I first came across Mary Robinette Kowal about ten months ago when I started listening to Writing Excuses. I guess technically, I had a couple of her books from before that — I had already bought her book Ghost Talkers a couple months before, and her book Shades of Milk and Honey (the first in the Glamourist Histories, which she describes as Jane Austen with magic) a year before that — but I hadn’t read either of them yet, so it kind of doesn’t count.
On Writing Excuses, MRK quickly became my favorite speaker (sorry, Dan, Howard, and Brandon). She’s so analytical and relateable when she talks about constructing a story. She gives concrete tips and frameworks for developing plot. Her way of thinking about things just really clicked for me.
But still, I dragged my feet on reading her novels. Sometimes I do that when it comes to books or authors that I know will resonate. I don’t know if it’s because I’m savoring the anticipation or if I’m just wary of being sucked in. And I knew I was going to be sucked in – by that point, I had read several of her short stories and taken many of her writing/plotting/characterization insights to heart.
And I wasn’t wrong about that bit. Ghost Talkers was at least a standalone. After I read Shades of Milk and Honey, I immediately went and bought the rest of the series, breaking my 2018 book buying rule. Then I proceeded to forgo reasonable amounts of sleep for the next three days as I finished all the books.
All that to say: Mary Robinette Kowal is now one of my favorite authors. And I’m going to tell you to read her Lady Astronaut series.
This series is set in MRK’s punch card punk alternate timeline wherein a meteorite strikes Earth in the 1950s causing devastating climate change that will render Earth uninhabitable, accelerating the development of a space program that will allow humanity to go to and settle other planets. The two novels out now center around Dr. Elma York, who is a mathematician and computer and who goes on to become the Lady Astronaut (which, as MRK points out, is not a spoiler given what the title of the series is).
The premise is fun, the plot is interesting, and the science is fascinating. There were plenty of little details about flight, piloting, astronaut training, and the difficulties of space travel, and they were woven seamlessly into the fabric of the story. (Sometimes when I read hard SF, I get annoyed at how the pedantry can take you out of the story.)
MRK does not gloss over the social issues: the books confront and examine the systemic racism and sexism of the time period. I find this to be almost an MRK signature — she deals with these topics with great sensitivity and skill. A shining example of how to write about a racist/sexist society without writing a racist/sexist book.
And of course, it wouldn’t be MRK without fleshed-out, tear-jerking emotional arcs and characterization. (Every time I welled up, I could hear her authorial evil laugh from here.) One of my favorite things is Elma’s relationship with her husband — how they support each other, how they deal with long distance (all the rocket puns…). MRK challenges them, but doesn’t use arbitrary plot devices to break them apart. She also managed to get me to (somewhat begrudgingly) come around to a character that I disliked SO. MUCH. at the beginning of the books.
I could keep babbling about it, but suffice to say, I think you should read the books. And the short stories. (And then all of the rest of MRK’s back catalog. Thank me later.)
Here are some links:
- The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut #1)
- The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut #2)
- The Lady Astronaut of Mars (#2.5) — This is a novelette that was published in 2013. I read it on Tor last year, and it was my introduction to the universe.
She also has a few short stories set in the same world on her blog:
P.S. I just found out that MRK signed a deal with Tor to expand the world even more with two additional Lady Astronaut novels AND a murder mystery novel set in the same universe. This is AMAZING, and I am so EXCITED. (I had to edit this bit for exclamation points, but I left in the caps.)