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REVIEW: Ghost in the Machine by Barbara J. Hancock

Dear Ms. Hancock,

Your 88 page post-apocalyptic romance novella, Ghost in the Machine, published by Samhain, was unlike any other romance I’ve read before. As I was reading it, I kept thinking of movies like the original “Terminator” and “28 Days Later” – dark yet ultimately uplifting stories about human beings struggling to survive in a world gone grim and terrifying.

Ghost in the Machine	Barbara Hancock
Ghost in the Machine
is narrated largely in the first person POV of Bet, a young woman who was left orphaned in the wake of the invasion of New York City by a biological computer known as the SoulEater.

The SoulEater consumes humans and mutates them into the Shadows, who seek out more humans for its consumption when they aren’t glitching by haunting their own pasts. After being located by Shadows, the humans (known as Warmbloods) are collected by the SoulEater’s other creations, the human/machine hybrids called Sweepers, who bring the Warmbloods to the SoulEater and enable it to make more Sweepers and Shadows.

Since the SoulEater’s invasion, New York has been covered in ashes and inhabited by growing numbers of Shadows. The number of Warmbloods has dwindled. Bet is a survivor but a tired one. Ever since her parents died years before, she has raised and sheltered her younger brother Douglas, foraging in the Shadows’ dangerous terrain to feed him.

Bet is on one such trip, having just found a precious can of peaches with which to feed her brother, when the warren in which she lives with Douglas is invaded by Sweepers. She abandons caution and with it, her pretense of being a Shadow, to race back to the warren. In doing so she draws the Shadows’ attention, but even so, she still arrives at the warren too late: Douglas has been taken by the Sweepers.

The realization is devastating because for years, protecting Douglas was the sole thing that had given Bet’s life purpose. When she makes her decision to pursue the Sweepers who took Douglas, it’s not merely because she is devoted to her brother but also because her own survival isn’t enough to sustain her.

I rise and center my pack between my shoulder blades. The precious can of peaches is my promise. One day Douglas will eat them. One day he’ll enjoy every juicy bite. I won’t give in to my hunger. Not for one single slice.

I don’t look back at the warren as I walk away. Beneath my feet are Sweeper tracks in ash. Shadows are coming. I feel their threat closing in. Logic says I should run in the opposite direction and avoid them at all cost. My heart and soul say otherwise. And until those things are lost or eaten, I’ll follow them.

The Shadows do indeed attempt to track Bet and one, shaped like a spider with a human head, attacks her. It’s at this point that she is rescued by a beautiful man in a soldier’s body armor. But the man has shimmering wings, and eyes hazy with static. He is not really a man, but another Shadow.

Except that unlike other Shadows, he has eyes that indicate he may be capable of independent thought. A different kind of Shadow, and one who has just saved Bet’s life. But Bet, taking no chances, uses her disruptor on him and sends him back to his maker, the SoulEater.

The Shadow, once a soldier named Gabriel Sanchez, is a ghost in the SoulEater’s machine. And he returns, resurrected, an hour later. He tells Bet that each time that happens, it is harder to pull himself free.

Bet finds herself talking to him. It is beyond dangerous to do so, since Gabriel is not just the ghost of a soldier who died years before, but the SoulEater’s creation. Is the SoulEater filing away whatever she tells Gabriel? Is it toying with her? Will it use Gabriel to attack her? Bet isn’t sure if she has a death wish, now that Douglas is gone, but when Gabriel offers to help her save Douglas, she gives in to her weakness and allows him to come along.

She knows he can’t be trusted. She knows that even if he wants to help her, he is still the SoulEater’s creature. And yet she also knows that she can’t save Douglas without Gabriel’s help. Worst of all, she recognizes that she feels desire for this Shadow, and wanting to find the sense of connection that has been missing from her life with him, with a Shadow, is the most frightening thing of all.

All that I have just summarized happens in the first ten percent of the novella. Because the story unfolded in compelling and unexpected ways, I don’t want to spoil more of it for readers.

There are a few flaws to this novella – I didn’t understand how the Shadows worked, technology wise, or always get what was happening on the SoulEater’s end of things. A question rose in my mind about where the food Bet foraged was produced (rice was mentioned to be a staple). And I also questioned whether Bet really would have been able to shelter Douglas to the degree she had in such a world.

But for the most part, I didn’t care. I didn’t care because the atmosphere of the world you created was so haunting, the spare language a perfect match for it, and the characters’ situation wholeheartedly absorbing.

Bet was such a focused survivor, though nearing the end of her emotional and physical rope. Gabriel literally pulled himself together from bits of memory – memory of the humanity of the solider he had once been. Both of them kept going, kept putting one foot in front of the other in a world where bleakness threatened, where little was left but the need to survive.

