In The House in the Cerulean Sea and Under the Whispering Door, author TJ Klune delivered variations of happy endings that didn’t just come by the story’s conclusion. Instead, characters found reprieve, and solace, throughout their journey, as their isolation was nurtured and they surrounded themselves with love and community. In the Lives of Puppets, the author’s latest novel, he focuses even less on the need for a black-and-white happy ending and instead, looks to brighter beginnings. Because, when all is said and done, his latest possesses as much sorrow as it does joy, and it’s all the better because of it.
In the Lives of Puppets displays some of the author’s greatest worldbuilding to date, with a story enriched with the follies of humans, the minutiae of time, and the magic of discovery. Set in the future, the story introduces us to Victor, his android father Gio, and the two other androids who live with them in a grove in the woods, separated from any other semblance of society. They’re happy there, until the arrival of Hap, another android, brings back Gio’s dark past where he and others like him hunted humanity, believing them a blight on the world.
Klune’s latest takes about a fourth of the book for the pace to take off and the story to engage with readers. Due to the nature of Victor’s existence, there’s not much by way of worldbuilding in this elongated introductory section as he knows nothing outside of the grove that surrounds him and the pieces of the world that his father has allowed him to witness. With that minimal amount of space to wander, we, like Victor, are eager with anticipation to see beyond what’s been set before us, especially with such a minimal cast of characters to interact with as well, with two of them often at the start mainly repeating jokes and one-liners. The android Nurse Ratched and Rambo are amusing in small doses at the start but when they take up passages of text they grow bothersome and then, worse, boring.
Vic is too passive of a character too at first, the most interesting thing about him is what we don’t know. More time with Gio at the start would have helped, as his tenderness for his son is an unexpected trait that elevates the story. The introduction of “Hap” though is what really transforms the book by virtue of how Hap transforms Vic and his view of the world and the awakening of how much he’s lived in ignorance of.
Once an unexpected tragedy hits and all that Vic knows has been undone, he along with Nurse Ratched, Rambo, and Hap must venture out beyond the home his father built for him; their little utopia in the woods. Despite dragging its feet, there’s no denying that this home of treehouses, dusty records, their warbling voices, and gadgets which Vic and Gio toil away their days trying to make sense of, is impeccably built, detailed so thoroughly that it becomes a potential tangible loss when it’s threatened.
The world outside of this pocket though gives the story its real emotional heft. Not only do we get to explore more of Vic outside of the protection his father gave him, but we also get a heavier piece of fiction from Klune than we’re used to. While his last two have dealt with dreams in need of reclaiming and life that was wasted, In the Lives of Puppets fashions itself a story of loss so profound it’s difficult to comprehend, much to the benefit of the story as we also find ourselves in Vic’s shoes.
Melancholy is not so much in text or prose but in what isn’t written, that which is alluded to, In the Lives of Puppets is startling in how it engages with the true horrors of the world. Warfare and the eradication of entire cultures are hinted at, rather than gratuitously engaged with. Whispers of societies that were weighing heavy on the minds of characters and their guilt and grappling with wrongs that were committed fall on the shoulders of the innocent to contend with. For all of its moments of horror, and science-fiction, the story is, first and foremost, one of intense grief. Grief for what was and for what isn’t. Grief so palpable that it aches heavy in the chest of the reader who too feels as if their heart has been found and remade through some force of compassionate ingenuity.
On top of everything, as has become custom to Klune’s books, it is, unequivocally, a love story. At least, it is of sorts. It’s a meeting of souls and the romance is almost unnecessary due to the world that’s built and the relationships are interesting without it. But the nuance found in the dynamic, the push and pull of having someone who keeps you tethered in the present rather than entangled in nightmares or what might’ve been, is potent. The relationship enchants in its own way, with more characters naive to what it entails, both young to the world in their own way.
The thread of souls meant to meet and ultimately change one another in meaningful ways speaks to the heart of the story. For all that is lost to them, and for all the trauma that this universe has endured, still, there exists individuals to love, music to hum, fingertips to graze, instances to be brave, be bold, and press forward. In a world that offers such a desolate future climate, there’s a lovely magnetism to the protagonist who spends so much of their time tinkering, trying to find ways to make what is old work with new parts. A protagonist who, no matter the severity of the situation, will try again until all possibilities are behind him.
In the Lives of Puppets bruises in the tenderness it harvests for humanity. The book recognizes that, for all our violence and heedless ego-driven destruction, we are a species destined to heal, taking on multiple shades through the passage of time. Klune’s book is harbored by a mournful atmosphere and crucially remembers that even grief lessens with time, and we take steps towards new, maybe even bright, futures.
In the Lives of Puppets is available now for purchase.
Featured Image Courtesy of Pan Macmillan UK, 2023
In the Lives of Puppets - 8/10