Automatic Reload – Bad Romance

51lwv2qz04lAutomatic 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.

Rating: Automatic Reload – 6.5/10
-Andrew

I Kill Giants – SLAY

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Four times, on four separate trips, I meandered through the aisles of bookstores, I Kill Giants, by Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura, atop my stack of “possible buys,” and four times I walked out of the store without it, opting instead for something more “reasonable” from my to-read list—namely, sequels to books I’d recently enjoyed.

On the fifth trip, perhaps because my fiancée wasn’t present to limit my purchase to two paperbacks, I left the store with Joe Kelly’s seminal story in-hand. Upon finishing The Road (review here), I yearned for a more digestible tale, and a standalone graphic novel fit the bill. Now, I only wish I’d read it sooner.

Protagonist Barbara Thorson sports bunny ears to her fifth-grade classes, often buries her nose in a book at the worst possible time, and picks fights with the school bully. She explodes off the page with gusto, thanks in large part to Ken Niimura’s artistic expertise. Author Joe Kelly quickly and easily establishes her as a misfit—she’s wildly absorbed in fantasy worlds, and typically veers off into her psyche without paying much attention to her real-life surroundings. “I kill giants,” she says to her mocking classmates. “Hey, that’s the title of the book!” I say as I read the line.

Barbara’s story builds in a modular fashion, and the details—small at first, in-your-face by the end—hint at a deep trauma. She becomes so violent and vitriolic that she lashes out at her newest (and, presumably only) friend, Sophia. Her home life, tenuously managed by her older sister, brings out the darkest sides of everyone involved.

Diving deeper nears spoiler territory, but one key message emerges from each sector of Barbara’s life: she must kill one particular giant to deal with her mental turmoil. It may be metaphorical to an outsider, but to Barbara, it’s very real.

It’s hard for me to separate I Kill Giants from similar meaningful experiences in my life, and I think that connection vastly inflates my appreciation of the story, both in terms of how it’s presented, through the eyes of someone trying to cope, and in terms of how effortlessly each idea jumps off the page. My reading of Kelly’s beautiful story sparked memories of my own hardships, making the book just that much more impactful. That certainly won’t be the case for everyone, but I firmly believe that most readers will find something to enjoy here.

Kelly dances through heavy themes gracefully, delving into realms of self-harm, grief, death, and violence with a grace that rivals similar genre pieces. While reading I Kill Giants, I was often reminded of similar passages in Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls. The two books seem inevitably intertwined, if only because of their steady treatment of difficult topics.

Kelly’s characterization matches his thematic prowess, at times surpassing it. Every character feels real and unique. More importantly, I sympathized with each of them on some level. Barbara’s sour attitude, despite its obvious cause, makes her unlikable in many ways, so finding solace in secondary or even tertiary characters comes easily, backed by Kelly’s steady hand and Niimura’s deft brushstrokes.

On that note, though, it is a bit hard to justify Barbara’s outright violence, especially during the story’s first third. Everything makes sense when the book’s big “mystery” is revealed; however, Barbara’s actions are rude and dangerous, and she rarely encounters any punishment. By the end, this all makes some sense based on the life events that drive Barbara into a dark place, but when the rest of the novel so effortlessly ebbs and flows within the boundaries of what is right, wrong, and just okay, this feels like a big miss. For example, hitting a guidance counselor in the face would elicit some sort of repercussion, so when Barabara does it and it’s cast off as grief or depression with zero reaction, it’s a narrative issue.

I Kill Giants moves at a perfect pace, weaving and bobbing through a blinding array of concepts without ever missing a beat, but also taking ample time to grapple with important thoughts. Every off-the-cuff line of dialogue, every inch of every panel, and every punctuation mark serves a purpose. Nothing feels out of place, and the narrative velocity of Joe Kelly’s writing stays consistent throughout. It’s a rare accomplishment, particularly considering how easily a graphic novel can race to tie up loose ends or linger on one thought for too long. I Kill Giants finds the balance and flaunts it.

Minus a few disjointed narrative moments, I Kill Giants is a masterwork of graphic fiction that navigates tumultuous topics with ease and serves as a testament to fantastic storytelling.

Rating: I Kill Giants – 9.0/10
-Cole