Automatic Reload, by Ferrett Steinmetz, is an interesting book with a lot of potential. The premise fascinated me: a sci-fi cyberpunk rom-com about two highly dysfunctional people finding love on the battlefield. It’s written with a cinematic focus and a lot of the book reads like watching a movie. It’s quick, it’s funny, it’s exciting, and as I breezed through it in a single sitting I was really looking forward to giving it a glowing recommendation. And then I actually got to the romance part of this comedy romance – problems.
However, let me sing Reload’s praises before I shoot it in the foot. The premise of the book is original and clever. Mat is one of our two leads and he is a giant cyborg. He has voluntarily replaced his limbs with cybernetic weapons and works as a one-man army for rent. Mat was initially aa drone operator and got PTSD from the missions he fulfilled behind a screen. Now he has fitted himself for war and takes on missions no one else can and works his hardest to keep casualties to zero. The second lead, Silvia, is a genetically-altered bioweapon (who was changed against her will) who has little control of her body. A shadowy organization used her as a test subject for a super-soldier serum of sorts and she has become one of the deadliest people on the planet. However, she also suffers from a massive disabling panic disorder that she is struggling to overcome. When Mat is recruited for a job that ends up freeing her, they must run, hide, and overcome their fears to beat back this shadow organization that threatens the world.
So the good: Automatic Reload is full of exciting action sequences, neat worldbuilding, likable characters, and great themes. In particular, Mat’s slow reveal of how he came to replace most of his body with machines and the mental damage that has been done to him is enthralling. Steinmetz has done a great job creating a modern commentary on the armed forces and explores the new challenges they face every day. Both Mat and Silvia have memorable and relatable struggles that resonated with me as a reader. The only problem is I felt like they had no chemistry whatsoever.
What was painful to me is this book has fun quippy dialogue that feels like it throws itself into the sea when the two leads team-up. Normally with a book like this, I hope that the elements of action, humor, and romance will complement and enhance one another. Instead, the three cornerstones of Reload feel like they are all competing for the same space and stepping on each other’s toes – with the romance, in particular, getting curb-stomped. It just felt awkward to jump from pulse-pounding explosions and funny one-liners to an awkward teenage romance between two very damaged individuals. The tone and nature of their growing relationship feel very at odds with the rest of the book and I felt it detracted from the overall story instead of adding to it.
It is highly possible that my issues with Automatic Reload’s romance were personal hangups that won’t bother most readers. However, I feel like the book would have been a lot stronger with more focus on action and humor. At the same time, there is a lot else to like about Reload and it certainly is one of the more original pieces that I have read this year. It’s short and fun, and If the premise intrigues you I would recommend you go check it out and come back and either confirm or reject my harping on the romance.
We Are Legion (We Are Bob), by Dennis Taylor,is the simple tale of a man. A man who gets hit by a car and wakes up as a synthetic consciousness around a century after his initial life (and death). I’m sure you’ll be surprised to hear that Bob is the man that the story is about, and it’s really important that you like Bob, because Bob turns out to be almost all of the characters in the book. You see, he’s been woken up as a digitized version of himself so that he can get strapped into a self-replicating space probe and go explore the galaxy. Super simple stuff, and that’s the kind of super simple stuff we’re going to be talking about today.
I really enjoyed the premise of We Are Legion, and I think that the freshness of the basic concept is one of the major highlights of the book. Being able to follow along as a man and his alter egos (we’ll get into that shortly) explore all the wonders of the galaxy? Sign me right up. The descriptions of interesting solar systems are pretty standard fare for the genre, but very rarely have I gotten to read from the perspective of the very first “person” to see them. In addition to the enjoyable galactic voyager angle, Bob is established to be a remarkably talented software programmer in a forgettable intro to his life, and as he essentially is a self-replicating piece of absurdly advanced technology, he is able to replicate himself as he sees fit. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of him designing and creating new tech and updating his selves and systems.
Alter egos? Selves? Bobiverse? You can probably infer from the tagline of the book “We Are Bob” that there’s going to be something going on with group consciousness, and you would be mostly correct in doing so. Each time Bob replicates himself, the new probe that comes out is just a little different than the previous one. They each take on a new name, as they are “not Bob”, and have their own interests and tastes. There’s some major pros and cons to this narrative choice. In the positives, you don’t have to spend a lot of time getting your readers emotionally invested in new characters when they’re 95% clones of the only POV character in the book. The various Bobs, while different, are still mostly Bob. This leads to the negative, if you don’t like Bob, you’re probably not going to like any of the Bobs. Bob comes across, to me, as the depiction of a Silicon Valley Bro in their ghostwritten memoirs. He is portrayed as incredibly intelligent, a very fast learner, and kind to some extent. The problem is that he always seems to have an air of condescending smugness, and one of the major plotlines with Main Bob later in the book didn’t do many favors there for me.
That touches on my last major critique of the book. Due to the fact that the Bobs are exploring the galaxy, the various plotlines are mostly self-contained with occasionally delayed contact with other Bobs. When done right this gives the opportunity to see a wide variety of unique stories and plots. Unfortunately, the plotlines that we linger on and revisit in the book tended not to be the plotlines that I cared about. I feel that a different reader may be the polar opposite to me and absolutely love the book because of that, but I kept feeling like we were spending too much time with the wrong Bobs.
We Are Legion (We Are Bob) is a unique and fun read. Despite the issues I had with it, I read the entire book in a single day as I needed to know what was happening next, and did thoroughly enjoy the experience. I could see this being a lot of people’s favorite book.
