This book is a satisfying read, somewhat a cross between Isaac Asimov’s “I Robot” and Mark Owen’s “No Easy Day”. It also reminds me quite a bit of Nevil Shute’s work, particularly in the straightforward description of various scenes of conflict.
The book is certainly science fiction, but in the contemporary mode, where the emphasis is more on the characters and the situation, and less on the intricacies of the science.
At a high level, the story is nicely structured, with a solid introduction, a rapidly paced and logically developing story, and a satisfying conclusion. The author has a straightforward writing style that makes the book a surprisingly fast read, particularly given the level of detail of some of the scenes.
Disclaimer: I received a free digital ARC for this novel. However, both the decision to post a review and the contents of the review are voluntary and my own alone.
I liked a lot of things about the story:
The wearing out of robots: Most science fiction stories gloss over the likelihood that robots will be extremely expensive to maintain and repair. This story addresses that problem directly, as our protagonist JAK 037 (aka Jak) has a number of unresolved maintenance issues that accumulate as the story progresses. As humans, we are pretty used to being self-repairing (at least to a large extent) and I liked the way that Jak’s continually degrading maintenance issues provided tension in the story. It gave an odd sort of unconscious heroism to Jak’s actions that worked very well.
Hannah: Every robot needs a quest, and in this story Jak’s quest is to return Hannah (who is a child of the enemy) to her people after Jak kills her father. This worked better than I expected as it allowed for contrast between Jak’s generally blunt and militaristic approach to things, and Hannah’s more idealistic view of the world. This is most certainly not new (the 1939 Isaac Asimov story “Robbie” has many of the same elements, as does the 2021 series “Bad Batch”). Whether original or not, it gave an empathic underpinning to the story that I rather liked (I didn’t expect to like this when Hannah first appeared in the story, by the way; but it grew on me!)
Robotic laws: Of course, no robotic story is free without some version of the Laws of Robotics (note my comment about Asimov above) and this story is no exception. In this story, Jak’s Laws of Robotics are deleted upon his request so that he can return Hannah to her people. Jak is surprisingly flexible (particularly for a war robot) which raises all sorts of interesting questions about “What is free will anyway?” that aficionados of the genre will enjoy pondering.
Rational conflict scenes: Jak is a warbot, so it is inevitable that there will be conflict situations. Conflict in science fiction stories can degrade pretty rapidly into strings of unrealistic back-to-back combat situations (think video-game). That didn’t really happen here. Yes, the conflict was focused and grim (this is probably not a story for the under-13 group), but it tended to be well-thought out, realistic, and consistent with Jak’s quest.
There was really just one thing I struggled with in this story, which was that Jak is perhaps too human. Jak NEVER came across to me as a robot (in spite of all his mechanical issues). Instead, he seemed to be an entity with significant biological content (a clone or a cyborg or something similar – basically, human grafted to mechanical). The issue is that Jak is repeatedly described as having emotions of one type or another, which struck me as a stretch for a warbot. I could see a warbot going through complex decision trees to determine his next actions, but Jak is regularly described as experiencing emotions. “I get melancholy …”, “I feel euphoria …”, “I feel for them …”, “I feel sorry for him …” and the like. This doesn’t detract from the story, by the way; but did push the story further away from the “classic” science fiction category and more into the contemporary category.