A feisty young anthropologist discovers a secret civilization of mechanical souls.
Wilson (Robogenesis, 2014, etc.) continues his obsession with intelligent machines in this ambitious fantasy, melding the real-life past with a secret history of seemingly immortal mechanical beings who call themselves avtomat: “Maybe the closest analogue in English is the word robot.” The book opens as young June Stefanov listens to her grandfather’s memory of a mechanical soldier he encountered at Stalingrad. “There are strange things in the world, June,” he says. “Things older than we know. Walking with the faces of men...there are angels among us.” From here, the book pivots between grown-up June, who seeks out mechanical antiquities on behalf of the shadowy Kunlun Foundation, and Peter Alexeyvich and Elena Petrova, two mechanical beings resurrected in Moscow circa 1709 by Giacomo Favorini, the last mechanician of Czar Peter the Great. Both tales are thrilling and very different. Peter’s form is that of a young man, while his “sister” Elena looks like a 12-year-old girl. After the czar dies, the two are forced to flee to London, where Peter takes up arms as a soldier of fortune and Elena finds a way to live her long life in the body of a child. Back in the present day, June is hunted by Talus Silferström, enforcer for an ancient avtomat called Leizu, before being rescued by Peter, who is a pivotal character in a war between warring steampunk leviathans. This bold adventure is a stew of cult-classic concepts—the avtomat reflect the Immortals in the Highlander franchise, while the ancient and deadly Elena is reminiscent of child vampire Claudia in Interview with the Vampire (1976). It may wear its influences on its sleeve but it’s also a welcome treat for steampunk and fantasy fans.
A thrilling mix of influences, much like Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants (2016) and HBO’s Westworld, that creates a captivating scenario begging for many sequels.