If the recommendations on every streaming platform are any indication, I tend to gravitate toward things heavy with blood and light on, well, light. Maybe none of the algorithms would suggest me T.J Klune’s latest novel, In the Lives of Puppets, but I feel more refreshed for having read it. Part reverse-Pinocchio, part science-fiction Stardust, Puppets is another entry into the growing cozy SFF genre that is a welcome change from the usual fare.
Victor’s life is pretty ideal. Most days, he goes scavenging to the junkyard for parts to put in his creations or to fix broken bits. His robot friends Nurse Ratched and Rambo are happy to tag along and lend their expertise as a medical diagnostic bot and a vacuum, respectively. Then, the trio heads back to the forest and the house built by Victor’s dad, Gio, who is pretty quiet about his past but is otherwise sitcom-supportive (and also a robot). There’s no school or mall or whatever other trappings many teenagers would want, but for Victor, things are good.
Things are still good when he drags home a partially dismembered android that still has a spark of life. After rigging an alternative power source to replace the bot’s battery, he hopes he’s found a new friend in Hap, as the new guy is called. Nurse Ratched, on the other hand, warns that Hap might be homicidal. Gio seems worried, too, about something he won’t explain. Victor doesn’t have much time to find out if either of them is right before a giant airship carrying robots like he’s never seen before descends, kidnaps Gio, and destroys the treehouse. Together, Victor, Nurse Ratched, Rambo, and Hap leave the safety of the forest to rescue Gio. But the more they learn about the outside world, the more secrets each robot seems to hold beyond the reach of their memory banks or programming. Victor doesn’t have a memory bank or programming, but the journey reveals harsh secrets held in his very blood.
Victor is at once brilliant and so naive, and through his character, Klune illustrates that kind of divide between book smarts and an awareness of the world around you—or vise versa—that many precocious teens face but don’t bridge until a while into adulthood, if ever. Victor is sweet and earnest, and sees the best in everyone. Gio may have been the one to start this odd little found family, but Victor is the one who grows and maintains it, wherever Gio is. In that way, Puppets is another warm addition to the found family canon like Klune has become known for since The House in the Cerulean Sea.
But the emphasis on this odd little found family is odd. Eventually, I came to love Nurse Ratched and Rambo, which was a pleasant surprise because in the beginning a discussion about Victor’s vitals takes an unexpected and unnecessary turn into talking about robot penises or the lack thereof. The humor between the bots remains occasionally off-color, but they are charming enough in their own way. I’d bring Rambo home and spill dirt on my floors for him to clean up. (Not sure if I’d ever let Nurse Ratched attend to my health, but that’s not because of the jokes.) Hap’s personality takes longer to grow, and Gio is in precious few scenes before he’s taken by the evil robots. However, all of them are easier to love through the fierceness of Victor’s love for each of them.
Victor also believes in the best in everyone, even and especially when their programming is, say, to kill humans on sight. It is heartening to see this belief rewarded. There’s a lot of cynicism out there in both real life and fiction, and most of it is earned. In his world, Victor goes against the grain, and often reason, with his conviction. In a way, Klune has done the same. It feels nice, like having a place to rest, to have a little cozy optimism, even if the characters bringing it occasionally fixate on robot penises.