Tesla Crane is on her honeymoon, a cruise to Mars. She revels in her anonymity with a spoofed ID and appearance, no bodyguards to surround her and give her away. But only a few days into what’s meant to be a glorious trip, there’s a murder right outside her cabin door, and her spouse is arrested for it.
This book is well beyond my comfort zone. I don’t generally read science fiction, especially space-based sci-fi, but this one is set on a cruise ship, and long time readers will know that I love a cruise setting!! Plus, I follow the author on TikTok and her writing content is awesome. And I also read that Sanderson/Kowal duet The Original back in 2021, and that was really great. All good motives to get out of my comfort zone, and I’m glad I did, because reading The Spare Man was a very interesting experience.
I am the sort of reader who tends to be drawn more toward fluid writing, atmospheric tone, and life just exploding from the page. I’m less drawn toward writing and storytelling that is more technical and/or precise in nature, like this one. This kind of writing, while excellent, often doesn’t engage my emotions as easily, and so the experience of the book doesn’t stick with me. This is the first time that I’ve read a book so skillfully done, technical layers built on top of each other so well, that before I’ve realized what happened, I’m emotionally invested in everything from the characters to the setting to the plot. Most of the books I’ve read that focus on this precision tend to hit one note, with built-in layers to give it depth. The Spare Man was more like multiple melodies being played simultaneously, each masterfully done on its own, but somehow blending into a larger creation. A book is often greater or lesser than the sum of its parts; The Spare Man felt like exactly the sum of its parts, which is both mind-blowing and unique, at least for my experience. I loved it.
There are so many things I could discuss about this book. Gender is approached in a fascinating way – not just that folks have pronouns attached to their names, but they are described by the narrator in a way that has no indication of typical gender markers. As a person who has grown up in a generally binary culture, it was difficult to form mental pictures of characters without those gendered touchstones, which challenged me to examine even further my already-liberal views of gender. Disability and mental health were also heavy focuses, as Tesla suffers from various physical injuries and pain from a former traumatic accident that also gave her anxiety, panic attacks, and severe PTSD with flashbacks. Her physical condition is ever-present in the text, just as it is ever-present with Tesla herself.
Then there is the dog. Y’all, I’m not a dog person. I mean, I’ve known dogs that I love and enjoy being around, but it’s not like with cats. I love every cat. I see photos of them and just melt. Dogs are…just dogs. But Gimlet, Tesla’s service dog, wormed her little way into my heart in the same way she wins over just about everyone in this book. I’ve read plenty of fictional dogs before, and I can’t remember another that I loved like this one.
Of course, the book isn’t perfect – no book is, right? There are a lot of unanswered question (even minor ones) that I wish I had answers to, some of which aren’t even related to the mystery! (Highlight to read, contains very minor spoilers: What did Jalna want to talk to Tesla about in the theatre? What did “hourglass” mean, and did it have any significance? Who was the Mx Smith asking about tee time, with the freckles and red hair? Why is Annie’s cruel and out-of-character outburst in the theatre never addressed? End.) It’s possible some of these have answers and I just missed them, particularly towards the end when I was reading far faster and later in the night than I should have been. It’s definitely a book that would benefit from reread.
Perhaps I’ll do that sometime. I know the audiobook is supposed to be good, and read by Kowal herself. And then I can find out how Mx is pronounced. Heh.