Two twins in rural Michigan struggle to navigate their sibling rivalry, young love, and the trials of being freshmen basketball players. Oh, and by the way, they’re both robots. Go figure.
The adolescent angst of John Hughes movies meets the existential quandaries from Blade Runner in this quirky debut novel by middle school English teacher Mills. The twin brothers at the heart of the story are narrator Darryl Livery and his counterpart, Kanga, both 14 years old and the robotic products of an enigmatic Detroit-based laboratory called Gravy Robotics. They’re at a precarious time in their youth, as their robotic “parents” were recently declared obsolete and removed, leaving them orphaned and just starting high school circa 1991 in Hectorville, Michigan. The teenage coming-of-age arc is pretty conventional, even though it’s written in a clear character voice (Darryl’s), involving Kanga’s rise as the school’s b-ball star (and there are really a lot of basketball scenes, be forewarned); Darryl’s infatuation with Booke Noon, a kooky paramour who’s clearly and unfortunately cast in Manic Pixie Dream Girl mode; and the heightening tension between Darryl’s parental instinct to take care of his brother and Kanga’s escalating independence from him. The quirks come in building out the twins’ lives in a place that deeply mistrusts robots, or “toasters.” Unlike Daniel H. Wilson’s expansive robot epics, Mills keeps the story in small scale with only a few hints as to why these undercover robots exist, though we do meet the creator late in the story. Those interested in these kinds of humanoid robot stories will love The Directions, a kind of field manual for robot behavior, as well as the bizarre rituals the twins have to perform in order to pass as human. At the end of the day, though, it’s simply another YA–oriented novel about the precarious nature of growing up, and some readers might end up wanting more worldbuilding and sinister twists.
A well-written and ambitious debut that doesn’t quite live up to its peculiar potential.