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The Best Books of 2023: In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune

TJ Klune's cozy, queer sci-fi novel won the 2023 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune

In TJ Klune's In The Lives of Puppets, the inhabitants of the strange little home built among a grove's branches aren't your typical family. Three of them are robots, after all—Giovanni Lawson, the fatherly inventor android, a nurse machine, and a vacuum that's desperate for attention. The only human among them is Victor Lawson. 

When Vic repairs an unfamiliar android labeled “HAP,” he accidentally uncovers some of Gio's dark past. And when that past comes back to haunt them, Vic and his found family must travel across an apocalyptic landscape to reunite them. 

Hap joins the crew on their journey, and Vic isn't sure how to feel about the newest android's presence. Betrayal and affection battle as Vic must decide, in this modernized retelling of Pinocchio, whether he can accept love with strings attached. 

The book, which was published in April, was named the Goodreads Choice Awards' Best Science Fiction Novel for 2023. With more than 57,000 votes, it edged out fierce competition like Pierce Brown's Light Bringer and Starter Villain by John Scalzi. 

We've attached the first chapter below so you can try In the Lives of Puppets for yourself. Get the fireplace working, grab a scalding cup of cocoa, and dive into this cozy, queer story that V.E. Schwab says is “like being wrapped up in a big gay blanket.”




In the Lives of Puppets

By TJ Klune


A tiny vacuum robot screamed as it spun in concentric circles, spindly arms that ended in pincers waving wildly in the air. “Oh my god, oh my god, we’re going to die. I will cease to exist, and there will be nothing but darkness!”

A much larger robot stood still next to the vacuum, watching it have a meltdown for the millionth time. This other robot did not have arms, legs, or feet. Instead, the former Medical Nurse Model Six-Ten-JQN Series Alpha was a long metal rectangle, five feet tall and two feet wide, and her old and worn tires had been replaced by toothed metal treads, not unlike a tank’s. Two metal hatches on either side of her base opened to reveal a dozen metal tentacles ending in various medical tools should the need to operate arise. A monitor on the front flashed a green frowning face. Nurse Registered Automaton To Care, Heal, Educate, and Drill (Nurse Ratched for short) was not impressed with the vacuum. In a flat, mechanical voice, she said, “If you were to die, I would play with your corpse. There is much I would be able to learn. I would drill you until there was nothing left.”

This—as Nurse Ratched had undoubtedly planned—set the vacuum off once more. “Oh no,” it whimpered. “Oh no, no, no, this will not do. Victor! Victor. Come back before I die and Nurse Ratched plays with my corpse! She’s going to drill me! You know how I feel about being drilled.”

Above them in the Scrap Yards, halfway up a pile of discarded metal at least twenty feet high, came the quiet sound of laughter. “I won’t let her do that, Rambo,” Victor Lawson said. He glanced down at them, hanging on to the pile of scrap via a pulley system he’d constructed with a harness around his waist. It wasn’t safe by any stretch of the imagination, but Vic had been doing this for years and hadn’t fallen yet. Well, once, but the less said about that the better. The shriek he’d let out at the bone protruding wetly from his arm had been louder than any sound he’d made before. His father wasn’t happy about it, telling him that a twelve-year-old had no reason to be in the Scrap Yards. Victor had promised not to return. He’d gone back the next week. And now, at the age of twenty-one, he knew the Scrap Yards like the back of his hand.

Rambo didn’t seem to believe him. He squealed, pincers opening and closing, his circular body shaking as his all-terrain tires rolled over pieces of metal that had fallen from the scrap heap. Across the top, in faded markings that had never been clear, were the letter R and a circle that could have been an O or a lowercase a, followed by what was clearly an M (possibly) and a B before ending in another O or a. He’d found the little thing years before, repairing it himself with metal and care until the machine had come back to life, demanding to be allowed to clean—it needed to clean because if it didn’t, it had no purpose, it had nothing. It’d taken Vic a long time to calm the machine down, fiddling with its circuits until the vacuum had sighed in relief. It was a short-term fix. Rambo worried about most things, such as the dirt on the floor, the dirt on Vic’s hands, and death in all manner of ways.

Nurse Ratched, Vic’s first robot, had asked if she could kill the vacuum.

Vic said she could not.

Nurse Ratched asked why.

Vic said it was because they didn’t kill their new friends.

“I would,” Nurse Ratched had said in that flat voice of hers. “I would kill him quite easily. Euthanasia does not have to be painful. But it can, if you want it to be.” She rode on her continuous track toward the vacuum, drill extended.

Rambo screamed.

Five years later, not much had changed. Rambo was still anxious. Nurse Ratched still threatened to play with his corpse. Vic was used to it by now.

Vic squinted up at the top of the metal heap, his shoulder-length dark hair pulled back and tied off with a leather strap. He tested the weight of the rope. He wasn’t heavy, but he had to be careful, his father’s voice a constant in his head, even if he worried too much. After all, Victor was rail thin, Dad constantly after him to eat more, You’re too skinny, Victor, put more food in your mouth and chew, chew, chew.

The magnetic camming device seemed to be holding against the top of the heap. He brushed his forehead with the back of his gloved hand to keep the sweat from his eyes. Summer was on its way out, but it still held on with dying bursts of wet heat.

“All right,” he muttered to himself. “Just a little higher. No time like the present. You need the part.” He looked down to test his foothold.

“If you fall and die, I will perform the autopsy,” Nurse Ratched called up to him. “The final autopsy report should be available within three to five business days, depending upon whether you are dismembered or not. But, as a courtesy, I can tell you that your death will most likely be caused by impact trauma.”

“Oh no,” Rambo moaned, his sensors flashing red. “Vic. Vic. Don’t get dismembered. You know I can’t clean up blood very well. It gets in my gears and mucks everything up!”

“Engaging Empathy Protocol,” Nurse Ratched said, the monitor switching to a smiley face, eyes and mouth black, the rest of the screen yellow. The hatch on her lower right side slid up, and one of her tentacle-like arms extended, patting the top of Rambo’s casing. “There, there. It is all right. I will clean up the blood and whatever other fluids come from his weak and fragile body. He will most likely void his bowels too.”

“He will?” Rambo whispered.

“Yes. The human sphincter is a muscle, and upon death, it relaxes, allowing waste to vacate the body in a spectacular fashion, especially if there is impact trauma.”

Vic shook his head. They were his best friends in all the world. He didn’t know what that said about him. Probably nothing good. But they were like him, in a way, even though he was flesh and blood and the others were wires and metal. Regardless of what they were made of, all had their wires crossed, or so Vic chose to believe.

He looked up again. Near the top of the scrap heap he could see what appeared to be a multi-layer PCB in good condition. Circuit boards were a rare find these days, and though he’d wanted to pull it out when he first saw it a few weeks before, he hadn’t dared. This particular scrap heap was one of the most hazardous and was already swaying as he climbed. He’d take his time, working out scrap around the circuit board, letting it fall to the ground. Such effort required patience. The alternative was death.

“Vic!” Rambo cried. “Don’t go. I love you. You’re going to make me an orphan!”


Copyright © 2023 by Travis Klune