They took tremendous risks in the attempt to save Douglas, and in the attempt to allow themselves to feel something for one another. More than just a romance, this was also a story about the struggle to hold on to one’s humanity, and about the qualities which make the human race worth saving. It left me filled with hope as only stories that go into the dark places and come out on the other side can do. High B+.

Sincerely,

Janine

Goodreads | Amazon | Sony |All Romance eBooks

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, "Kiss of Life", appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com. or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

31 Comments

  1. Lolita Lopez
    Jan 09, 2012 @ 15:54:21

    The Goodreads, Amazon, etc links point to a Bella Andre book.

    This novella sounds fabulous! I’m off to Amazon to 1-Click it.

    ReplyReply

  2. Janine
    Jan 09, 2012 @ 16:30:07

    Sorry about the links! I corrected most of them although I couldn’t figure out how to do Barnes and Noble, and Kobo doesn’t appear to carry this novella. Maybe someone more tech savvy than I am will add back the Barnes and Noble link. B&N does carry the novella.

    And yes, it really is wonderful. I’m so glad I discovered it, and sorry it didn’t happen a few weeks earlier. If I’d found it before the beginning of December, it would have made my Best of 2011 list.

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  3. Dani Alexander
    Jan 09, 2012 @ 16:47:22

    Wow for an 88 page novel, that sure packs a wallop in the first ten percent. Even the review makes it sound amazing in just a small amount of words. Sounds incredible. (in the good way).

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  4. Janine
    Jan 09, 2012 @ 16:55:25

    @Dani Alexander: Yes, the writing was spare and powerful, with almost no wasted words. I hope you give it a shot. I thought it was terrific and plan to keep an eye on this author’s future works. I’ve only read this one so far, but if the rest are close to this good, she deserves to be better known.

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  5. Has
    Jan 09, 2012 @ 17:05:50

    This looks good! I am always open to books like this!

    ReplyReply

  6. Janine
    Jan 09, 2012 @ 17:07:30

    @Has: I hope you enjoy it. I haven’t read anything like it in the romance genre before.

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  7. Lindsey
    Jan 09, 2012 @ 17:35:48

    Hm, not my usual fare, but it sounds like it could be fun to read and play “spot the anime references” (both Ghost in the Machine and SoulEater are names of very popular animes).

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  8. Merrian
    Jan 09, 2012 @ 17:39:19

    I think Barbara Hancock is an author to watch, and she has a great way with post apocalypse worlds. A few years ago, I read a shifter book set in a post-apocalypse and ever since I have bought anything she has written.

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  9. Janine
    Jan 09, 2012 @ 17:41:13

    @Lindsey: I had no idea about the Anime connection! I think Ghost in the Machine is an older reference too, though. Something to do with philosophy, IIRC and The Police had an album (before the days of CDs!) with that title too.

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  10. Janine
    Jan 09, 2012 @ 17:43:56

    @Merrian: I’m so excited to find someone else who has read this author! I think I stumbled on her through a review at another site and downloaded a sample to my Kindle which sat there for a long time. Once I read it, though, I bought the novella.

    Have you Ghost in the Machine then, Merrian? If so, how does it compare to her other works? Is everything else of hers this good?

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  11. Isobel Carr
    Jan 09, 2012 @ 17:53:25

    Ghost in the machine is a reference to the mind/body dualism of Descartes (“I think, therefore I am, and so is God [the last part, the whole point of his work, is often left out]). Your mind (or soul) is the ghost in the machine (your body).

    OMG, my philosophy degree just came in handy. Score 1!

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  12. Janine
    Jan 09, 2012 @ 17:58:27

    @Isobel Carr: LOL! We learn new things on DA all the time. And that actually fits with the themes of this novella, since Gabriel’s soul is what remains of him.

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  13. Brie
    Jan 09, 2012 @ 19:10:59

    Is it a standalone novella, or is it part of a series?

    ReplyReply

  14. Merrian
    Jan 09, 2012 @ 19:49:06

    @Janine:

    “”More than just a romance, this was also a story about the struggle to hold on to one’s humanity, and about the qualities which make the human race worth saving””

    I think this a bit of theme for this author. I have read this novella and enjoyed it as you did.

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  15. Janine
    Jan 09, 2012 @ 19:57:41

    @Brie: It is part of a three-part multi-author series called Cybershock, but I haven’t read the other two novellas and I thought this one stood on its own.

    @Merrian: What is your favorite of her works? I want to tackle her backlist but I’m not sure where to start, or if her shifter novellas are connected to each other. Her website isn’t that clear.

