Last year I had the pleasure of reading Karen Osborne’s debut, Architects of Memory. Over time I feel I may have been a little tougher on it than necessary, especially since it was smack dab in the middle of other wonderful books on my TBR. I also buried the lead on Osborne’s rich world of corporate warfare and espionage, completely glossing over how ingrained within the characters the system was. However, the book still left me excited for more of Osborne’s work and well, luckily for me and other fans, the second book is around the corner. Engines of Oblivion is a more brutal examination of Osborne’s world, with tighter character work and pacing to boot.
Engines is the story of Natalie Chan as she cobbles together a life after the events of Tribulation in the first book. After a routine scouting test of her remote controlled mech goes awry, and Natalie is removed from her position as head of her lab. The test went perfectly in the minds of the Board members, but Natalie’s unwillingness to see their point of view has put her in dire straits. To salvage her reputation she has to capture Ash Jackson and their former captain, Kate Keller. The board doesn’t believe Ash and Kater are dead, and has a distinct feeling that Natalie helped them escape their grasp. Paired up with the infamous Dr. Reva Sharma, Natalie sets off to find Ash and Kate, to hopefully help Aurora corporation unlock the remaining secrets of the alien Vai and take the fight to them.
Like I said in the intro, I totally flubbed on pointing out Osborne’s screed against corporatocracy in the first book. It’s a major foundation of the world and the characters’ journeys, and Osborne fleshes it out beautifully. Every aspect of life revolves around ones relationship to a corporation. Osborne delivers it in handfuls as well, allowing it to come out in speech and action instead of a direct to reader monologue. It’s a living breathing corporate owned humanity where everything is a commodity, where the lowest are treated as expendable slaves, and the highest used as replaceable machine parts. If I had read the book at a different time, this would have been the center of the review, but alas, I had been mired in several such stories, and it took a truly awful book to make me realize how important it was to Architects. That being said however, Osboune ratchets it up several notches in her second outing, and I was hooked on it. The different ways contracts, hierarchy, personal choice, and internal storytelling dance in their violent waltz is constantly on display in Engines.
The best choice Osborne made for the book was centering Natalie as the point of view for Engines. It honestly felt like a stroke of genius. Don’t get me wrong. Ash Jackson is great in Architects, but Natalie was someone I had trouble sympathizing with on a personal level. She was xenophobic and dedicated her life to fighting the alien menace. Even when Ash tried to explain their thinking, how their understanding of life was so incredibly different from our own, Natalie was stubborn about wanting to exterminate them at all costs. This continues into Engines and while it’s not exactly baklava, it’s less cartoonish and is rounded out. It comes from a place of misguided protection, but her xenophobia is still highlighted. Natalie as a person still frustrating, but it felt so right for her character.
It was fascinating to see Osborne’s world through Natalie’s eyes. She was truly someone who believed in the power and mission of Aurora, and she felt they could make the best use of her skill. However, this feeling is slowly eroded through the story as she learns more about the goals of Aurora and the board members she so diligently serves. Every step Natalie takes to her vision of freedom, she learns of two or three more barriers. Following her, and watching her try to buck the system she has been fighting for was truly a treat. Natalie spends a lot of time following orders, mildly questioning orders and trying to bury her own complicity in the red tape of bureaucracy. Osborne writes with patience, watering the seed of Natalie’s guilt and dissent with care, never allowing a single moment to define “this is where she changes.” She begins to question her relationships, her skills, and her place within Aurora as it uses her to suit its needs. Osborne makes it work with hard-hitting reveals, and slow acceptance on Natalie’s part. It becomes a journey of taking responsibility for one’s own complicity and by god, is it a journey.
Engines of Oblivion is the perfect sequel. Osborne amplified every aspect of the first book and made it all tighter. The story is always moving, but Osborne deftly controls the speed, ramping it up for tension, and slowing it for introspection and revelation. Her choice to step outside her original protagonists and gaze at her corporate world through Natalie’s eyes was bold and insightful. There are layers to Natalie, and her transformation through the book is hard fought. She never feels quite safe, whether it be from conflict in front of her, or from her own internal turmoil. Every piece of the narrative fits into the wider puzzle, and when you get to see the whole picture, it’s beautiful. If you liked Architects of Memory at all, you need to pick up Engines of Oblivion. And if you haven’t read the first one, it’s absolutely worth it to read Engines.
Rating: Engines of Oblivion – 9.0/10