Book review: A Perfect Machine by Brett Savory

A Prefect Machine is sometimes described as a science fiction story.  It is not.  While it may have some sci-fi elements, it’s an amalgamation of young adult fiction, mystery, urban fantasy and cosmic horror.  It creates many more questions than it answers, and as a science fiction reader I felt unfulfilled when I finished it, despite having some of the best visuals I’ve read in a while.

The main character in this novel, Henry Kyllo, is a Runner.  In his world, there are two secret societies: Runners, whose job every night is to run and hide, and Hunters, who try to find and shoot them.  The Runners can survive nearly everything, thanks to a great healing factor, and both groups have the innate ability to be forgotten by the rest of the population once they get out of sight.  This allows them to pursue their activity every night.  They must, for if they miss a hunt, someone from their loved ones will disappear.  The runners retain all the bullets they are hit with within their bodies, their metal content slowly increasing.

During one run, Kyllo decides to fight back and shoots one of the Huners.  In retaliation, they manage to kill his best friend, Milo.  At that point, Kyllo’s metal content had reached a critical mass, and he starts slowly changing.  He starts turning into a machine, enduring a slow and painful process, which twists his mind and at times leaves him vulnerable.  Both the Runners and Hunters are trying to find and kill him, but he manages to avoid them with the help of his girlfriend and Milo, who turned into a ghost and is now slowly learning how to materialize in the real world again.  Through Milo and a ghostly connection to another dead runner, the reader slowly learns that the two groups of people, as well as the magic around them, may have been created by multidimensional gods who see Kyllo’s metamorphosis as a step towards their goals.  Kyllo, with the help of his friends, keeps changing and growing until it’s too late for everyone else…

Let me start with the positive thing about the book: Savory has a way with words that paint a very vivid, brutal landscape.  I felt like I was in the middle of the action.  I felt the cold of the winter storm, I could almost hear the bones breaking during an “enhanced interrogation”, and I could even imagine Kyllo, turned metal man, towering over people.  While none of the characters had any depth, they were still described in great and gritty detail as they were in the moment.  Readers could make up their histories as they wished.

And making up things to fill the gaps in the novel is also the greatest problem with the book.  It is trying so hard to be a cosmic horror, not revealing anything and instead relying on the fear of the unknown, that nearly nothing is explained.  Why are there Runners and Hunters?  Why do they have to meet every night?  What happens to people who disappear?  Those are some of the fundamental questions that never get answered.  Everything is set as a fact, without explanation, but also without a link to our real world, which would make the setting feel familiar.  In this regard, the first half of the book feels more like a young adult fiction, such as The Maze Runner, where the reader is dumped into an entirely novel world and works his way towards discovering the familiar links between fiction and the real world.  Here, however, these links are missing.

In part, the worldbuilding feels haphazard.  New elements appear out of nowhere, whenever the plot needs to move forward.  Kyllo’s friend becomes a ghost, but at first only seems to observe, and serve as a third-party narrator.  Later, when he is suddenly needed, Milo begins to manifest himself in the real world until he completely returns among the living.  When a justification for an action is needed, he gets contacted by another ghost that seems to know a little more and shares crucial information with Kyllo, through Milo.  The author tries to pass these developments as parts of a grand cosmic plan, but that only makes all characters lose all their agency, at which point I lost any interest I might have had towards the wellbeing of the protagonists.

The ending is controversial.  Savory may have left it a little too ambiguous.  And too detached for the reader to care about anyone’s fate.  In a sense, this is a hallmark of the cosmic horror: events on an unimaginably grand scale, where a single individual or an entire nation are completely inconsequential and powerless to affect the outcome.  However, where Lovecraft always offered some hope for the world, usually via a delay of the final catastrophe so that the characters can go on living their lives and the readers would instead fear their own future, Savory is uncompromising.  Even though this introduces a refreshingly bleak ending, it takes away any remaining attachment to the book’s characters.

A Perfect Machine isn’t for everybody.  I read it because it was easy to do so, thanks to the immersive environmental descriptions.  But I won’t be retaining a memory of the book for too long.  I suspect many others will like the ambiguity of the story even less than me and may consider the entire ghost episode a case of lazy worldbuilding.  There will be those who will appreciate being able to fill in the blanks themselves, but I suspect these will be in a small minority.  Approach this book with caution: you may be disappointed.

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