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  16. Merrian
    Jan 09, 2012 @ 22:29:54

    @Janine: Hi Janine, none of the three novella’s I have read are linked:
    1. Captured (Shifters/post apocalypse)
    2. Enemy Mine (shifters)
    3. Perfect Strangers (aliens among us)

    If you want to stay with the post-apocalypse theme then “Captured” is the one to read and the one I liked best of the three.

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  17. Janine
    Jan 09, 2012 @ 22:48:14

    @Merrian: Thanks!

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  18. Brie
    Jan 10, 2012 @ 07:02:07

    @Janine: Read it yesterday, it was very good! I think it would have worked better as a full-length novel, mostly because some aspects of the world were muddy at best and the ending was weak compared with the rest and felt rushed. But regardless of all that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I think the author has a beautiful voice. Now I need to get my hands on the other books. Thanks for the wonderful rec!

    ETA:
    @Merrian: Oh! I’m reading Captured today! ;)

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  19. coribo25
    Jan 10, 2012 @ 07:07:31

    Sounds like a great read, which I’ll be checking out, but I would dearly love to see a hero not called Gabriel, unless it’s being used ironically or has special reference in the story. So many Gabriel’s floating around they’re starting to blend.

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  20. Jan
    Jan 10, 2012 @ 10:14:04

    Anyone read the others in this series? And do they play in the same world, or is the thing that connects them simply that they are cyberpunk?

    ReplyReply

  21. Janine
    Jan 10, 2012 @ 12:37:20

    @Brie: Yes, some aspects of the world were muddy for me too, most of which were mentioned in my paragraph beginning with “There were a few flaws….” But I also wondered if part of the reason for that muddiness was that Bet, the main narrator, was ignorant about those details herself.

    SPOILERS
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    Re. the ending, agreed. I didn’t go into it in the review because I didn’t want to spoil anything in a short novella. I didn’t mind the jumping forward in time but it seemed like they came far very fast, in terms of things like how much food they had to eat. It was maybe a little lacking in realism?

    But maybe it also feels that way for me because the rest of the novella was dark enough that I half-expected a bittersweet ending that a movie version would have — one where Gabriel sacrifices himself to destroy the SoulEater and never comes back. I was glad we got a happy ending instead, but it took a little getting used to and I didn’t completely understand how it had come about.
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    END SPOILERS

    I think the novella could have been a little longer but I wouldn’t have wanted it all the way at full novel length. That would have diluted the intensity of the romantic relationship too much IMO.

    Thanks for the wonderful rec!

    You’re welcome! It was exciting to discover such a good new-to-me author, so I’m really glad you enjoyed this novella as well.

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  22. Janine
    Jan 10, 2012 @ 12:41:52

    @coribo25: There is some connection to the name Gabriel here since the SoulEater gave him wings and it is speculated that the name may be the reason why.

    I love the name Gabriel but I agree it is used a lot in the romance genre. Sort of like Nicholas was in the 1990s.

    @Jan: I haven’t read the others but I am curious about that myself. Going by Samhain’s site, Ghost in the Machine is the first of the three, and I never felt like I was missing anything when I read it, but I still would love to know whether the others are connected and if so, how.

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  23. Lolita Lopez
    Jan 10, 2012 @ 17:26:11

    Wow. Just wow. I finished this in one sitting while my little monster napped. It was so different and so effing good! I wish the ending hadn’t seemed so rushed (I wanted to understand more about the SoulEater) but I enjoyed this story all the same.

    And now I want more!

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  24. Janine
    Jan 10, 2012 @ 17:56:37

    @Lolita Lopez: Yay! So glad you enjoyed it that much. “So different and so effing good!” captures how I felt about it too.

    ReplyReply

  25. Brie
    Jan 10, 2012 @ 18:01:22

    @Janine: That’s a very good point about Bet not really knowing everything about the world, and I agree, but Gabriel did know, or at least he should since he was part of the SoulEater, so there might have been a way for him to explain things during the couple of times we get his POV. The muddiness of the world building didn’t deter my enjoyment of the book but the setting was so fascinating that I just wanted to know more, that’s why I say that maybe a full-length novel would have worked better, more room for explanations.

    SPOILER:
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    I was also expecting a bittersweet ending but I was happy with how things ended because I think by the end of the book Bet needed Gabriel just as much as she needed Douglas and if she didn’t get both of them it would have been terrible for her, too much heartache. The epilogue at the end was the closest to a baby-epilogue a story like that can get and I felt it was unnecessary, though.
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    END OF SPOILER

    Really great book and one I enjoy talking about (obviously).

