REVIEW: In the Lives of Puppets by T. J. Klune
In a strange little home built into the branches of a grove of trees, live three robots—fatherly inventor android Giovanni Lawson, a pleasantly sadistic nurse machine, and a small vacuum desperate for love and attention. Victor Lawson, a human, lives there too. They’re a family, hidden and safe.
The day Vic salvages and repairs an unfamiliar android labelled “HAP,” he learns of a shared dark past between Hap and Gio–a past spent hunting humans.
When Hap unwittingly alerts robots from Gio’s former life to their whereabouts, the family is no longer hidden and safe. Gio is captured and taken back to his old laboratory in the City of Electric Dreams. So together, the rest of Vic’s assembled family must journey across an unforgiving and otherworldly country to rescue Gio from decommission, or worse, reprogramming.
Along the way to save Gio, amid conflicted feelings of betrayal and affection for Hap, Vic must decide for himself: Can he accept love with strings attached?
Dear Mr. Klune,
I’ve heard such good things about your books. Unfortunately just when I began to hear these wonderful things, you had that issue (to put it far too lightly) with your old publisher and removed your books from book sellers. It’s taken me until now to decide on which book of yours to try. Several early reviews highlighted things that made me say, “Aaaaaah, I think it will be this one.” So I downloaded the arc and anticipated reading it.
Many other reviewers have said similar things about this book. Mainly that the plot and characters are a mishmash of famous books and movies. Pinocchio of course – as you, yourself say, The Murderbot Diaries, The Monk and Robot, Star Wars, Wizard of Oz, and The Brave Little Toaster. Bits and pieces of these books all seem to come together in this one. I was initially delighted with its charm and amused by the two main robotic characters – the neurotic roomba named Rambo and the slightly psychotic nurse called (what else?) Nurse Ratched. Do not listen to her if she says “Bend over, this won’t hurt.”
The setting is a sort of Swiss Family Robinson (mentioned by name) crossed with Sleeping Beauty. In a deep forest, a “man” raises a young child until that child is a man. The father is an inventor who tinkers with this and that. Neither he (Gio) nor his son (Vic) can bear to part with any odd bit or bob as it might one day be useful. They live peacefully away from everyone else with Vic (of course) disobeying his father’s instructions to avoid the Scrap Yards and eventually doing something (even though Vic had A Feeling that he should not go into the Scrap Yard that day) which brings the (need I say bad) Outside World to their door.
Fearing (rightfully) for Vic, Gio (who knows what’s coming and now despairs at not Telling Vic Everything) sacrifices himself for the Greater Good. Of course our ragtag band must go after him Against All Odds. While traveling to where they think Gio is being held, they meet up with someone at first frightening and then helpful (the turnabout was way too fast for me). He warns them of the Dangers. The Odds Against Success. They’ll never be able to do it. But of course they must try anyway because of love.
As the story progressed, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had read this before. Or maybe seen this before? But of course I had since I’ve read or seen all those above books and movies. I could pace out each section, each emotional beat, each twist in the plot because nothing was really new. That’s all fine, well and good but added to deja vu was the fact that many of the scenes were too slow. Drawn out. I began mentally urging the book on to get to the next scene (that I’d probably already know).
The story also came with a heaping helping of poignant commentary on humanity, family, who can love, what is a soul, and what you’re supposed to Do for Others. It’s all very sentimental and heartfelt and sauced with a touch of bittersweet. It also has some crass humor, cringey dialog, the demise of a squirrel who never did the nurse any harm, and enthusiastic (from Rambo who is enthusiastic where it is least needed) and repetitious reminders of how Vic has to evacuate his bowels. Why? Just why did we need so much of that?
I’ve got to be honest and say that Nurse Ratched was my favorite character. Her conversations with Rambo were funny too although Rambo was a little too anxious and Nurse Ratched could go over the line of psychotic now and then. Still their interactions amused me the most and I loved Nurse Ratched’s deadpan delivery of her lines. Vic … Vic was a bit bland. Vic was vanilla and I hated that (asexual) bland Vic was the main one carrying the LGBTQ+ rep.
I can see why this book is getting so much love. It’s heartwarming, it has feels. But for me it fell a bit flat. It’s too long overall and scenes go on too much in order to wring out that last bit of emotion. It also swings from feeling mainly YA to a jarring bit of raunch. I can’t say I’m sorry I read it but I was glad when it was over. C