In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune (Tor, 2023)
By Warner Holme: TJ Klune’s In the Lives of Puppets is a science fiction novel that formats itself much like a fantasy adventure. Dealing with a young man named Victor Lawson and his rather odd little family of machines and rescued robots, questions of tragedy and coming of age are key to this story in which rescuing a lost loved one seems like an impossible task.
Victor is depicted as functionally asexual fairly quickly in the story, with the basic mechanics of sex being described to him and others in the book a number of times in ways that might be explicit to some but are overall harmless and humorous. This supplies both to the information as given to Victor and later to Hap, an android jury-rigged and repaired by him towards the start of the book. Hap, who is pointed out as dangerous early on, is also depicted as asexual, finding the idea of penetration in particular undesirable.
Other major characters include a motorized vacuum who calls himself Rambo, a medical robot that is called Nurse Ratched, and a rather wise complicated AI entity referring to himself as Giovanni Lawson. Giovanni has told the story to Victor many times of his parents leaving him with the entity for safe keeping, along with suggestions they might return one day. However when a machine attack leaves Giovanni gone, and Victor puts together his little family in an effort to rescue his father figure.
Found family is not so much a theme of this book as a given, and that is greatly appreciated. No special magic or importance is given to one’s circumstance of creation, and while the idea of overcoming society as a whole and one’s place in it is depicted as difficult, impossibility is not suggested as a reality. Love, even the idea of romantic love without sexual love, is treated as a fascinating and delightful possibility. This is a rare combination in fiction, with the outright rejection of sex as part of a loving relationship being noticeably absent even in stories that fail to include a sexual element.
This volume, perhaps more than anything else by the author, well leave one feeling a certain evocation of the classic fairy tale. Interestingly, and intentionally or not the evocation may not be the one expected. While figures like the Blue Fairy are mentioned throughout the story, the merry band of adventurers and people on a journey to gain something quickly evoke L. Frank Baum instead. Indeed the quirky mix of Darkness and Light certainly feels like the man, and the noticeable queer text will appeal to those who have embraced the possibly accidental queer subtext of the Oz books.
TJ Klune is a well-known and already respected name in sff circles, and this book should only continue that trend. This volume will be a delightful read to existing fans. More than that, to anyone who has not previously read the author’s work it will be a welcome introduction, a strange bizarre and lovely look at a group of people and an adventure in a very classic vein told towards very current sensibilities.