The Relentless Moon

by Mary Robinette Kowal

Cover image

Series: Lady Astronaut #3
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2020
ISBN: 1-250-23648-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 542

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Content note: Discussion of eating disorders in this review and portrayal of an eating disorder in the novel.

The Relentless Moon is the third book of the Lady Astronaut series and the first one that doesn't feature Elma. It takes place simultaneously with The Fated Sky and tells the story of what happened on Earth, and the Moon, while Elma was in transit to Mars. It's meant to be read after The Fated Sky and would be a significant spoiler for that novel.

The protagonist of this novel is Nicole Wargin: wife of the governor of Kansas (a more prestigious state in this universe since the seat of government for the United States was relocated to Kansas City after the Meteor), expert politician's wife, and another of the original group of female astronauts. Kenneth, her husband, is considering a run for president. Nicole is working as an astronaut, helping build out the permanent Moon base. But there are a lot of people on Earth who are not happy with the amount of money and political attention that the space program is getting. They have decided to move beyond protests and political opposition to active sabotage.

Nicole was hoping to land an assignment piloting one of the larger rockets. What she gets instead is an assignment as secretary to the Lunar Colony Administrator, as cover. Her actual job is to watch for saboteurs that may or may not be operating on the Moon. Before she even leaves the planet, one of the chief engineers of the space program is poisoned. The pilot of the translunar shuttle falls ill during the flight to the Moon. And then the shuttle's controls fail during landing and disaster is only narrowly averted.

The story from there is a cloak and dagger sabotage investigation mixed with Kowal's meticulously-researched speculation about a space program still running on 1950s technology but drastically accelerated by the upcoming climate collapse of Earth. Nicole has more skills for this type of mission than most around her realize due to very quiet work she did during the war, not to mention the feel for personalities and politics that she's honed as a governor's wife. But, like Elma, she's also fighting some personal battles. Elma's are against anxiety; Nicole's are against an eating disorder.

I think my negative reaction to this aspect of the book is not the book's fault, but it was sufficiently strong that it substantially interfered with my enjoyment. The specific manifestation of Nicole's eating disorder is that she skips meals until she makes herself ill. My own anxious tendencies hyperfocus on prevention and on rule-following. The result is that once Kowal introduces the eating disorder subplot, my brain started anxiously monitoring everything that Nicole ate and keeping track of her last meal. This, in turn, felt horribly intrusive and uncomfortable. I did not want to monitor and police Nicole's eating, particularly when Nicole clearly was upset by anyone else doing exactly that, and yet I couldn't stop the background thread of my brain that did so. The result was a highly unsettling feeling that I was violating the privacy of the protagonist of the book that I was reading, mixed with anxiety and creeping dread about her calorie intake.

Part of this may have been intentional to give the reader some sense of how this felt to Nicole. (The negative interaction with my own anxiety was likely not intentional.) Kowal did an exceptionally good job at invoking reader empathy (at least in me) for Elma's anxiety in The Calculating Stars. I didn't like the experience much this time, but that doesn't make it an invalid focus for a book. It may, however, make me a poor reviewer for this part of the reading experience.

This was a major subplot, so it was hard to escape completely, but I quite enjoyed the rest of the book. It's not obvious who the saboteurs are or even how the sabotage is happening, and the acts of clear sabotage are complicated by other problems that may be more subtle sabotage, may be bad luck, or may be the inherent perils of trying to survive in space. Many of Nicole's suspicions do not pan out, which was a touch that I appreciated. She has to look for ulterior motives in everything, and in reality that means she'll be wrong most of the time, but fiction often unrealistically short-cuts that process. I also liked how Kowal handles the resolution, which avoids villain monologues and gives Nicole's opposition their own contingency plans, willingness to try to adapt to setbacks, and the intelligence to keep trying to manipulate the situation even when their plans fail.

As with the rest of this series, there's a ton of sexism and racism, which the characters acknowledge and which Nicole tries to resist as much as she can, but which is so thoroughly baked into the society that it's mostly an obstacle that has to be endured. This is not the book, or series, to read if you're looking for triumph over discrimination or for women being allowed to be awesome without having to handle and soothe men's sexist feelings about their abilities. Nicole gets a clear victory arc, but it's a victory despite sexism rather than an end to it.

The Relentless Moon did feel a bit long. There are a lot of scene-setting preliminaries before Nicole leaves for the Moon, and I'm not sure all of them were necessary at that length. Nicole also spends a lot of time being suspicious of everyone and second-guessing her theories, and at a few points I thought that dragged. But once things start properly happening, I thoroughly enjoyed the technological details and the thought that Kowal put into the mix of sabotage, accidents, and ill-advised human behavior that Nicole has to sort through. The last half of the book is the best, which is always a good property for a book to have.

The eating disorder subplot made me extremely uncomfortable for reasons that are partly peculiar to me, but outside of that, this is a solid entry in the series and fills in some compelling details of what was happening on the other end of the intermittent radio messages Elma received. If you've enjoyed the series to date, you will probably enjoy this installment as well. But if you didn't like the handling of sexism and racism as deeply ingrained social forces that can at best be temporarily bypassed, be warned that The Relentless Moon continues the same theme. Also, if you're squeamish about medical conditions in your fiction, be aware that the specific details of polio feature significantly in the book.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-05-30

Last modified and spun 2021-05-31