Murders, fluffy dogs, and cocktail recipes: The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal has it all…in spaaaace! This extremely fun and fast paced murder mystery doesn’t exactly stick the landing but is so much fun I didn’t really care.
Tesla Crane, a Tony Stark insanely rich inventor type, is on her honeymoon with her new spouse Shal Steward, a former detective. Most importantly, they also have Tesla’s extremely cute service dog, a white Westie named Gimlet, with them. Gimlet spends most of the book stealing the hearts of every character she meets, including mine. Tesla and Shal are traveling incognito on their space cruise to Mars because Tesla happens to be one of the most famous people in the solar system. Their romantic bliss doesn’t last long though, as they witness a murder most foul, and Shal is accused of the deed!
The blend of science and fiction is a very important balance in this genre. Knowing when to lean into actual physics and when to let creative license take over is a fine dance and Kowal executes it well. She mentions in her author’s notes at the end of the book that the ship the story takes place on, the Lindgren, is insane and wouldn’t actually work as well as it does in the book. But she did take the time and the research to make sure that the core concepts were solid, and so it felt realistic enough that I didn’t get distracted by how wacky it might actually be. For a fun murder mystery, a thorough dissertation on gravity is not required to enjoy the plot.
Characters who feel like real people with real motivations are integral to a good murder mystery, and Kowal definitely succeeds here. There is quite a large cast of characters, and while it is a bit overwhelming meeting them all in the first third of the book, by the middle you have a pretty firm grasp of everybody. It was absolutely a book where I suspected multiple characters because they had well established motivations. Tesla and Shal in particular are excellent, well-rounded people whom you root for, despite the fact that they are filthy rich and famous. Their love for each other, Gimlet, and cocktails are instantly endearing. A special shout out also to Tesla’s lawyer Fantine, who has incredibly creative and hilarious insults and crochets when stressed.
Tesla is also notable for being someone you don’t see a lot in Sci Fi: a disabled protagonist. Being fully abled myself I don’t have an ideal sense of whether that representation is done well, so sound off in the comments, but it seems like a step in the right direction. Tesla’s disability doesn’t stop her from investigating, but it does through her some curveballs along the way. She has to balance clearing her spouse’s name with her disability and PTSD, and that navigation felt very authentic. Representation in general is clearly something that Kowal was aiming for in this book. Language is kept very gender neutral, characters are introduced including all manner of pronouns, and people of diverse gender, sexuality and racial backgrounds are all over the place. The world feels like a natural, if slightly optimistic, evolution of our world.
What worked: Characters, Setting, Gimlet the dog
What didn’t: Climax less than thrilling
Recommended listening: Jazz and Big Band
There are a few distracting things about this book, some in a strangely positive way. For example, Shal does embroidery as a hobby, and every time it would come up in the story I would think “Oh yeah that sounds fun, I’m going to go work on my embroidery now.” Also each chapter begins with a cocktail recipe, which can get very distracting in a very tasty way.
However, less entertainingly, the final reveal falls a bit flat. I don’t want to say too much because it’s hard to discuss mystery endings without spoiling parts, but it wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been. It’s certainly not enough to detract from the experience of the book, but definitely ended up being a bit of an “oh I guess?” moment for me. The book is still fun and well worth the read though, with the fun of the story not just hinging on the reveal of the mystery.
If you’re looking for a fun winter holiday read for yourself or someone else, The Spare Man definitely delivers. It comes out on November 11, 2022 and is well worth a dive.