I first heard of Mary Robinette Kowal from the Writing Excuses podcast. At the time, my impressions of her were personality-based. She was confident, wore many hats, and had strong feelings about intersectionality in art (like me). She also had no patience for your bullshit. Only later did I actually get acquainted with her writing. By then, I couldn’t help but hear every word on the page in her smooth voice. And for what that’s worth, it has only made me appreciate her already great writing even more.
The Relentless Moon is the third full-length novel in the Lady Astronaut of Mars series, based on a novella with the same name. In an alternate timeline, a meteorite hits Earth in 1952, starting a greenhouse effect that will make the planet uninhabitable. Humanity unites like never before to establish colonies on the Moon and Mars, and avoid extinction. But that unity doesn’t mean that the many prejudices of the mid-20th century have suddenly been forgotten.
The first two books tell the story of this alternate space exploration through the eyes of the mathematician Elma York, destined to become the famous Lady Astronaut. In The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky she has to prove to the men in charge that she is not only as good as any of them, but by necessity, quite a bit better than most.
I genuinely enjoyed Elma in those novels. But I loved Nicole Wargin in The Relentless Moon. Where Elma is a scientist, Nicole is a politician. Elma is occasionally a rebel against the system of prejudice and low expectations of her world. Nicole has made of that system a game. Rather than slam her head against the wall, she seeks ways to make the wall move out of her path. She doesn’t always succeed, but when she does, she makes it impossible for men to ignore her.
The Relentless Moon takes place during the events of The Fated Sky. While Elma York is traveling to Mars, Nicole has to juggle being an astronaut with being the wife of a governor who is about to run for president. What’s worse, the terrorist group Earth First has began an active campaign of sabotage, trying to shut down the space program. Now Nicole finds herself trapped on the Moon colony, uncertain of her allies, and racing against invisible enemies whose misguided fight for Earth might doom humanity to extinction.
The Relentless Moon is a solid departure from the tone of the previous novels. Where those were focused on the success of vast undertakings, the new entry is more of a detective thriller. The main characters are trapped in a place where survival is highly dependent on technology, knowing that some of the people with them are actively trying to sabotage it. The story jumps from one disaster to the next, as Nicole tries to figure out the plans of Earth First, while her husband fights a much larger version of the same fight back on the homeworld.
I loved this book. It presents a very real aspect of The Lady Astronaut series — the knowledge that not everyone will get to leave Earth, and what that does to humanity. Nicole is a sharper, less scrupulous character than Elma, capable of decisions that would shock her friends. She also struggles with anorexia, and the story doesn’t shy away from describing that. But more than anything else, she is exactly the person for the job. Kowal uses her brilliantly to tackle problems her original protagonist never could. The shift in perspective matches the shift in genre, making the novel a fast-paced and engaging read.
I don’t know how much room there is in this universe for more stories. But if The Relentless Moon is any indication, Mary Robinette Kowal is capable of taking it in completely unexpected directions, and I genuinely hope she returns to it. In the mean time, this novel is a firm recommendation from me.