Book Review

The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Spare Man is most frequently described as The Thin Man in space, and the cover copy does a better job of summarizing than I could:

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.

Here are ten things you should help you decide if you want to read this story.

  1. If “space murder mystery” makes you raise your eyebrows in interest, you’ll like this.
  2. If you like Nick and Nora Charles, The Thin Man, stylish banter, and extreme levels of debonair in your characters, you’ll very much like this.
  3. If locked room mysteries are your jam, your preserves, and your Polaner All Fruit, you’ll like this. The locked room is a spaceship, the mystery is murder but it’s not gory in the murdering, and the pressure is high because Tesla’s new husband Shal, who she’d like to have sexy fun times with, is probably being framed.
  4. Compounding the tension is Tesla’s struggle to not bulldoze her way over and through the people in her way, and her desire to keep her (very famous) identity a secret while on the ship so she can be an ordinary person for a while.
  5. In addition to the murder and all, complicating her quest for a quiet honeymoon are Tesla’s struggles with debilitating chronic pain, PTSD stemming from a terrible workplace accident, and a decided lack of patience for ignorant, annoying people.
  6. Tesla has a service dog named Gimlet who is absolutely marvelous and perfect.
  7. (Highlight to read dog-related spoilers)  While Gimlet does get dognapped, Gimlet is just fine at the end.
  8. The tone is humorous, wry, amusing, and bubbly like good champagne. Even when Tesla is struggling with flashbacks and extreme anxiety, there’s humor and support, and jokes about watching the “Great Mars Baking Show.”
  9. The very retro feeling of classic cocktails (every chapter starts with a recipe) and stylish bars and opulent travel is matched with extremely detailed speculative fiction about space travel, interplanetary gravity, and, you know, spending your honeymoon on a luxury ship to Mars. As you do.
  10. The future society in this book is portrayed as very inclusive, very welcoming, and very thoughtful. There’s some ignorance and bigotry and lack of understanding about disability from a few characters, but the majority of people participate in and uphold a non-binary society that I found superbly charming and hopeful.

One of the major themes in the story is connection. Crew members and fellow guests are thrown together in an elegant traveling liminal space in space, and connections made on board are therefore temporary and free of long-term constraints. People can pretend to be whomever they want. Many are eager to pet and interact with Gimlet, when Gimlet isn’t working, allowing Tesla to connect with people and ask questions. Meanwhile, Gimlet’s physical and emotional connection with Tesla enables her to connect with the world on safer terms.

Connections are also severed. Tesla is cut off from ship networks and from communicating with the world outside the ship (and her attorney) when she and her spouse are under suspicion. Her own personal network that allows her to speak with her husband wordlessly is cut off as well, leaving her disoriented and isolated. Everyone on the ship can be tracked with the myriad cameras and feeds on board, unless someone is carrying a device that makes the space around them blurry, thereby disconnecting them from surveillance.

The way connections are made between characters, both positive and negative, and the way connections are blocked and restored provides an undercurrent of tension, and gave me a lot to think about after I finished reading. I’m still thinking about the world of this book, moreso than the characters.

Tesla was a little challenging for me at times, even when I was eager to see her solve the mystery. I struggled with her name (I don’t like to think about Elon Musk if I can help it) and I struggled with her repeatedly stated desire to not use her fame, her status, and her money to influence or manipulate people, because the minute she could, she did. It was the path of most familiar least resistance for her, because very few individuals can get in her way – unless she’s isolated and cut off from her resources. She seemed very accustomed to having someone else clean up any interpersonal messes she made, and there’s a sense of blinkered entitlement to some of her decisions that made me grit my teeth. That said, even though she annoyed me, and I may not have liked how much she reminded me of people I don’t like, she was mostly consistent in her inconsistencies.

I sometimes struggled with some repetitive elements to the story, such as how often Tesla decreases the amount of pain or sensation she feels. But once the mystery got going, it kept me extremely occupied on a long flight to the point that I was kind of mad when we started to descend and I wasn’t done yet. I can simultaneously read and do many other things, but navigating Dulles while reading is not one of them, and I wanted to finish. I could not guess the finale, nor the culprits, and the decoys and false leads resolved in ways that were both interesting and sad: interesting because the future depicted seemed possible and hopeful and not impossible, and sad because, alas, shitty people will still be shitty in the distant future.

I recommend this book to anyone who would like to be temporarily transported into a galaxy and future that’s far away but seems nearby. The world building is grounded in a familiar, stylish history, while also being extremely forward-thinking. The most intriguing parts of that familiarity for me are located in the fact that people will always want to connect with others to be less alone, and that dogs are the greatest among us, now and always.

This book is available from:
  • Available at Amazon
  • Order this book from apple books

  • Order this book from Barnes & Noble
  • Order this book from Kobo

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.
We also may use affiliate links in our posts, as well. Thanks!

The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal

View Book Info Page

Add Your Comment →

  1. MaryK says:

    I’ve been meaning to give this one a try. Her name made me think of Nikola Tesla and wonder how her parents knew she’d be an inventor. EM didn’t even come to mind for some reason.

