Book Review: In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune, Fountaindale Public Library

In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune

Genres: Fantasy Fiction, Loose Pinocchio retelling

First Released: 2023

Part of a Series: No

Call Number: FANTASY KLUNE

Eyan’s Rating: 5/5

For Fans of: Becky Chambers; Lemony Snicket

Find a copy of In the Lives of Puppets

Summary

In a strange little home built into the branches of a grove of trees live three robots: the 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.

Then one day, Victor salvages and repairs an unfamiliar android labeled “HAP,” and he learns of a shared dark past between Hap and Giovanni: a past spent hunting humans. When Hap unwittingly alerts robots from Giovanni’s former life to their whereabouts, the family is no longer hidden and safe. Giovanni is captured and taken back to his old laboratory in the City of Electric Dreams.

So together, the rest of Victor’s assembled family must journey across an unforgiving and otherworldly country to rescue Giovanni from decommissioning, or worse, reprogramming. Along the way to save Giovanni, amid conflicted feelings of betrayal and affection for Hap, Victor must decide for himself: Can he accept love with strings attached?

A Note on TJ Klune, Sensitivity Readers and Inclusivity

I love TJ Klune, but there are many reviews that cover his books and his authorship; I want to take a slightly different approach to my review of this novel and discuss some elements which stand out to me as wildly important in terms of inclusivity and community-building. Klune concludes this novel with an acknowledgments section, which is fairly standard for contemporary publishing. I quote Klune’s own words here:

I changed more of this book in edits than any other I’ve worked on, and it took a lot out of me to do. There are…reasons for the changes I made, and while I did not agree with some of them, works of creativity don’t exist in a vacuum (natch), and it’s become abundantly clear that I need to respect that. […] Thank you to the sensitivity readers: Catherine Liao and Kim Vanderhorst. You both were invaluable. I wish this could have been the story we talked about, but apparently, the world isn’t quite ready for such a book.

-TJ Klune, November 8th, 2022, In the Lives of Puppets, Acknowledgments, pages 419-20.

Sensitivity readers are an invaluable resource for modern authors. Their job is to read a piece of work for offensive content, harmful stereotypes, author bias, lack of understanding, etc. They would then create a report for the author/editor/publisher, depending on the contract, outlining areas of concern. This process improves the quality of work as well as allows for changes to be made ahead of publication. An example of this process could include a white author writing a character from a minority background who would benefit from a sensitivity reader of that character’s background. Cishet (cisgender, heterosexual) authors should have LGBTQIA+ sensitivity readers as applicable to character creation, and so on.

Book Review: In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune, Fountaindale Public LibraryKlune, whose novels confront major themes relevant to the LGBTQIA+ community, is himself a self-described queer man and can accurately reflect stories from his own lived experience. When he writes characters whose identities do not intersect with his own or that expand beyond the boundaries of his own understanding, however, sensitivity readers can fill in those gaps. I am always pleased to see sensitivity readers acknowledged by authors because it tells me that either the author or publisher cared enough about accurate and beneficial representation to ensure the process happened, and the author acknowledged the value of that process. Klune’s acknowledgment, however, saddens me because it reflects the place where I find myself in terms of the inclusivity/diversity conversation.

When a character is introduced, regardless of their age, there are a few assumptions made by the majority of readers. Unless otherwise specifically stated in the text itself, characters are assumed to be: heterosexual (straight), cisgender (gender matches the sex assigned at birth), and allosexual (interested in a physical, sexual relationship, not just romance). When a character then has a “coming out” moment, whether that means they state their sexuality as non-hetero, their gender as non-cis, or any other way to buck the cultural “norm” (such as coming out as asexual, like Victor in In the Lives of Puppets) that character then becomes a diversity inclusion, rather than a representation of a varied and complex world. It is my opinion that this happens because of something I like to call “Schrodinger’s sexuality,” wherein all characters are subconsciously assumed to be cishet because that is seen as the “norm” or a kind of default setting for humans to be, even though the world is infinitely more complex than that. This means that anyone who isn’t any of those things has to constantly and consistently assert their own identity as different, creating a bigger emphasis on those differences.

Why does it matter that a character has to be expressly shown as queer? You may ask. If queer people are just regular people, we shouldn’t have to say it; why can’t they just be people? And the answer is, because of those cultural assumptions. Because if we don’t say it, if characters don’t express their own identities, they’re automatically classified as cisgender, heterosexual and allosexual, regardless of context. One day I hope we live in the kind of world where no one has to “come out” because no one assumes a default for humanity wherein members of minority groups are the ones that must consistently place themselves in harm’s way simply to be seen and acknowledged. However, we are generations away from this being the case. For now, representation matters, and to me, it matters more than nearly anything else.

All that to get to my point with Klune and his acknowledgment—Klune has made a name for himself by being inclusive and diverse, though the majority of his characters are cisgender men, albeit queer men. He’s not necessarily diverse in every book, but he’s being inclusive, and he is diverse in that the publishing market is still so far behind on accurate, positive representation of the LGBTQIA+ community that any entry into those categories is an incredible gift. I am only 32, and I grew up with a staggering lack of visible representation of this type. I highlight the terms accurate and positive because not only does Klune highlight these terms as central to his own writing, but as a queer, transgender man myself, I know the damage that negative or inaccurate representation does, and it is often worse than a lack of diversity in the first place. As a queer man with a husband, it’s incredibly powerful to read stories of characters with similar experiences to my own, and that’s something I missed a lot of growing up. I’m not underestimating the impact that authors like TJ Klune and Aiden Thomas have had on me as an adult, but I desperately wish I had had similar experiences ten, fifteen and twenty years ago.

