hers, Word Puppets, that was great, and I really enjoyed Ghosttalkers as well. So when she announced her next book was going to be “The Thin Man” in space, I was immediately hooked.
In college I discovered noir. A good friend of mine introduced me to Bogart movies, and I found an omnibus at the school library of Daishell Hammett’s novels and I devoured them. The Thin Man was not my favorite of his works, but I still enjoyed it a lot so I had very high hopes for Ms. Kowal’s new novel and I was over the moon when I was given an eARC from Tor and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
There was a lot I liked about this novel. I liked the future this book shows, where people can take a cruise ship from Earth to Mars, with all of the wonderful ridiculousness of cruise ships in a science fictional setting. I loved the dialog and the writing style - the book is a page turner, like all of Ms. Kowal’s books.
But I hated the protagonists. The narrator is Tesla Crane, and the name just makes me wince. I know how revered Nikola Tesla is in scientific circles but in 2022 it’s hard not to associate the name with Elon Musk, which is a much less pleasant association. Tesla is an incredibly wealthy scientist and engineer who was injured in an accident years ago and still suffers from physical and mental injuries. The way her chronic pain and PTSD were written felt very realistic. The problem is her wealth. I know the protagonists of the Thin Man were wealthy during the depression but it reads really different in this novel. Tesla’s spouse is arrested very early in the book by the cruise ship’s security and Tesla’s reaction to that makes her look like the solar system’s worst Karen. She uses her money to act terribly to ship’s security, most of whom are just doing their job, and it really soured me on her character early on and for the rest of the novel. Her pompous, expensive, high powered attorney is meant to come off as funny but is just obnoxious.
Furthermore, the mystery doesn’t feel fair. I won’t spoil it here, but much of it involves clues that we are either never given or given so late in the book that it isn’t satisfying at all. The solution feels like it’s pulled out of left field.
The book still has more positive than negative attributes, but it is not Ms. Kowal’s best work.