The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal science fiction and fantasy book reviewsThe Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal science fiction book reviewsUber-wealthy inventor and heiress Tesla Crane and her husband, retired detective Shalmaneser Steward, plan to enjoy their honeymoon on the interplanetary luxury liner Lindgren as it travels from Earth to Mars. Horribly, the trip is interrupted when a person is stabbed to death right outside their luxury suite, and to make matters worse, Shal is arrested for the crime. As the evidence against him mounts, will Tesla be able to prove he’s innocent? Will she and her gallant Westfield terrier service dog Gimlet discover the true killer? More importantly, will Shal be free in time for happy hour?

As the title and the cover of the trade paperback show us, 2022’s The Spare Man, by Mary Robinette Kowal, is an homage to Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man—Nick and Nora Charles in Space. For lovers of Hammett, there is an “Aster” easter egg nicely placed in the story, too.

Shal and Tesla have a cute terrier companion, they are both smart, and they both like their cocktails, especially gin ones. There, most resemblance to Nick and Nora ends. Tesla lives with a disability that requires a service dog and occasionally an assistive device, and in temperament and skill level shares more in common with the women protagonists of THE LADY ASTRONAUT series. Tesla, however, has also grown up with incredible wealth and celebrity, and is comfortable using her privilege to make her life easier. She is impulsive, dangerously so, and does impulsive things even when she herself has realized they are dangerous. Tesla and Shal seem to conduct separate informal investigations here, and rarely sit down to compare notes and discuss the case. Some of this is plot driven (they believe, correctly, that their conversations are being monitored), but I sure missed the partnership.

The body count ticks upward, and attempts to frame one or the other of the couple intensify. While one aspect of the space liner, the Coriolis effect, is used as a plot point in solving the murder, I was disappointed that the ship itself did not play a bigger part in the story. When we finally uncovered the murderer and their motivation, it didn’t feel deep enough for the story, counting on a fact about the murderer that is brought out, literally, in the final few pages of the book.

My disappointment in the mystery was intensified by the ship’s head of security, who was a flat, stereotypical, “incompetent cop.” He hates rich people (that’s why he’s head of security of a luxury liner); he jumps to conclusions, he uses gendered insults and is rude to rich women. Thank goodness he has a woman direct report who is a good cop and likes dogs.

I loved Gimlet, as does nearly everyone in the book, and my favorite character is Fantine, Tesla’s great white shark of a personal attorney, who swears by the names of increasingly obscure Catholic saints and is often in trouble with her priest for it. Fantine is back on earth, but her appearances via phone were a sheer delight. I also liked what Kowal did with pronoun use and honorifics. The real bonus of the book, though, were the recipes for cocktails and what Kowal calls “zero-proof” cocktails (some of us say “mocktails”). One heads each chapter and the drink’s name plays a part in the chapter.

At the time I chose to read this, my home county was getting drenched in a much-needed but inconvenient storm system that was soaking everything. The Spare Man was a nice book to curl up with as I drank tea and watched the rain. I recommend it for Kowal fans.

Published in October 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.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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