A highly entertaining and absorbing combination of philosophy and action featuring robustly individualized characters.



In this sci-fi novel, factions fight for survival and dominance generations after humans lost control of artificial intelligence.

In the near future, Axel Gillian becomes the security director for a rich, powerful corporation that has uncovered an enormous potential threat: open-source, artificial intelligence software that could become powerful enough to compete with and destroy humanity itself. Axel’s mission is to shut it down before this happens. Several generations later, what was once the United States is now divided into two realms, the Spoke lands and the Essentialist territory, lying roughly on either side of the Shenandoah Valley. To the west, Essentialists have more land and a numerical advantage over the Spokes; they view all technology with deep distrust for causing the calamitous Detonation. To the east, the Spokes are squeezed between the Essentialists and the eastern shore, which is overrun with disease and bandits. The Spokes’ comfort with machinery gives them more effective equipment, but both cultures must avoid using pre-Detonation electronics, which attracts retchers—birdlike creatures that vomit device-destroying acid. Expanding population pressures increase the conflict between the two sides, which are each beset by internal political and philosophical struggles. Among the many well-developed characters, key figures include Flora Clearwater, an Essentialist who joins a prisoner-exchange mission to the Spoke lands and has a secret agenda. Among the Spokes, young Owen of Seeville (once known as Charlottesville) joins an expedition to retrieve equipment from one of many “bike towers”: cylindrical warehouses each housing about 20,000 bicycles; this mission, too, has a secret objective. He winds up in Yorktown, which is led by elderly Madison Banks, formerly a Lord of Seeville. She’s among the “New Founders” who value democracy, and when she hears what’s going on in Seeville, she decides it’s time to go back. Meanwhile, an exciting, tense Essentialist-versus-Spoke showdown brews that will eventually pit one artificial intelligence against another and reveal Axel’s long-ago plan to protect the future. Otto (A Toxic Ambition, 2012) weaves together the many strands of this complicated, thoughtful, and exciting novel with great skill. He makes full use of the book’s sprawling length to present vivid characters and a future world that vibrates with conflicts and ideas. The story builds to bigger, increasingly exciting scenes of tension, battle, and violence, but Otto never forgets his characters’ humanity. The various subcultures get intriguing suggestions of richness, as when the cannibalistic leader of the Allegheny people wears “a lattice of bones cascading down her back, each one laced together by strands of her raggedy hair” and warns captors that she’ll “add your bones to my staircase.” Although many post-apocalyptic novels give readers landmarks that are recognizable from the modern world, Otto also introduces more mysterious elements, such as the aforementioned bike towers and colossal statues whose purposes are unimaginable. But these elements don’t merely baffle—they also provide real payoffs. In addition, Otto’s reflections on hubris and warnings about artificial intelligence have a chilling plausibility.

A highly entertaining and absorbing combination of philosophy and action featuring robustly individualized characters.

Pub Date: March 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-692-06119-0

Page Count: 632

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Jan. 31, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2018

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.


High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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