Sunday, February 19, 2023

Book Review: The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal
Adult science fiction/mystery
Tor Books
October 11, 2022

Tesla Crane, a brilliant inventor and an heiress, is on her honeymoon on an interplanetary space liner, cruising between the Moon and Mars. She’s traveling incognito and is reveling in her anonymity. Then someone is murdered and the festering chowderheads who run security have the audacity to arrest her spouse. Armed with banter, martinis and her small service dog, Tesla is determined to solve the crime so that the newlyweds can get back to canoodling—and keep the real killer from striking again.

The Spare Man has a great, simple hook - it's The Thin Man in space! And if that one-liner grabs you, then yes, it's as delightful as it sounds, go get it right now. However, if you haven't read or seen The Thin Man, don't worry - like the best retellings, there are some fun references here for fans of the original, but it also stands fully on its own. (And yes, Nick and Nora fans, there's a dog. Her name is Gimlet. She's great.

I love traditional mysteries, but I've also been increasingly appreciating books that blend mysteries with other genres, and an interplanetary spaceship, once you start thinking about it, is a perfect mystery setting. Talk about a locked room. Kowal does a great job of really integrating the mystery with the science fiction elements - the setting isn't window dressing, but intrinsic to the way the mystery unfolds, and the different genre aspects feel very balanced. And the sci-fi worldbuilding is fascinating and intricate without ever feeling like a data dump; this is definitely helped by the humor and the way Kowal's style keeps things moving at a bright, sparkling pace.

The main couple is M/F and never mentions who else they might or might not be attracted to, so I hesitate to call the book queer, but it definitely feels queer, and it's a thoroughly queernorm world, where everyone mentions their pronouns as a matter of course, relationships and families come in all sorts of configurations, and characters' hobbies, styles of dress, etc. have nothing to do with their genders. In this way it was extremely refreshing. There's also lots of ethnic and racial diversity, and explorations of the effects that disability and trauma have had on the characters' lives.

I highly recommend this one and definitely hope there are more Tesla Crane mysteries in our future. Bonus: There are fun cocktail recipes at the beginning of each chapter!

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