The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal

Well, this is the most fun thing I’ve read in a while (and that’s saying something). Liz let me know that Martha Wells (of Murderbot) gave this book 5 stars on Goodreads. So I bought it.

Tesla Crane is traveling incognito on a space cruise to Mars with her new spouse, Shal. Tesla is an uberfamous and uber-rich inventor-engineer and heiress, and she just wants to enjoy her honeymoon in privacy, but then a woman is murdered on the way back to their luxury cabins after karaoke, and ship security makes the bad mistake of arresting Shal (himself a recently retired detective), so Tesla is on the case. She is also physically limited by some extreme injuries and a touch of PTSD following a lab explosion, for which she uses the assistance of a Deep Brain Pain Suppressor (DBPS, usually turned up a bit higher than is actually safe), occasionally a cane, and most charmingly, a service Westie dog named Gimlet. With Shal locked down, Tesla is a bit hobbled but also highly motivated (not to say pissed). She navigates the ship, high society, and her investigations with cleverness and aplomb and a sometimes imperfect awareness of her privilege, as Shal gently reminds her; she will make a few friends along the way, but everyone’s a suspect, especially as the body count climbs. Tesla herself is very likeable, but Gimlet steals the show (for readers and most of the ship’s passengers and staff).

I love the elements that combine in this story. There is a strong core of sci-fi, which other reviewers assure us is accurate and well-researched (this reviewer is happy to assume this is the case and move along). There are some fun, thought-provoking cultural elements, especially around gender: in the year 2075 we don’t have much patience for gendered language, using Mx. in place of Ms. or Mr. and spouse in place of the gendered versions, and it is extremely rude and outdated to introduce anyone without noting their pronouns. (Tesla’s spouse Shal is a very masculine type and very handsome but also very engaged with textile arts, particularly embroidery.) The protagonist couple takes their cocktails and coffee very seriously, and each chapter opens with a cocktail recipe (some of which are zero-proof); bar culture and bartenders also form a significant framing element. Gimlet the service dog gets full appreciation both for her skills and training and for her dogness (she’s a dog, not a robot). It all forms a really neat combination, although let me also say the plot needed no bolstering: the mystery itself is fully-formed and legit. What’s not to love?

I was completely absorbed and stayed up late into the night finishing this one. Firmly recommend. Thanks for the tip, Liz & Martha.


Rating: 8 ounces.

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