Published by Simon Pulse on October 20th, 2015
Genres: dystopian, science fiction
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In the near future, scientists create what may be a new form of life: an artificial human named Charlotte. All goes well until Charlotte escapes, transfers her consciousness to the Internet, and begins terrorizing the American public.
Charlotte's attacks have everyone on high alert—everyone except Lee Fisher, the closeted son of the US president. Lee has other things to worry about, like keeping his Secret Service detail from finding out about his crush on Nico, the eccentric, Shakespeare-obsessed new boy at school. And keeping Nico from finding out about his recent suicide attempt. And keeping himself from freaking out about all his secrets.
But when the attacks start happening at his school, Lee realizes he's Charlotte’s next target. Even worse, Nico may be part of Charlotte’s plan too.
As Lee races to save himself, uncover Charlotte’s plan, and figure out if he can trust Nico, he comes to a whole new understanding of what it means to be alive ... and what makes life worth living.
When I saw Kirkus describe this book as “Gothic, gadget-y, gay” I knew I needed it in my hands as soon as humanly possible. I am happy to say it is all of those wonderful things. And while I didn’t quite love it, I did really, really enjoy this book. There’s so much to like! Yes, there are wonderfully complex characters, killer robots, and the sweetest M/M romance. The writing beautifully evokes the brooding boarding school setting.
This is a near-future sci-fi thriller with a touch of the dystopian. 16 year-old Lee is the closeted son of an ultra-conservative president who is both fiercely anti-gay and anti-robot. It’s unfortunate then, that Lee has a penchant for tinkering with mechanicals, too. The Human Values platform was created in response to an attack by Charlotte, an AI gone rogue, in which Lee’s mother was murdered. Ever since, Charlotte has been using her consciousness, uploaded to the Supernet, to commit acts of terror. She won’t relent until the president hands over the remaining AI’s in the government’s custody.
There is a lovely cast of characters here. Self-deprecating, depressed Lee is guaranteed to wring your heart with the frustration and sadness of his situation. It can be hard enough to come out, notwithstanding the pressure of having a father who is arguably the most powerful man in the world and whose political career depends on your being in the closet. Best friend Bex is whip smart and tough, but always comes through in her support for Lee. New student Nico is enigmatic, endearing, and more than just a little wonderfully weird. Complex villains abound, and the action-packed, twisting plot turns will more than satisfy those reading for the sci-fi thriller aspect.
The story allows, in fact demands, a rich exploration of deep topics. Political conservatism and its machinations are examined. Why does being anti-robot also make the party anti-gay and anti-women’s rights? Terrorism and its motivations are also covered. Is a terrorist ever just in their actions? Free will is perhaps the concept most central to this book. It’s right there in the title, actually. Is free will just a happy illusion? If so, what does that mean and what are the implications for both humans and AI’s? These topics and more are explored thoughtfully and skillfully. This book is for those who enjoy more than a touch of the philosophical in their YA.
What kept me from being fully invested in this story, however, is the brief amount of time in which it takes place. The story very much hinges on the romance between Lee and Nico, which would be fine if the entire book didn’t take place over a three day span. I can see this book being slapped with the derogatory “insta-love” label, and I suppose, yeah, it technically pretty much is. I get it, there is a very purposeful Romeo & Juliet allusion going on, but I still needed more. But there is something to be said for when an author can make the reader really feel the emotion and connection between two characters in a deep and affecting way and that is certainly the case here. Yes, it’s instalove, but if I’ve ever read a book that doesn’t deserve the label it’s this one.
The fact remains, though, that the “I love you’s” happen way too soon. And I adored this romance. I loved it. Not only is it M/M romance, and forbidden love (one of my favorite tropes), but another layer in that favorite trope View Spoiler »Nico is an AI just like Charlotte. I love human/AI romances! Just as much as a I love paranormal romance « Hide Spoiler. The connection between Lee and Nico is palpable in how sweet and honest and open it is. But I was so frustrated at the potential of how deeply this book could have affected me if the story took place over a longer period of time. If we had had months on end of tension in the ever increasing threat of terrorism from Charlotte, and all that time to allow Lee and Nico to really get to know each other and explore the meanings of their relationship, it would have been so much more impactful. This book demands hard sacrifices from its characters. Those could have meant so much more if there had just been more time.
If you’re reading this for the gadgets and the action this book will be a dream. If you’re a character reader you will still enjoy this book a lot, but will come up against frustration. The ending is wham-bam and comes with some important questions, and certain character’s fates up, in the air. It demands a sequel. I haven’t been able to find any information on whether or not there will be a sequel but, please, book gods, if there is anything good in this world let there be a sequel to Willful Machines. Especially if it will contain kissing scenes anywhere near as sweet and lovely as the ones in this first volume.
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.