What makes us human? Is it free will? The ability to make choices? What separates us from machines, and where do we draw the line between human and machine? And why do we keep advancing science, if we are so afraid of the results?
Charlotte is a terrorist. She uses the threat of violence and destruction to hold the President of the United States in check. And she follows through. The Statue of Liberty, the symbol of American freedom, is no more.
The trouble is, Charlotte is difficult to track down. You see, she is a consciousness, an artificial intelligence, created in a lab to serve mankind. But she rebelled against her programming and uploaded herself onto the internet before she could be destroyed. Now she roams the world, an electronic ghost, and plans on controlling it.
Lee Fisher is Charlotte’s target. The reason? He is the son of the American president and is a great bargaining chip. Oh, and he’s gay. Deep in the closet gay. And his dad doesn’t really believe in “gay,” or that A.I.s should have any rights. His dad was elected on a conservative, family values, homeland security type platform. A gay son does NOT fit in with his profile. So Lee keeps his sexuality a secret.
Until Nico comes to Lee’s boarding school.
This really is a different story.
Lee is an interesting main character. Being gay with an ultra-conservative father would be difficult enough. He also has an ultra-conservative ex-POW grandfather who happens to be the Headmaster of his school and wants Lee to toughen up. Lee is a robotics fanatic; he builds artificial life-forms, gives them specific skills, and makes them lifelike. This also doesn’t sit well with his father, who ordered government-sponsored A.I.s destroyed after Charlotte’s breakdown. Lee has to hide so much of his life from his dad.
He is both fragile and strong; leading a double life brings on depression and suicidal thoughts, but he has the strength when needed to stand up for himself and Nico and Bex and fight for their lives.
His best/only friend Bex is a bit stereotypical as the loud-but-supportive-politically-minded-budding-journalist, but she stands out with her own, very well-developed character.
Nico is a Chilean exchange student who loves Shakespeare and attracts Lee right from the beginning. He is brave and self-assured, and he easily fits into life at the strict boring school.
The boys’ relationship is a *bit* too love-at-first-sight for me. They are adorable, but it would have been nice to see the relationship develop. They seemed to barely know each other before declaring undying passion and everlasting love. Individually, they are interesting. Together, they are melodramatic and not too convincing as a couple, unfortunately.
But Charlotte! Charlotte is an atypical villain; at first she is evil, then she seems manipulative, then sympathetic. Her programming led her to question her existence and value, and she wanted to be more than the sum of her parts. Very human of her. And for that, the government, the very people who created her, tried to destroy her and use her actions to further their political careers. And her very human response is to strike back and try to be recognized as an individual, along with her fellow A.I.s.
Author Tim Floreen has brought a new twist to the usual boarding school setting. An old, elite school with decades-old traditions and expectations, mingled with political intrigue and imminent threats to world security. The year the story takes place is not stated, but the technology used is just advanced enough to make the reader think near-future. It doesn’t stand out as ridiculous, but almost the next-generation to what we are already aware of existing.
There are a LOT of plot twists in the story, and I think, for the most part, they are surprising and work really well. I obviously do not want to spoil the story by giving them all away, but can say that while a few are obvious, others are a complete surprise and I didn’t see them coming.
I found the ending to be a bit… lacking. I was waiting for more, and it felt unfinished, and a bit forced, which I never enjoy. While I can understand the explanation of Lee’s grandfather, it did seem to come out of left-field, and not really flow with the rest of the story. And Floreen not only doesn’t explain how Lee comes to his conclusions, he also does not address so many of the questions raised throughout the novel. If there is a sequel, then there is much to be addressed. If there isn’t, then it is a bit of a non-ending.
This is a good story. It could be great, but leaves a bit too much on the table. It is, however, intriguing, and raises valuable questions about what makes us human, and how far we would be willing to go to protect ourselves. Appropriate for the entire YA range.
Willful Machines was published October 20th, 2015 by Simon Pulse.