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Monday, February 6, 2017

YA Review: Boy Robot

Boy Robot by Simon Curtis

Published: October 25th, 2016 by Simon Pulse
Genre: YA Science Fiction
Binding: ARC
Page Count: My ARC has 418, says 432, and goodreads actually doesn't have a page count. (Someone should fix that.) I assume around that mark.
Part of a series? Goodreads also says this will be a trilogy.
Got via: Simon and Schuster Canada sent it to me.
Amazon / Book Depository / Indiebound

Summary (from goodreads):  There once was a boy who was made, not created.

In a single night, Isaak’s life changed forever. His adoptive parents were killed, a mysterious girl saved him from a team of soldiers, and he learned of his own dark and destructive origin. An origin he doesn’t want to believe, but one he cannot deny.

Isaak is a Robot: a government-made synthetic human, produced as a weapon and now hunted, marked for termination. He and the Robots can only find asylum with the Underground—a secret network of Robots and humans working together to ensure a coexistent future. To be protected by the Underground, Isaak will have to make it there first. But with a deadly military force tasked to find him at any cost, his odds are less than favorable.

Now Isaak must decide whether to hold on to his humanity and face possible death…or to embrace his true nature in order to survive, at the risk of becoming the weapon he was made to be.

Review: This is gonna be a long review. This book did not work for me and I have seven pages of notes on why. Go get a snack because we're gonna be here a while. There may be spoilers, depending on what you consider a spoiler... honestly there will probably be spoilers. If you want to avoid them, read my conclusion section. It'll sum everything up and probably not have any. Hopefully.

One of my very first notes is that the writing is very pretty, but it could get old. The prose tends to be very literary and honestly that doesn't work super well for me. This book should have a lot of action, and there are a fair amount of action scenes, but the voice doesn't gel in those scenes. They lack urgency. Some people will probably really like the voice, but for me, it really struggles in places. Yes, it's pretty writing - but it doesn't make me care about the characters.

Plot Talk: Plot is a pretty big problem for me. Giant, even. This part will probably have spoilers. The way the book is set up is that there's Isaak's point of view chapters, and there are chapters that are backstory/flashbacks(/possibly memories? it's not always clear) from other characters. I don't like the flashbacks. They start in the prologue, and the prologue starts with an action scene. The problem is, I don't know any of the characters in the prologue. They have no names. I don't know the context of the world. Why should I care about random people running away from other random people? There's really no reason that I should, and then it switches from that to Isaak's POV and they don't feel connected at all.

Also, the flashbacks (for lack of a better term, we'll stick with that) are in third person past tense, generally, and Isaak's POV is first person present tense. I've read that before, and I'm generally not a fan. This book has not convinced me otherwise. The flashbacks are very repetitive. There are times where you see something, and a few pages later, the book tells you the exact same thing again in Isaak's point of view. It does this very badly in one of them right the end, like page 380ish end, and it completely ruins the tension. It tells you the backstory of this character, goes back to Isaak's POV, and introduces that character. Well, besides the fact that the book literally spends two pages repeating everything that was said in the flashback almost word for word with no new information whatsoever, it would be so much better if I didn't know if Isaak could trust the character or not, if I didn't know if they were lying or telling the truth.

And they drag the pace down, since they often happen in the middle of action scenes. The characters I actually kind of care about could be dying! Things are exploding! Here, have some backstory of a character who won't show up for a hundred more pages and will only have two lines, or hey, how about the backstory of one who shows up in the next chapter only to die and is never mentioned again. Why. And they don't all connect to characters easily. I have guesses about which nameless character is which, but I don't know for sure for all of them. There's a couple I have no clue about when the book ends and - am I supposed to remember a half dozen backstories about nameless, not well described characters for another year until the second book comes out?

There's more about them I'll get to, but for now let's say - the plot in Isaak's POV isn't bad. It's pretty slow and not a ton happens since half the book is backstory, but it isn't awful. But half the book is backstory. Halfway through this, I felt like nothing had happened besides a road trip.

Characters: Isaak's kind of bland and I hate the love interest. Which, here's actually one thing I really liked. Isaak is queer, probably gay although he's not completely sure it seems and I hate labeling people without their consent even if they're fictional, but queer nonetheless. Awesome! I liked that. More queer protagonists in science fiction and fantasy, please. And I know that's gonna draw some people in no matter what else I say. Also awesome!! I genuinely hope you enjoy this more than I do, because I know what it means. And that is one thing that is handled well. Isaak is a boy with a crush on a boy, and it's not treated as weird or a big deal or anything the narrative or other characters. More of that, please.

Saying he's bland is a little harsh. We just don't get to spend enough time with him, and honestly this is the same of all the characters. Telling us their backstory isn't the same thing as developing their personality. There's a character who at one point Isaak says he regrets not getting to know better - yeah, me too! If the book had spend the chapter letting Isaak getting to know her within his POV scenes instead of telling us her backstory when we hadn't even met her, and had no reason to care, both their development would have been way better. And I swear, the kid spent more time asleep or unconscious in this book than actually doing anything.

Now this is the weirdest thing to type, but like - if Isaak was a girl, and nothing else changed, I feel like people wouldn't like this? Okay, like let me try and explain this clearly. You have a book where a white girl find out on her eighteenth birthday that she's some magical powerful creature and that's the reason she didn't fit in all her life. This comes with hot guy to kiss who's kind of a jerk, obviously. Then it turns out she's the most powerful of all the magical creatures and the one who's going to save them all and the world.

Tell me people don't make jokes about that.

