TJ Klune has catapulted into the spotlight over the past few years. He’s always been a prolific writer, though The House In The Cerulean Sea brought his name into bookish spheres like never before. Under The Whispering Door carried on his tradition of charming, heartwarming, delightfully gay fantasy. And now, he brings us In The Lives Of Puppets.
Victor Lawson lives in the woods with robots. His father, Giovanni, was built to innovate. Victor’s companions Nurse Ratched, a medic bot, and Rambo, a modified Roomba, help him dig through the dangerous neighboring scrapyards for parts to construct new things. They live a happy life, secluded from the dangers beyond the deep forests. One day, Victor uncovers a decommissioned bot with a strong grip, a sharp tongue, and a mean attitude. Giovanni discovers the robot and the Lawsons’ world changes overnight.
In The Lives Of Puppets takes its time, letting the characters steep in the world Klune creates. The synopsis above leaves out particular plot points only because they occur well beyond the first 20 percent of the book, which is our typical cutoff for opening summaries. This willingness to let things develop organically is a great strength for Klune, as evidenced in Cerulean Sea and Whispering Door. I bring both of those titles up because In The Lives Of Puppets has similar cover art and will beg the questions: is it similar? Is it as good as those titles?
Klune sets Puppets in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi world with fantasy elements. Whereas the other two books above inject fantasy into an otherwise real-world setting, this one feels like a big departure. It’s fun and intriguing. Robots roam the world, and they have unique purposes and personalities. They provide a fun venue for Klune’s signature charm. Nurse Ratched and Rambo, in particular, are excellent for comic relief and cute moments. However, I lose some of the heart of the book within this new pastiche. I commend Klune for trying something different, but it doesn’t hit quite the same within a robot-run world. In short, I liked the characters, but didn’t love most of them.
The plot was a major sticking point for me. In The Lives Of Puppets isn’t shy about its connections to Pinocchio. Many will call it a direct retelling, and that’s a fair interpretation. I say it’s more of an “inspired by” situation with its own identity. The problem then becomes the blatant callouts to Pinocchio, which weigh the book down the more they pile on. I would’ve been happy with a stray nod or occasional character named after a Pinocchio one, but it’s all a tad heavy-handed. I’m saying this as a guy who recently reframed his own thinking about retellings. Read that way, In The Lives Of Puppets doesn’t work all that well. Taken on its own, it’s still a unique and interesting story. Victor and his band of robotic misfits explore what it means to be human in deep and emotional ways. Hap, the robot they discover rotting in the scrapyards, provides both a window into the world beyond and a powerful message about the power to choose our own identity. There’s also the City of Electric Dreams, a Vegas overtaken by robots, which is a setting I could spend an entire book in.
I didn’t cry like a baby at the end of this book as I did with other Klune titles. Still, the emotional heart of the book remains, and there’s a lot to love there. It ends with a hesitant hope rather than a gutwrenching sob-worthy moment, and the feeling will linger with me even though the book wasn’t my favorite Klune so far.
Rating: In The Lives Of Puppets– 7.0/10