Book Review

The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Relentless Moon is part of the wonderful Lady Astronaut series. I recommend reading it after reading The Calculated Stars and The Fated Sky but if you do jump in you should get enough backstory in The Relentless Moon to catch you up. However, you will miss the overall flow of events and you’ll miss some emotional payoff.

The premise of this series is that a meteor strikes Chesapeake Bay in 1952. In the aftermath, it is determined that the strike will cause so much long-term damage to the climate that Earth will become uninhabitable in fifty years. This causes the space race to be more of a space collaboration, one that is massively accelerated in hopes of eventually evacuating most people to lunar and Martian colonies. Because of the massive loss of life during and immediately after the strike, women and people of color find themselves with opportunities that, in our current reality, would have been closed to them. The previous books have focused on Elma York, a calculator and pilot who becomes famous as a “Lady Astronaut.”

The Relentless Moon begins in 1963 and is narrated by Nicole Wargin. She was one of the first Lady Astronauts and has been splitting her time between helping establish the lunar colony and being a politician’s wife. Nicole discovers sabotage of the space program on Earth and then in the Lunar colony. Despite a great deal of science-driven science fiction, this is, at heart, a mystery novel and political thriller. Readers should know that it is not a romance, that sad things happen, and that the book doesn’t so much as end as just…stop, with at least one more book projected to follow.

Like the other Astronaut books, this book has great science content and a fascinating portrayal of what establishing a lunar colony would be like in both technical terms and in terms of characters. The United States is employing people of color at high levels in the space program, but that doesn’t mean that everybody is happy about it. The colony is an international effort, which means that White South Africans have to respect Black leadership despite South Africa’s policy of aparthied. There are personal differences, language differences, cultural differences…it’s a miracle that the group can function at all.

The fact that it does work owes a great deal to the fact that all of the people on the moon, even the newest rookies, are trained to be calm and methodical in emergencies and to respect the chain of command without being afraid to voice opinion or objection. In moments of crisis, everyone drops their personal bullshit and works together, because to do otherwise is to die. The book operates heavily on the premise that smart is sexy and that intelligence and competence are fun to read about. I have no quarrel with this premise. If you like teamwork and competence porn, this is your book.

One thing I enjoyed about this story is that Nicole isn’t superhuman. She’s extremely intelligent, but complains that her thoughts are fuzzy, or that she knows there’s a connection she’s missing, or that she does something inefficient, when she’s injured, or flooded with adrenaline, or lacking food. I also love the fact that Nicole is fifty years old. It’s so rare to have a heroine who is on the other side of middle aged, something which gives Nicole a mature perspective on her marriage, friendships, and career. Nicole is intelligent, fit, and capable in every way, but she’s relatable because she’s not perfect or superhuman.

This book has a compelling plot, with a cascade of things going wrong, puzzles to solve both scientific and criminal, and real emotional heft. The lunar colony consists of only about 300 people, and Nicole’s circle of friends at home is also small and tight knit, so every loss, every moment of suspense, every piece of news comes as a real punch to the reader, especially the long time reader. Every success feels like a real triumph.

In previous books, Nicole was a supporting character, and it’s fun to hear her voice and perspective. One of the challenges Nicole has grown through in the course of the series has been understanding her privilege as an upper class White woman, and figuring out how to leverage that privilege to support others. The book is not subtle about addressing matters of race, class, and gender, because the characters cannot afford to be subtle, and thus the book (and others in the series) sometimes sound as though the characters are just yelling “RACISM IS BAD” at each other. Frankly, I’m fine with that. Racism is bad, and some of us have to be told that and shown that over and over again before we realize what microaggressions we commit consciously or unconsciously on a regular basis. However, there is a writing style here that some may find a bit clunky, with a lot of exposition and explanation.

This series is an excellent example of the idea that a whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. I very much enjoyed The Relentless Moon but it’s not meant to be a standalone, and in part because of the sudden ending, it doesn’t work as a standalone. As with the other books, it looks closely and in detail at one part of our alternate space history and one period of time in the protagonists’ lives. Examining each book individually is like seeing a partial view through a tiny porthole – pretty but incomplete. Taken as a whole, the story over the three novels is so much richer in character development and world-building as the seeds sown in the first book have time and space to develop and the alternate history events take on more and more complexity. Individually, I give this book an A-, but the series itself so far is an A+/SQUEE.

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The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal

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  1. 1
    LisaA says:

    I can’t wait to pick up my copy today. I had the pleasure of hearing Mary Robinette Kowal speak at a signing for the first book, which I’ve given and recommended to so many people.

  2. 2
    Susanna says:

    Excellent series. Can’t wait to read this.

  3. 3
    DonnaMarie says:

    Love this series! I need extra hands for all the thumbs up I’d give it.

  4. 4
    Karin says:

    This review makes it sound a bit like the Red Mars/Green Mars/Blue Mars trilogy which also have to be read in order.

  5. 5
    Susanna says:

    Karin, I enjoyed both series a great deal, but they read very differently. I agree that both have to be read in order – they are true series, not “series in name only.”

  6. 6
    Jo says:

    Yep, one of the few new releases (well, about 20… that is only a few out of all the books as the year goes on!) I’ve bought (planning on buying) this year and I can’t wait to get into it considering how much I loved the first two. So happy that it lives up to those.

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