The Relentless Moon
By Mary Robinette Kowal, Tor Books, July 2020
To start, I’m the biggest Mary Robinette Kowal fan. The Lady Astronaut series is arguably my favorite series since I started this review blog, and The Relentless Moon continues its brilliance in every way. With Dr. Elma York long gone on the mission to Mars, we get a new protagonist in the form of Nicole Wargin, a character from the first two books who was a part of the original program. Wargin’s growth is remarkable, with a character arc that should be studied for its brilliant pacing and revelations. The plot is constantly evolving to support that character growth, pulling in mysteries, trials, and tribulations to present a complete picture of this expertly drawn world. From start to finish, I loved every minute of this book and sincerely hope I’ll be able to continue reading the history of the Lady Astronauts until the end of time.
Writing Lessons I Learned
- The Lady Astronaut series is a great lesson in how to create a complex story across multiple formats. Kowal has been able to produce a novella, three novels, and multiple short stories to keep the story of this compelling series going. It’s no small feat given the constantly evolving story elements. From Earth to the Moon to Mars to a spaceship to an asteroid, we see settings and characters evolve as they face new challenges. The series is definitely unique in how masterfully all of these writing forms fit together.
- How to shift to a new protagonist in an impactful way. As I state in my character analysis below, it seems impossible to replace such a powerful character as Dr. York. Not only does Kowal succeed, but she somehow makes a supporting player from the earlier novels into just as compelling of a character. For me, the book is a study in how to elevate a character into the spotlight while forging a unique path beyond the previous protagonist. There are similarities between the two, but the differences are what makes for a memorable story.
- Incorporating an alternate history into every part of a story. The first book starts with the shocking alternate history of a meteor taking out half of the East coast. The world is understandably thrust into complete chaos, and nobody knows what to do. This third novel is set year’s after the first and the issues are as dire as ever. The Relentless Moon can be a study in how to incorporate these environmental details alongside narrative and character insight. In addition to the news story excerpts starting each chapter, we see what’s happening behind the scenes with the addition of Nicole’s husband. That was a brilliant choice, giving politics a larger role in the story.
- How to create a compelling character arc that shows growth in a subtle, yet impactful, way. It often seems that strong character growth comes at the expense of a protagonist who is either hot-headed or is extremely young with limited life experience. We often see these characters learn and grow over one to three books, eventually becoming seasoned in the ways of the world. Kowal’s protagonist is already at that point in her life, making the growth all the more impactful. We see issues that have always plagued her alongside unimaginable hardships she is forced to overcome. She emerges stronger than ever and it’s fascinating to track how she got there.
- Honestly, Kowal is a great study in how to write science fiction in general. As you can see from perusing my blog, Kowal was one of the first science fiction authors who really inspired me to love the genre. She has a special way of writing that’s both approachable and complex. I’m always drawn to complete characters and she’s able to present dozens of fully realized characters, no matter how short the screen time. It’s been two years since I read the first novel and I still feel like I know these characters. Each time somebody enters the picture, I get excited, like a favorite celebrity suddenly made a cameo. That’s not an easy thing to achieve, and it’s a testament to how memorable the writing is.
To start, the well-established alternate history is key to how well the Lady Astronaut world flows into a compelling narrative. By creating this changed history, Kowal is able to bend world events to fit the story while recognizing the prevailing public opinions and rights battles of the time. The history is essential to the story that flows between all three novels of the series, and makes it feel all the more real when reading. As a reader, you most likely have a visualization of the 1960s, so it’s easy to fully get into the setting of the book.
I loved how many different types of stories were at play here. First, we have the story of a woman who was made to shine in politics. She knows exactly what needs to be done and said at every moment, and she’s able to use that ability in her duties as a First Lady and, more importantly, in her role with the IAC. Through this lens, we see the many layers of BS a woman is forced to face as she tries to compete in an industry such as rocket science.
Second, we have a mystery filled with assassination attempts, poisonings, and sinister plots to take down any attempts at saving humanity. We see the terrors of being stuck on the Moon without help from Earth, and the terror of people who choose to perpetuate conspiracy theories that ignore facts in favor of sabotaging the people and agencies trying to save them. It’s terrifyingly relevant to the current political climate.
Finally, we have a science fiction tale that masters the technical specifications of space travel, moon colonization, communications, life support systems, etc. Kowal writes every detail in an easy-to-read way without sacrificing the hard science-aspect of living and working in space. It feels infinitely real and adds a surprising element to the mysteries of the latter half.
The shift in protagonist from Dr. Elma York to Nicole Wargin was the most surprising element of The Relentless Moon. Typically, I have trouble with series that shift their protagonist, especially when it’s a badass like Dr. York. After two books dedicated to her story, she had become this shining beacon in my mind of the ideal astronaut origin character. She’s determined to succeed against the odds, brilliant, complex – the list goes on and on. To be honest, I didn’t remember Nicole Wargin from the first books. I had to go back and re-familiarize myself with her story. As an original Lady Astronaut, I had no doubt she’d be a fantastic character, but it’s hard to move beyond someone like Dr. York. Thanks to Kowal’s fantastic writing skills, it only took a few pages before I was enthralled with Wargin and her unique place in this compelling world.
Nicole Wargin faces many different dynamics, all fighting against each other and threatening to backlash. As a First Lady, she’s expected to be prim and proper by the standard of 1960s society. It’s a role in which she excels, both in her daily duties and in how she deals with the infuriating sexism and double standards of the time. As an original member of the Lady Astronaut program, she’s a beacon of space exploration and a brilliant pilot. She had all of the technical know-how of the best pilots but was forced to take more of a sidelines approach due to her husband’s career. As a confidante in the plot against the space program, she has to walk a fine line with every interaction. Wargin emerges as a strong character who can navigate her competing roles with ease. Her complexity is what makes the book so brilliant.
Dr. York is the star of the series, but Nicole Wargin is what comes next – an astronaut who must balance the complexities of a future amidst the stars alongside the many pains of a dying home world. There are tragedies to overcome, one specifically that was shocking, but her ending will leave you ecstatic. To see this character become the best person she could be, to finally discover her true potential and position in the world, was more thrilling than any action sequence. Kowal has a knack for capturing the human condition on paper, and her true mastery of that ability shines with Nicole Wargin.
One of the most impressive aspects of the Lady Astronaut series is the character work done outside of the protagonist. Kowal is able to masterfully create a full roster of characters who are easy to remember, have fully developed personalities and histories, and are integral to the advancement of the story. I cared about all of these characters, no matter how small their roles were, and I was impressed by how effortlessly they were added to the narrative. That kind of connection requires an author who knows each of her characters deep down, who respects them and their part in the story.
NOTE: I was provided a free copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest, unbiased review.