Tuesday, June 8, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Android Karenina'

Hello again, my readers! Once again, I am participating in a fun event for other book bloggers like me, one that will have great benefits for you guys. A few of my readers won the last contest, so maybe some of you will get lucky! This is a contest celebrating the release of Android Karenina, the fourth monster mashup by Quirk Books--combining, you guessed it, steampunk literature (robots and more!) with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

There will be 25 prize packs available to entrants of the contest, and the packs have tons of cool stuff, including an Android Karenina poster (one was sent to me with my copy; it's gorgeous), a copy of the last Quirk book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls (read my review here), and other fun-sounding books such as How to Tell if Your Boyfriend is the Anti-Christ (!). To enter, simply mention that my blog directed you to the contest and provide a link to this post if possible. Onto my review!

The Book: Android Karenina

The Authors: Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters (Winters is also the author of a previous monster mashup, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, also published by Quirk.)

How I Found It: Since I participated in the previous "blogsplosion", I was asked if I wanted to participate again for this book.

The Review: Regretfully, I did not have the time to fully delve into the original Anna Karenina before I undertook this mashup, so I can't make many comparisons to the original, since I only know vague details of the plot. However, I have to say that it made reading it more enjoyable, as I didn't know what was going to come next. Thus, I think even readers who don't know the original can enjoy this book, and it might even render the original more accessible to those who might want to tackle it afterwards, like I intend to do.

Winters has, in a sense, upgraded Tolstoy. The book now takes place in a 19th-century world where robots live to serve humans. Class I and Class II robots provide simple amusements as toys or perform minor household tasks, replacing servants. Real importance, however, rests with Class III robots--androids that act as companions to humans, essentially privy to every thought and desire from their human masters. These robots comfort, offer advice, and protect their masters ceaselessly. It's pretty clear that we are inhabiting a different world just by reading Winters' twist on Tolstoy's classic opening: "Functioning robots are all alike; every malfunctioning robot malfunctions in its own way."

We open in the same state of affairs as the original: Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky has been carrying on an affair (with the woman who tends to the household robots) and his wife is refusing to speak to him. He learns his sister, Anna Karenina, is to come to visit, and hopes she will be able to resolve the messy state of things with his wife. Meanwhile, Oblonsky's friend Levin hopes to propose to Oblonsky's sister-in-law, the beautiful young Kitty, though he is tormented by self-doubt and the news that Kitty has another suitor, the handsome officer Count Vronsky. While Levin fumbles to express his love to Kitty, Vronsky becomes taken in by Anna, and they begin an affair.

Things are not all well in Russia, however. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UnConSciya) believes that progress has been stalled one too many times on one too many important projects. They mount attacks on innocent citizens with koschei, creepy buglike organisms that seek to kill any lifeforms they come into contact with. The Ministry, which controls the production of the companion robots, is secretly planning a mysterious upgrade to Class IIIs--an upgrade that Anna's harsh husband is testing, though the robot may have designs of his own, on both Karenin's family and Russia at large.

This mashup was not the best of the ones I've read, but it had charm and I found that it was pretty absorbing, given that I didn't know all that much of what was going to happen. The story had influences from all kinds of different scifi tales, from Alien to Asimov's Laws of Robotics (Winters' robots are bound by two laws: they must obey humans and cannot hurt them, and they cannot allow themselves to come to harm).

The only criticisms I had of the novel were things that could just as well be attributed to the original--I didn't like how focus seemed to be on one story at a time, instead of more fully intertwining both stories (Vronsky/Anna, Levin/Kitty) chapter by chapter. Time would be spent with one couple for a few chapters, then another for a few more, and at times I wished there would be more direct interaction between the two sets, rather than interaction with peripheral characters. I also felt that perhaps one too many cuts were done to the buildup of the Vronsky/Anna relationship--I just never felt they had much chemistry, and their affair proceeded far too quickly. I also never quite liked Vronsky as a character.

Though at first I felt Winters went somewhat overboard on the steampunk trappings of the story, they were well-done. I found myself creeped out by the koschei and felt the threat posed to society by the attacks. There was sometimes a little too much emphasis on the Class III robots--take a shot every time the phrase "beloved-companion" is used--but I did like how the relationship between human and robot was explored. It was almost a commentary on our own dependence on technology in this day and age. While there wasn't enough explanation to non-steampunk readers about various terms, I soon caught on and understood the things that had me lost.

While the story had some weaknesses and I wasn't completely sold on it at first, I ended up truly liking it and wanting to read more and more. Tolstoy and robots work oddly well together. Winters' writing style meshed well with Tolstoy's, and I'd be intrigued to see if any more Tolstoy mashups are coming down the pike. This book did what a good mashup should do--it drew me in, got me interested, and will drive me on with even greater eagerness towards the original. I tip my hat to Mr. Winters for daring to go where no man or machine has gone before!

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