  2. liminal fruitbat says:

    Terminology nitpick from a detective story reader: when you call this a locked-room mystery with a spaceship as a locked room, I suspect you mean “closed circle mystery”. A locked room mystery is one where the body/rifled safe/whatever is found in a locked or otherwise inaccessible space such that seemingly no one could have committed the crime, while a closed circle mystery is one where, for whatever reason, the criminal must have been one of a specific group of suspects who were on site (a spaceship, an island, an isolated house, etc).

    If it *is* a locked room mystery where the victim was aboard a spaceship where no one (except the detective’s spouse) could possibly have reached them, though, it sounds like a nicely ingenious set-up!

  3. Emily C says:

    Thank you for reviewing, Sarah.
    I bought this on the strength of my love for Kowal and her series, but had some trouble getting started. I found Tesla hard to like and root for right away, as I’m not one for prickly heroines usually. But your review has me planning to pick it back up. I trust your book reviews and was really hoping for the Bitchery to give me some food back on it. I do love a locked room Murder mystery (and a dog).

  4. SB Sarah says:

    @MaryK: I am SO APPALLED and also very amused at myself that I read “Tesla” and thought “car” instead of “Original Science Dude” whose museum I supported with donations. LOL at myself. Musk has done a job with the Tesla name if my brain and recognition is any indication.

    @EmilyC: Tesla is very prickly and sometimes I felt like I was riding along with her as she figured things out rather than rooting for her to do so. I hope you’ll let me know what you think if you pick the book up again!

    @Liminal: Oh – thank you! I am not as terminology fluent in that department, and yes, I clearly mixed “locked room” with “closed loop.” Thank you!

  5. AtasB says:

    Oooh, my library is going to have it. Sounds fun, and I’ve enjoyed this author before.

  6. chacha1 says:

    I kind of want to read this on the basis of the elevator pitch and that *glorious* cover, but will probably wait for a sale. So many books, so managed budget.

  7. Escapeologist says:

    Ooh I’ve been waiting for this review! The sample chapters on were so charming. Gimlet is best doggie.

    Tesla as a first name bothers me because that word means adze (woodworking tool) in my native language, also in Croatian where Nicola Tesla is from. So to my ears it sounds a bit like naming a heroine Hatchet. Hope that helps get Elon out of your brain.

  8. SB Sarah says:

    @Escapeologist: Yes that absolutely helps and is very funny!

  9. Mikey says:

    It’s funny how, in locked room mystery stories, they usually talk about how it’s a seemingly impossible murder. After all, the very existence of mystery stories about those murders show that locked room murders are perfectly possible to perform. And since far from all of those mystery stories use the same solution, that means that there are in fact several different ways to commit these “impossible” murders. 🙂

    On another note, have you noticed how the culprits in murder mysteries are all perfect actors? In real life, it’s often suspicious behavior and mannerisms that clues the police in on somebody’s guilt. Somebody will say “Who could have done this to my husband? This is awful!” but she’ll say it very woodenly, as if she’s reciting a line that’s been prepared in advance. But fictional murderers never, ever slip up in their perfect acting.
    Nothing wrong with this, mind you, because otherwise we couldn’t have that nice denouement where the clues are put together to solve things. But I think it would be fun if a writer would try to make a thing of it, or something. Like, maybe give an explanation for why somebody would be able to act so convincingly.

    Maybe–and I’m just spitballing here–the culprit could turn out to be the victim’s husband, who’s a failed actor or something. And somebody says that it’s weird how an actor wannabe who never landed a single role managed to play the role of grieving husband so well. And the husband replies that he could never pretend that convincingly in front of everybody else, and the reason that he gave such a good “performance” of grief is that he really did mourn his beloved wife. He regretted killing her even before her body had grown cold, and if his grief had been fake then everybody would have seen through him in five seconds flat.

    Or maybe somebody finds a corpse on the doorstep and she screams in fear that seems real, and at the end it turns out that she’s the killer, and was frightened not because of the murder itself, but because she hid the body away in a cave and didn’t expect to see it on her doorstep, and that’s why she screamed in “surprise” at a murder that in itself didn’t surprise her.

    Don’t know if those particular scenarios are good or not, but you get the idea, right? A whodunnit mystery where they acknowledge that the suspect was excellent at acting, and give an explanation for why.

  10. Lisa F says:

    You had me at “The Thin Man In Spaaace”

  11. Darlynne says:

    Just checked your score with great relief. The whole premise grabbed me and I am the happy owner of the audio book. Thanks.

  12. Sandra says:

    @Lisa F: Me too. I always wanted to be Myrna Loy when I grew up. Haven’t got there yet. On to the wish list it goes.

  13. Jazzlet says:

    I like the premise, and the cover is gorgeous too, so very glad to get a positive SB review.

  14. Kareni says:

    This sounds like fun, Sarah. Thanks for your review!

  15. Misti says:

    I really liked this one as well. Yes, there are a few things that bothered, but I was entertained and had a hard time putting it down. I liked that this is a standalone, but I wouldn’t be upset to read about them solving another mystery when they get to Mars. 😉

Add Your Comment

Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↑ Back to Top