Book Review: In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune

Title: In the Lives of Puppets
Author: TJ Klune
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 25, 2023
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In a strange little home built into the branches of a grove of trees, live three robots–fatherly inventor android Giovanni Lawson, a pleasantly sadistic nurse machine, and a small vacuum desperate for love and attention. Victor Lawson, a human, lives there too. They’re a family, hidden and safe.

The day Vic salvages and repairs an unfamiliar android labelled “HAP,” he learns of a shared dark past between Hap and Gio-a past spent hunting humans.

When Hap unwittingly alerts robots from Gio’s former life to their whereabouts, the family is no longer hidden and safe. Gio is captured and taken back to his old laboratory in the City of Electric Dreams. So together, the rest of Vic’s assembled family must journey across an unforgiving and otherworldly country to rescue Gio from decommission, or worse, reprogramming.

Along the way to save Gio, amid conflicted feelings of betrayal and affection for Hap, Vic must decide for himself: Can he accept love with strings attached?

Author TJ Klune invites you deep into the heart of a peculiar forest and on the extraordinary journey of a family assembled from spare parts.

It absolutely pains me to give a TJ Klune book anything less than 5 stars… but alas, In the Lives of Puppets just didn’t hit the mark for me. This makes me sad! I’ve loved so many of the author’s books, but this tale of robots and found family — which is also a Pinocchio retelling — left me oddly uninvested.

In the Lives of Puppets is the story of a family of oddball robots and machines, living in an isolated forest grove, raising a human child named Victor. As the story gets underway, Victor is now 21, and spends his days in the company of his two best friends, a Roomba-type vacuum robot named Rambo and a medical care robot named Nurse Ratched, who seems to delight in heartless provision of medical treatments (except when she engages her Empathy Protocols and offers a soothing “there, there” to her potential patient).

The trio also live with Gio (Giovanni), an older android who loves inventing, creating, listening to jazz music, and enjoying peaceful family time. Everything changes when Victor discovers a broken down android in the Scrap Yards that seems to still have a little power left in it. Once Victor repairs Hap, hidden secrets come to life, and soon the family’s entire existence is in peril.

In the Lives of Puppets is part exploration of love, family, and what it means to be a “real” human, and part road trip/adventure/quest. By the midpoint of the book, Victor and friends are off on a journey to the City of Electric Dreams to rescue Gio and, hopefully, restore him to his true self.

The writing can be very funny, especially Rambo and Nurse Ratched’s lines. These are probably my favorite parts of the book.

“Are we lost?” Rambo asked nervously.

“Of course not,” Nurse Ratched said. “I know exactly where we are.”

“Oh. Where are we?”

“In the forest.”

“Whew,” Rambo said. “I was worried for a moment that we were lost. Since we’re not, I will instead focus on the fact that we’re in the middle of the woods at night by ourselves. Do big animals like to eat vacuums?”

“I am sure they do,” Nurse Ratched said.

“Oh no,” Rambo whispered. “But I’m a vacuum.”

As the for story threads about emotions and connection and humanity… I was left largely unmoved, and the quest elements mostly failed to hold my interest.

I have to admit, overall this book was a letdown. As I mentioned, I usually adore this author’s work, and can’t really understand why In the Lives of Puppets just did not click for me. In any case, I’ll still be tuning in for whatever he writes next, and meanwhile will look to read some of his backlist titles too.