And the thing is, if it was done well, I would think it was really cool. But it doesn't feel like it's done in a "this but queer" way like, I don't know, Empress of the World is a cute summer camp romance store, but with queer girls. There's a line where tropes become cliches and this doesn't come down on the good side of this. And I fully think that's because of the narrative choice to spend half the book away from the main character. For example, Isaak has almost no angst about being a Robot. There's a tiny bit attempted for a page or so, but then that's immediately forgotten, and honestly - why should I care as a reader? I spent almost no time with him when he was a human, and knew very little about his life before he knew he was a Robot. There's no sense of loss to make me care - if he can brush it off in a page, why should I care?

Besides that the love interest is a complete jerk and I hated him, and I don't care what the excuse is, he sucks, the villains are super underdeveloped. Like I'm legit not sure who the bad guys are? Please, feel free to tell me, because I honestly don't know. You'd think that would have shown up amongst all the backstory, but nah. We got to know a goon for a minute until he immediately died on screen basically as soon as he showed up, but the head honchos? No clue. Why did you tell me the backstory of a goon who immediately died in the next chapter, but not tell me who's running this whole thing? I don't understand.

PG-13 stuff: Tons and tons of trigger warnings here. Child abuse, child rape, rape in general, violence, transphobic violence, oodles of casual murder. And it's not that I think you can't do those things in YA because I do. But they feel incredibly gratuitous to me. They don't happen to Isaak. They only happen in the flashbacks to characters who are largely nameless and faceless. We have no reason to connect to these characters or their pain, and after the third or fourth nameless character gets abused for what seems like no reason, it starts to feel like tragedy porn. These things get fairly graphic, and the child rape especially is incredibly disturbing, and when we spend next to no time with these characters when they show up on screen in Isaak's POV, it feels... cheap. It feels like it is done for shock value, not to understand or emphasize with the characters.

Cons, complaints, bad stuff, etc.: Um, I think this entire review has been a complaint, hasn't it? Bad pacing that made it hard for me to connect with the characters, weird narrative thing with the flashbacks that I didn't like, and I felt that the violence was too over the top and wasn't handled well at all.

There wasn't a fat person to be seen in this book. No jokes about it, at least, but considering their bodies are supposed to basically be "perfect", that's a little messed up to me. I also found the skin descriptions a little odd. Almost nobody is described at all until probably three hundred pages in, and then people have various skin tones, but it takes three hundred pages to get there, and there's a couple of uses of food to describe skin which usually isn't a good idea. I dunno, I could be totally wrong, but it felt strange.

I also found the trans rep potentially problematic. I looked for reviews from trans reviewers, and asked on Twitter, but I didn't find anything. I wish I had something to link to, and learn from, but I would not be comfortable recommending this book to a trans kid. Most of the trans character's time in the book is spent suffering in a flashback and then she only shows up for a minute or two and doesn't really do anything. She does not feel like a significant character, and probably 90% of her page-time is abuse. And it gets really graphic, and after a very, very graphic scene that I would never, ever recommend to a trans reader, the character gets maybe three lines of dialogue and disappears.

I'm cis and my word is obviously not final, but I don't want my trans friends to have to read this to say it's not okay. I want you to really understand this - I don't want to tell trans folk to go into this expecting a trans character, and have to read those scenes, because I think it would hurt them, and it feels incredibly invasive to have this character that you almost never see unless she's being abused.

Cover comments: The cover's great. Very simple and striking, and I like that it looks like computer parts. It would probably get disgusting as a library book, lol, but it's striking, and I like the little details of how the edges are kind of yellowed looking.

Conclusion: I liked about half this book, and that would be the half told from Isaak's POV. But the flashback chapters honestly have ruined it for me. I was considering giving this somewhere around a rating of two or so, but I keep typing and things just feel worse and worse. Large amounts of those flashback chapters are so graphic and violent in a way that feels both like it's for shock value, in the abuse the flashback characters suffer, and inconsequential, in the murders and deaths that occur constantly in those chapters.

I couldn't connect to the characters well including Isaak because of the narrative structure. I finished the book confused about a bunch of things. It's super repetitive. I felt like almost no actual plot occurred, and some of what did happen had ruined tension because of the flashbacks. And, most importantly, I think that the content could seriously hurt people. The only thing that keeps this from getting a straight-up zero is that I appreciate the queer protagonist and his chapters didn't have most of the problems that the flashback chapters did. One rose.

Other notes:

- I took this to work when it was -40 and my pen froze so much that it was actually really hard to write. And these are nice pens. Can it please be spring now?

- There's just a joke here that says, "You're a wizard, Harry," and I made myself laugh with that, at least.

- Another one of my notes says, "This is like watching an episode of a show I don't watch", and that's really true. The opening and a lot of the flashbacks are a lot of action, but no reason for me to care about the characters.

- Random place to put this, but there's a whole lot of info-dumping in characters' dialogue for a book that's half flashback.

- JB is the kind of douche who calls a group of girls, "Ladies". I absolutely hate that. Don't ever do that to me. It makes me snarl.

- There was a tiny subplot that felt a little disability inspiration porn? I dunno, could just be me being over-sensitive, but it felt a little cheesy. There's also a scene where a black woman's nose is made narrower through magic-science shapeshifting powers, and this is implied to make her more attractive. These things made me really uncomfortable.

- I have at least five notes that are just, "Why do I care?"

- Seriously, you had to kill a woman to get manpain for a character that immediately dies?? What was even the point of that?

Okay, I think that's... well, it's actually not everything I noted, but it's enough. Let's wrap it up here. Thanks so much for reading.

Peace and cookies,

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