Tiny, self-replicating machines join forces to assail a secluded farm in Readler’s (Off the Grid, 2011) entertaining though uneven sci-fi thriller.
When drifter Kiel Martin takes shelter from a Wisconsin rainstorm in a hollow beneath a trestle bridge, he hardly expects to discover a new and threatening form of life—but what initially appear to be flea-sized, metallic creatures soon unite into larger, more complex shapes willing and able to kill any human who stands in their way. Together with a nearby farm family, which includes sharp-witted 12-year-old Cam and his almost-divorced mother, Julie, Kiel struggles to prevent what he calls “crablets” from continuing to multiply and evolve. The novel has a lot going for it: Its antagonists are original and genuinely scary, particularly as they learn and grow. Readler’s electrical engineering background (which he lends to his hero) ensures that the technical specs of both the crablets themselves and the gadgets improvised to defeat them stay within scientific fact, or at least possibility. The novel is not without flaws, however. While Readler’s prose occasionally offers fresh imagery, such as referring to the Midwest as “America’s settled torso,” his penchant for many-syllabled words leads to some clunky phrasing: “He was underestimating the capabilities of hordes of interconnected autonomous creatures.” The author has an ear for natural dialogue. The thriller, however, falls into the horror-story trap of creating some characters purely as cannon fodder, and it includes both unnecessary romance and a squeamish past for Kiel that aren’t nearly as interesting as the bloodthirsty machines. Another problem is that the foes are sometimes too formidable.
Gasp-eliciting action and ingenious monsters propel the reader past the lackluster personalities.