I didn’t realize until I started reading that The Relentless Moon, while technically a sequel to The Fated Sky, is more of a spin-off in the series. Mary Robinette Kowal writes from the perspective of Nicole Wargin, a white woman who was a side character in the first two books. She is one of the original astronauts (or astronette, ugh) alongside Elma York, the Lady Astronaut and narrator of the first two books, who is on her way to Mars during the events of this book. Nicole is also the wife of Governor of Kansas Kenneth Wargin. So Kowal gives us a healthy mixture of political intrigue, semi-religious fundamentalist terrorism, and true physical danger. The Relentless Moon is the mystery I wish Artemis had been.
Trigger warnings in this book (and review) for mentions of anorexia/eating disorders, anti-Black racism.
Nicole Wargin is headed back to the moon, albeit not as a pilot like she has always craved. No, the IAC still doesn’t let women fly the rockets, eh? Nicole is entrusted with a secret mission: help the administrator of Artemis Base figure out who is working with the terrorist group Earth First to sabotage missions. Some of that very sabotage nearly finishes Nicole before she can begin, however, and after that point The Relentless Moon becomes a slow drumbeat march against the inexorable ticking clock. As blackouts become more frequent and the enemy seems to get bolder and bolder, outside events put Nicole under the most stress she has ever experienced. Yet it’s up to her and a small group of trusted colleagues to unravel this conspiracy before humanity’s presence is space is doomed forever!
So, no pressure.
For anyone worried that Nicole isn’t as formidable or enjoyable a narrator as Elma, let me just reassure you right away: Nicole’s great. She’s different, of course. She has the political experience that comes with her upbringing and her marriage, so she knows how to put on a face and schmooze in a way that Elma came to a lot later in her life. Nicole is very pragmatic in that way, even though we are privy to her true thoughts about the boorish or unproductive behaviour of some of the men around her. Perhaps what sets Nicole apart the most from Elma would be that Nicole likes being slightly out of control. She relishes the edge, and the moments that make her despair most are the ones where she shares with us her fear that she might not get to do that anymore—might not get to fly, might not get to go to space, etc.
The Relentless Moon has two very relatable elements for me. The first one, almost everyone will relate to: quarantine in the face of an infectious virus! I don’t want to go into too much detail for fear of spoilers, but let’s just say that “polio on the moon” sounds incredibly scary. Kowal in her author’s note had the opportunity to comment on the parallels between polio epidemics in the mid–twentieth century and the COVID19 pandemic. Just be aware going into this book that if you want to escape from pandemic protocols, you might not get that chance here!
The second relatable element is Nicole’s broken arm. Again, no spoilers. But I broke my arm in June 2019. Much like Nicole, I wondered how much mobility I would recover after physical therapy, whether or not I’d be able to do the tasks that I had up until then really taken for granted, such as typing, knitting, and riding my bicycle (which was how I broke it). Now, I didn’t have to worry on top of that about the brittleness of my bones from living in low gravity! Nevertheless, Nicole’s experience really rang true for me. (In case you’re wondering, I’m doing great! I have less mobility in my left wrist than in my right, but not to the point where it limits my daily activities. I now have a “weather elbow” as they say.)
I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect regarding the plot. The first act of The Relentless Moon takes place Earthside and is very concerned with politics and the optics of the space program. I was tempted, at first, to dismiss this as boring. But that’s very shallow of me. One of the best parts of Kowal’s Lady Astronaut universe, or LAU as she calls it, is how she is shaping the alternative history of the 1960s. We see this unfolding with the U.S. capitol now relocated to Kansas City, and a very different political landscape from the one we’re familiar with from our 1960s. I am very intrigued to see how the situation on Earth, with its drastically accelerated climate change timetable, affects the development of technologies that we take for granted, particularly when it comes to electronics and computing. While one might argue that a lot of those inventions will still occur because of necessity from the space program, there is room for Kowal to delay certainly, and perhaps bypass entirely, certain developments, should she choose.
After we get to the moon, the plot definitely kicks into a higher gear. I enjoyed every moment of Kowal throwing Nicole into a new and different problems to help solve—or, frustratingly, when Nicole realizes she can’t really help solve the problem and has to wait. I really like that Kowal isn’t afraid to sideline her protagonist—obviously when this is done at an inopportune time it’s annoying, but when done appropriately as Kowal does here, it helps keep the protagonist humble. That way, when they do pull off little miracles, the reader is more impressed than if they were a superhero the entire time.
I can’t remember if Kowal hinted at or outright mentioned Nicole’s eating disorder in the earlier books, but it features heavily here. Kowal says she put a lot of effort into avoiding triggering portrayals; I, not having experienced eating disorders, can’t evaluate that. All I can say is that I appreciate that Kowal depicts Nicole’s eating disorder so complexly. It’s not something she “beats” and then she’s fine. It’s a monster that is always lurking in the background, something that she battled when she was younger and now it rears its head over and over throughout her life, especially in times of stress, which The Relentless Moon certainly qualifies for. As much as I love books that are about people struggling with mental health issues, we also need books that show protagonists who just happen to have mental health issues. I want to say Kowal is normalizing eating disorders, except, you know, this is a book about an alternative 1960s where people are colonizing the moon.
Speaking of which: hats off to Kowal for tackling the thorny issues of colonialism and eugenics in space. Although the Earth Firsters are, broadly speaking, terrorists and their actions are reprehensible, Kowal carefully finds a way to make it clear that they have a point. In the rush of various countries to make space, the moon, and Mars a viable alternative for human habitation given Earth’s dire prognosis, there are serious questions about who will get to survive in this new future. Kowal doesn’t hesitate to address racism in space, particularly as it relates to the Black characters of Eugene and Myrtle Lindholm. Similarly, she mentions the problematic selection criteria for space travel—both the practical, physical requirements as well as the highly political ones.
All in all, The Relentless Moon is just as good as the original LAU novels. I’m holding back on five stars only because I don’t want to give the impression that this is better than the original novels; I’d need to re-read those first. But I ran, not walked (ok, I drove my privileged ass) to the bookstore to buy this book the week it came out, and I have no regrets.
If you want a book about women on the moon, solving mysteries with math and guile, The Relentless Moon is the book for you.