The Spare Man, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor 978-1-25082-915-3, $30.99, 368pp, hc) October 2022.
My reading habits have shifted after the last two-plus years. Anything gritty or tense has got to be followed by at least one lighter title or maybe two, otherwise I cannot regulate my re¬sponse to anything happening to the characters. It seems like the last two-plus years have done the same to many SFF writers. The books they were working on before the pandemic began aren’t the ones they emerged with – and those manuscripts are just starting to hit the stands.
John Scalzi’s The Kaiju Protection Society, a joyful romp about Godzilla-like creatures and a person tasked with keeping them safe, was a complete pivot from the more serious book he was supposed to writing. Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Spare Man is also a joyful romp (sans big lizards) whose particulars morphed and whose deadline was pushed back in response to the pressure of a changing virus and society.
The Spare Man is a perfect latter-stages-of-a-pandemic read. The logline is simple: The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles take a cruise between Earth and Mars. Mystery ensues. The fabulously wealthy Tesla Crane is Kowal’s Nora. Tesla is on-board incognito because she’d like a little privacy to enjoy her honeymoon with Shal, our Nick. The role of wirehair terrier Asta is filled by Gimlet, a Westmoreland terrier and therapy dog. Shal is a former detective; Tesla is a former inventor. Both just want to enjoy some peace and quiet.
That is not to be, of course. There is a murder. There are narrow escapes. There is a magician and thugs and poison. Despite several close calls, you know that Tesla and Shal will figure out who did what to whom. You also know that Kowal has intricately mapped the plot and practical details, including a series of endnotes about the science of space cruise ships and the delights of cocktails, both those alcoholic and non. My only quibble is that this writer’s style doesn’t leave enough space for unstructured moments – but I also can’t stop reading what she has to write. Regardless, The Spare Man is a balm for those who are re-learning how to be in a changed (real) world.
Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.
This review and more like it in the August 2022 issue of Locus.
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