    For what I can see and based on the descriptions and on the previews we get at the end of the book, the other two novellas have the post-apocalyptic/cyberpunk theme in common, but nothing else, so they are standalones and can be read separately.

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  26. Janine
    Jan 10, 2012 @ 18:24:38

    @Brie:

    That’s a very good point about Bet not really knowing everything about the world, and I agree, but Gabriel did know, or at least he should since he was part of the SoulEater, so there might have been a way for him to explain things during the couple of times we get his POV.

    I thought of this too, but at the same time, I feel that Gabriel’s mysterious nature was important to the power and impact of the story. What I mean is that I didn’t know if/when the SoulEater would take him over and he would turn on Bet against his will. And not knowing the exact state of things between Gabriel and the SoulEater contributed to that uncertainty and created a lot of the suspense that kept me on the edge of my seat. The unknown can be much more scary than the known.

    The muddiness of the world building didn’t deter my enjoyment of the book

    Agreed; this was the case for me too.

    but the setting was so fascinating that I just wanted to know more, that’s why I say that maybe a full-length novel would have worked better, more room for explanations.

    I understand where you are coming from because I also wanted to understand better, and yet, in addition to what I said up top about uncertainty and suspense, I also think that sometimes science-fiction gets bogged down in technical explanations and I get bored because the story isn’t moving forward or I’m not with the characters and their emotions while I’m reading a data dump. There wasn’t any of that bogging down in this novella and I appreciated that.

    SPOILER:
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    I was also expecting a bittersweet ending but I was happy with how things ended because I think by the end of the book Bet needed Gabriel just as much as she needed Douglas and if she didn’t get both of them it would have been terrible for her, too much heartache.

    I didn’t think of that but you are right. It would have devastated her too much.

    The epilogue at the end was the closest to a baby-epilogue a story like that can get and I felt it was unnecessary, though.

    Yes, agreed! It was a little too happy to fit with the rest.
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    END OF SPOILER

    Really great book and one I enjoy talking about (obviously).

    Me too. As I said elsewhere, it would have made my Best of 2011 list if I had read it earlier.

    I didn’t think to check the previews at the back, so thank you for answering Jan’s question.

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  27. Maili
    Jan 10, 2012 @ 18:49:21

    Sounds the sort I’d enjoy. Thanks for the heads up, Janine.

    @Lindsey:

    “spot the anime references” (both Ghost in the Machine and SoulEater are names of very popular animes).

    You meant Ghost in the Shell? Who’s the writer if it’s the different one?

    Random commment/ I think it’s tough not to compare because Japanese SF manga and literature (and anime, I suppose) heavily revolve around similar premises and themes, especially where technology, humanity, philosophy and the purpose of humankind are concerned. Right now, I can think of six comics and two novels that resemble this novella. Not that I’m saying it’s not original; just that most times, it was way ahead of Hollywood (The Matrix, Terminator, etc) and general SF. So the best authors can do is write the best as they can and judging by this review, Hancock did./random comment

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  28. Janine
    Jan 10, 2012 @ 18:52:25

    @Maili: You’re welcome and thanks for the comment on the similarity to anime and manga. I hope you enjoy the novella — but either way, I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

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  29. Merrian
    Jan 12, 2012 @ 06:11:39

    I have just finished Susan Ee’s ‘Angelfall’ and loved it. It is a novel that is first in a series with a YA heroine growing up fast in a nasty apocalyptic world where the angels came back and destroyed us. If you enjoyed Barabara Hancock’s story then I think you woulod enjoy this very much.

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  30. Janine
    Jan 12, 2012 @ 11:46:37

    @Merrian: I have Angelfall TBR — I bought it when Has mentioned that it was one of her favorite reads of 2011. Interesting to hear that it is similar to Ghost in the Machine.

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  31. Smexy’s Top Ten–January 27th | Smexy Books
    Jan 27, 2012 @ 13:13:00

    [...] 8. Another book I snuck in this week was Ghost in the Machine by Barbara J Hancock. I read it because of the reviews at both Dear Author and Romance Around the Corner. Wow. For a novella (88 pages I think) it is so dark and intense. Described as a cyber-punk, aliens have invaded Earth, as a sort of huge computer system called the SoulEater. It in essence is consuming the humans, sucking out all of their knowledge. They get left as Shadows, who walk around trying to find other “Warmbloods.” Bet, the heroine struggling to survive in this ash filled world, meets Gabe, a Shadow, but one who fights the evil. It is a visually disturbing book and the author really creates a vivid world that kind of freaked me out. But I really liked it. I think the ending needed a lot more time to unfold, but otherwise a very cool romance book. Def recommend. For proper reviews visit Romance Around the Corner or Dear Author. [...]

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