BOOK REVIEW: vN by Madeline Ashby
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: vN is the story of five-year old Amy, an A.I. robot whose parents — father human, mother A.I. — are starving her in order to let her grow up as slowly as humans. A bloody incident with her grandmother reveals Amy as having a faulty failsafe and forces her to grow up fast or die.
PROS: Unrelenting and surprising conflict drives a fast-paced read; genuine, human-robot dystopia; powerful character arcs; evokes series addiction.
CONS: A few small sections were a bit slower to read.
BOTTOM LINE: A great time to start The Machine Dynasty series because after you finish vN, you are going to want to jump right into the sequel, iD, which releases at the end of June.
vN begins with Amy’s father, Jack, who has chosen a vN — a self-replicating humanoid — because of his being fed up with the drama of dating other humans, but is quickly thrown into much worse drama than a girlfriend calling at 3 A.M. to vent about a failed art project. Starting the story inside a home that feels like a normal family (save for the special food he has to feed his robot daughter) is consistent with the way the author tells a personal story about robots’ problems. Amy experiences identity problems and a fear of not fitting in, just like any young adult does but in a cute and fascinating I’m-a-five-year-old-at-heart-but-I-eat-other-robots-and-may-be-the-downfall-of-humanity type of situation. In spite of not being much of a YA fan, the author’s dystopian setting and deeply seeded emotional connection to her characters made this my quickest and most addictive read of the year. Among the addictive aspects to Amy’s story are: her struggle to cope with the faulty programing in her system (which could lead to a robot revolution over humanity); the humans that want to trap her, study her, and maybe kill her; her loneliness away from home, and the identity issues of being a five year old in maturity but forced to handle life like a trained CIA operative. On top of that she begins to fall in love with another vN whose programming makes him more interested in loving humans, so she feels even more alone knowing her love could never be reciprocated. There are more problems to deal with, but as you can see, plenty to keep the story going and the pages flying.
This leads to the other exceptional strength to the author’s debut novel, she has a real gift for layering conflict on top of conflict. The above paragraph leaves out a few major conflicts that you’d rather discover on your own, but still has more conflict than some books twice the size of vN. The author’s pacing is like being stuck in a snowball that falls off cliff after cliff, farther and faster than the last, with each drop combining the fear of death and the exuberance of flying. Sometimes, you think an author is going to wait until later in the story to make survival impossible, but this author found new ways to surprise and doom her characters, seemingly, on a page by page basis.
On top of this personal connection to the author’s characters in their struggle to love, survive, and do the right thing, she effectively shows the details of this dystopian world and what it would be like to be a robot with all the bells and whistles of an advanced, and yet deadly, operating system. Reading vN is as fun as your favorite level-up video game, including state-of-the-art visuals and a fantastic story.
The downfalls to the read are minor, and likely more of a personal taste issue than a fault of the author’s. When I started this book a year ago, I only made it to 14% before putting it down. I picked it back up after hearing of the sequel’s upcoming release, and was quickly engrossed into the story. It may be that at the time I was not looking for this type of book, or that my brain was tired. This time around was much better. There was also a small lull in the conflict carpet bombing of the first half, but concluded in an emotional resolution and did serve the character arcs and description of an interesting underwater Seattle. The feel of the first half was partly exciting because of how it seemed to be setting the stage for a global conflict, but then the second half focused on a more precise problem. In hindsight, this was in line with the conflict of the failsafe and the main characters’ arcs, so it is hard to fault the author for following through on those promises. There is plenty of room left in this series for the author to enact a global scale war. vN is just her getting warmed up.
I am very glad to have given vN a second chance and now can’t wait for the sequel, iD. While there were parts that felt YA, it ends on more adult themes and may expand in the sequel to more of a larger scale war between humans and robots. After seeing how well the author mixes characterization, technology, action, worldbuilding, and surprise twists, I have the comfortable sense that another impressive story waits to be read, no matter where she takes us.
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