Lis Carey Review: The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal

Tesla Crane and her new husband, Shalmaneser Steward, are on their honeymoon, on a luxury cruise ship to Mars. They’re barely a full day into their cruise when they come across a badly wounded fellow passenger near their own cabin, and Shal becomes the prime, or in the view of the head of security, only, suspect. They’ll have to investigate for themselves, but spoofers, being cut off from the network and unable to reach their lawyer, on the grounds that Shal is the suspect in a murder, and Tesla’s service dog Gimlet attempting to keep Tesla from exceeding her physical and emotional limits from her injuries and PTSD due to an accident six years earlier, don’t make it easier. (Nevertheless, Gimlet is right. Every time.) Oh, and someone other than the security chief is trying to frame Shal.

The Spare Man, by Mary Robinette Kowal
Tor Books, ISBN 9781250829160, October 2022

Review by Lis Carey: In this book, the very rich wife, the Nora character, is Tesla Crane, a child of great wealth, but also a highly regarded and highly successful roboticist, whose career ended when a disastrous accident killed six people and left her with PTSD and chronic pain from her multiple serious injuries. The little dog is Tesla’s service dog, Gimlet, a Westie, a.k.a. West Highland White Terrier. The Nick character is Tesla’s retired detective husband, Shalmaneser Steward, called Shal. He was a working detective, and host of a reality TV series called Cold Cases. He retired when being famous made it impossible for him to blend into the background

They are recently married, and are on their honeymoon, a cruise from Earth to Mars on the ISS Lindgren. It’s a luxury cruise liner with passenger rings that offer, inward to outward, Lunar, Martian, and Earth gravity. Tesla and Shal have a luxury suite in the “Yacht Club” section of the Earth ring. On their first night aboard, they have dinner in the R-Bar, where they watch the karaoke and witness an argument involving three passengers.

When they return to the Yacht Club section, Tesla pauses to talk to the concierge, while Shal goes ahead — and starts running when they hear a scream. When Tesla and Gimlet catch up with him, he’s beside one of the passengers they saw arguing in the bar. She’s alive, but bleeding badly. Tesla takes over giving what first aid she can while Shal pursues the person he saw beside her body.

It doesn’t take long before the semi-competent and bull-headed head of security, Security Chief Wisor, decides that Shal is the attacker, and has him locked up in a cell. He has no real legal basis for doing so, but Tesla has to reach her lawyer to get anything done, and they’re already at the three-minute delay in comms point. Once Shal is sprung, they’re still not allowed back to their own cabin, but to a much smaller and inferior one. It’s the first of many minor and major harassments, that get harder and harder to correct, as time delays increase, and then their access to the network is blocked altogether. Tesla is a bystander to a conversation in which the captain learns someone put a body in the recycler, and it’s so processed at this point that they can only tell by the excess weight. Oh, and they don’t have any missing passengers.  There’s another roboticist on board, with her former actor/contortionist wife. There’s also a boy who competed in a robotics competition Tesla judged, on board with his father who doesn’t know that’s where he was that weekend. There’s the magician giving shows on the ship, who seems to have improbably broad access rights to restricted areas.

There’s all the people who want to love on service dog Gimlet, which is sometimes a useful distraction, and sometimes — not.

There’s another death, and another near-fatal attack. There’s an attempt to poison Shal. 

And someone is using a bot very like one of Tesla’s medical bots, in other dangerous acts.

Meanwhile, ship service staff who should be witnesses to critical events become unavailable, with changing shifts and duty assignments.

Tesla’s lawyer, Fantine, is a terror and a delight. Indeed, this is a book in which you will like the lawyers.

Gimlet is a very good depiction of a real service dog, smart, responsible, dedicated–but a real dog, not a robot.

Tesla is a woman with both physical handicaps due to her injuries, and PTSD and panic attacks from the incident that caused those injuries–and a real woman working with her real dog. She knows all the rules, and like her dog, she is not a robot, and sometimes does what seems good in the moment.

And like Tesla, and me, you will panic when Gimlet disappears, and can’t be found.

There’s murder, attempted murder, personal intrigue, corporate intrigue, with all the clues fairly available to the reader, along with misdirection and red herrings. The characters are well-developed and interesting.

It’s a lot of fun. Recommended.

I received this book as a review copy provided by Tor.

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