To you catchers of creeps, you hunters of haunts, you finders of frights, I bid you welcome to the Spooky Corner on the spookiest day of the year! Happy Halloween from those of us at The Quill to Live, and we hope you’re having a delightfully dreadful time. Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, let’s get to what you came for.
We’re back with the second installment in the John Dies at the End series: This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It (henceforth referred to as Spiders, since that title is half a dictionary long). For those of you who don’t remember or didn’t read my review of the first book in the series from a week or two ago (shame on you), you can find it here. As a brief summary, I absolutely loved its take on horror and the human understanding of the universe, but thought that the childish humor and despicable characters may, understandably, impede enjoyment for some.
Shockingly, Spiders continues with much of the same. David and John are still despicable and relatively worthless human beings other than the whole “saving the world” thing they did in book one. A year has passed, and the town of Undisclosed hasn’t changed much over that time. It’s still a shithole, weird stuff still happens, and the “junkie scooby gang” is still deeply involved in the aforementioned weird stuff. The book opens with David and John getting drunk on a water tower as a military style convoy passes under them and violently crashes. They take a macguffin from the crashed vehicle, bury it in their backyard, and go back to daily life (as you do). Well, they try to, but David is attacked by a terrifying spider-monster that he barely fends off before it escapes and takes over the body of a police officer who was trying to arrest him at the time. This mishap leads to a few others and suddenly the town is overrun by spider-zombies, go figure. The remainder of the book mostly follows the split-up John, David, and Amy as they try to find each other in the quarantined town and, as a secondary goal, try to save the world (again).
If the plot sounds rather neat and tidy in that fantastic synopsis, that’s because it is. I thought there were some forgivable but frustrating issues with pacing and narrative flow in JDatE, Spiders felt much more cohesive throughout and really felt like one self-contained story. The order of the chapters and fondness of the author for pausing the action to go back to another character’s perspective from a few hours before could have led to some serious issues, but I actually think that it was well done and added to both the suspense and humor of the book positively.
On the topic of “things that could have really ruined this book but turned out ok in the end”, I thought that the zombie apocalypse in the town of Undisclosed was handled very well and avoided a lot of the traps that zombie books tend to fall into. As something of a zombie fiction fanboy (Link to my recommendations here for those who are interested), there are a lot of ways to do zombies wrong and, while that wouldn’t have bothered me much as I just really love zombies, Spiders avoids a lot of the major ones. The zombies are scary, gross, unique, and fit within this universe’s flavor of horror and monsters extremely well. I’m rarely spooked by zombie books at this point, but there were a couple of moments that really got to me. When you get to the garage you’ll know what I mean.
A possible major sticking point for readers of the first book, and one that anyone reading the review of its sequel likely didn’t have an issue with (or found a way to move past it), was the fact that the main characters are…sort of the worst. John is a flaky, crazy, meth-smoking junkie, David is an overweight and horrifically depressed manager of a movie store, and Amy is basically their conscience and one ray of hope for the two of them to not be so fucking terrible all the time. The dynamic trio is split up for the majority of the book for reasons I refuse to get into as I don’t want to spoil them, and seeing them interact with the variety of new side characters was a treat. While I love their dynamic together, seeing other people react to just how bad they are at being heroes was great and led to some alternatively hilarious and horrifying moments.
I’d like to take a moment, quickly, to appreciate one of the side characters featured in this book: Detective Lance Falconer. I am being intentionally vague here, as to go into any more detail than I do in this paragraph could spoil what is possibly my favorite aspect of this book. I thought the way his character was handled was fantastic and really elevated a lot of elements in the book. From his first introduction to his final scene with David, he was a constant positive addition. He really stood above the rest of the characters introduced in Spiders, and I hope he makes a return in the future, preferably jumping over a truck of some kind in his bitchin’ Porsche.
On the topic of bitchin’ cars and jumping over things, Spiders maintains the adolescent level of humor that was found throughout the first novel. Toilet humor, excessive swearing, sex jokes, and what would be sight gags if this was a movie are plentiful and unapologetic. If you made it through book one just tolerating the humor, you won’t see much of an improvement here. A lot of it was still pretty hit or miss for me, but like in the first one when the humor did hit, it had me in stitches. There were a few moments where I drew looks on the subway because I was crying from laughing so hard.
In contrast to the humor, the horror was on point for the entire book. Not only did we get a much better understanding than in book one of why people do or don’t see the various creatures, but the creatures that were added and how the main characters interact with them in various situations were absolutely fantastic. There’s a scene with a teddy bear that I am still shuddering about weeks after finishing. The mix of body horror and oppressive atmosphere, the tension reminiscent of watching someone walk down into a dark basement in the theater, and the creeping sense of wrongness that pervades Undisclosed were all handled excellently. I am even more impressed with how scary this book is when you consider how much of it is dedicated to being funny at the same time. I will be having nightmares featuring certain scenes of this book for years to come. That may not sound like a glowing recommendation, but it really is.
John Dies at the End had been on my to-do list for years before I finally got to it. I read This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It in one sitting the day after I finished the first book. It ups the quality of the first book in every way and is a must-read for anyone who enjoys cosmic horror, zombies, or creepy parasites. The humor is sometimes a little off-color and tone deaf but that is easily forgiven when considering the quality of the horror and how much fun the ride is the entire time. The Spooky Corner of The Quill to Live enthusiastically recommends This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It.
Rating: This Book is Full of Spider: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It – 9.5/10