review of Mary Robinette Kowal’s novel The Spare Man

Early on, I wrote in the margins: “am I supposed to like any of these jerks?” There’s a confusing mix between didactically calling out abuses of privilege at some points and simply fantasizing about them at others. The rich and famous protagonist, Tesla, seems to feel that she and her husband Shal are entitled to be above suspicion. In light of the evidence against Shal, the security team would have been negligent not to detain him, yet Tesla reacts to his arrest as if they’ve committed an egregious offense. She uses her power to seek special treatment and to try to intimidate the staff; it’s not very sympathetic. (They do abuse Shal, but Tesla’s self-righteous indignation starts before she knows about that.)

Tesla’s main tool of intimidation is her lawyer Fantine, whose entire personality consists of aggressively insulting and threatening anyone who doesn’t do what she wants (“...your brain is about as efficient as a polyamide bag filled with raw egg yolks...”). This could have been amusing if we’d been shown - rather than just told - that she’s a scarily-effective lawyer, but as it is she comes across as cartoonishly arrogant.

Those quibbles detracted from my enjoyment of the first third or so of the book, but it’s still a fun read, and Tesla becomes more likable as the novel progresses. I liked the resolution to the mystery, as well as several aspects of the setting:

I also appreciated Kowal’s inclusion of brief appendices about the science and even the cocktails referenced in the story. Not knowing which parts are supposed to be realistic and which parts are supposed to be fanciful is a recurring frustration I have with fiction, and it would be cool to see more novelists provide explicit notes on that.