Book Review: In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune, Fountaindale Public Library

Now, In the Lives of Puppets is one of Klune’s “adult” novels. This title, as well as Under the Whispering Door and The House in the Cerulean Sea, are classified for adults, not because of any particular content, but because the characters and stories center around adult characters. The themes, such as how to live a life worth living, how to love yourself and others and finding an authentic way to live your own life, are perhaps more subtle than those of his specifically YA series The Extraordinaries, which follows a group of teens with superpowers, but no less powerful for all they lack in explosive action.

Eyan’s Review

Clearly, I am not the kind of person who can separate the art from the artist, if I needed to go through nearly 1,000 words of context to set up my review of the novel itself. As a literature scholar, it’s quite literally my job to consider the context involved in the creation of certain texts, and it’s not something I can manage to turn off in my pleasure reading. Perhaps when I’m finished with the Ph.D.? Regardless, analyzing a text is part of how I enjoy a text, and I certainly enjoyed this one.

The basis of the story involves highly sophisticated artificial intelligence, creating the backdrop of a nearly science-fiction world. The differences between fantasy and sci-fi, for the record, can get very muddy. The main protagonist Victor, however, is not a machine, though his entire family is. A human in his early twenties by the time the story gets moving, Victor has been raised by his father, an incredibly humanoid android named Giovanni. Also in his family are two droids whom Victor repaired: a nurse robot with a vindictive streak named Nurse Ratched (you might recognize the nod to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and a tiny little vacuum droid named Rambo (definitely a Roomba with severe anxiety).

I love how Klune handles disability through his robotic characters. Typically, as humans understand computers and artificial intelligence, a robot should not be able to do anything beyond its original coding. If it wasn’t created to do a specific thing, then it just wouldn’t. However, both Rambo and Nurse Ratched display personality attributes not associated with their original programming. Rambo is nervous and neurotic, Nurse Ratched loves to threaten violence (usually with a drill attachment) and offers a bedside manner with much to be desired. These attributes would be considered flaws to whoever created them, and yet, it is their flaws that make them who they are. This aspect of their personalities becomes tied to the plot as the story commences, but it is handled in such a loving and tender way that I found myself deeply in love with these characters, long before I was sure whether or not they could return the sentiment.

When Vic, Nurse Ratched and Rambo discover a broken, but still alive, android in the scrap yard, Vic’s attempts to repair the new machine change all their lives forever. Adding “Hap,” as he chooses to be called (and which Rambo declares stands for Hysterically Angry Puppet), to the family is the catalyst for life as they all know it to begin unraveling—though none of it is Hap’s fault.

The time spent with Victor and company reminded me intensely of reading a Lemony Snicket novel, you know, A Series of Unfortunate Events? Snicket had this humorous writing style definitely inspired by Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and I found myself in love with the tongue-in-cheek humor of Nurse Ratched especially. For example, here is one of my favorite quotes from A Series of Unfortunate Events:

If you are allergic to a thing, it is best not to put that thing in your mouth, particularly if the thing is cats.

-Lemony Snicket, The Wide Window

A lot of Puppets has the same kind of humorous writing style. For all that, the final 50 pages or so punched me in the face and made me cry the entire time I was reading the final section. Now, I should clarify, I cry a lot, especially when the book is good, and this book was so good. It was a happy ending, I swear; it just wasn’t the happy ending I thought it was going to be, and there were a lot of bittersweet feelings staining that happiness.

In many ways, I think it was a more accurate version of a happy ending than any I’ve read before. For all that the world of Puppets is our world, just more advanced and flung into the future, it never really feels like the world we know. And that kind of escapism is common to fantasy. It’s part of what makes the fantasy genre…fantastic. A happy ending in a book is often unrealistic, and that’s ok because the entire journey taken with the story was divorced from reality.

And yet, Klune grounds his tales firmly back into the real world. Vic and his family have a happy ending, but it’s one that comes at a cost, and it’s one that can’t look backward to the things they’ve lost because time doesn’t work like that for humans. There were so many quotations I wanted to bring to this review and so many different things I could still talk about. However, I would like to end with this:

Accurate and positive representation also includes disability, and for all that these characters are inhuman, their disabilities mark them as “lesser” in the eyes of their own peers. Disabilities that Vic sees, not as flaws, but simply as part and parcel of who they are. Vic himself suffers from extreme anxiety and has at least two panic attacks that I recognized in the course of the book. Again, Vic’s happy ending is not the revelation that his anxiety can be cured or fixed, but in that it’s simply a part of who he is.

I could also choose to talk about Nurse Ratched and her strange obsession with squirrels because I found that sequence to be hilarious. And she keeps bringing it up throughout the book as a funny little call back to her weird nursing behaviors. Ultimately, I’m drawn to the relationships between characters, as I so often am, and I want to share this piece of prose from about midway through the story. It makes me feel profound, like my heart can’t fit inside my chest, and I want nothing more than to explore and to feel this intensity every time I read:

And so there they stood, one man and one machine under an infinite field of stars, the desert flying by in front of them as they hurtled toward the unknown. Behind them, the road led back into darkness, the ashes of their home. But home didn’t have to be a place. Something righted itself in Vic’s chest. He had made his choice.