For whatever reasons, some books just don’t hit a sweet spot; sadly, I never engaged with Willful Machines. I’m sure there will be many who will enjoy the tale – certainly, it isn’t terrible. But for me at least, it felt more like a Disney Channel failed made-for-tv script (e.g., a live action Kim Possible): the characters were shallow, unrealistic, and the story lacking subtlety and nuance. I didn’t believe any of it and ploddingly heavy yet overly simplistic ‘messages’ kept getting in the way.
Story: Lee, the son of the President of a future US, is a teen stuck at an elite academy; heavily guarded and allowed little freedoms besides a radical best girl-pal. When Nico arrives, all exotic and carefree, Lee falls hopelessly in love. But with a sentient AI named Charlotte on the loose and terrorizing the US, the son of a president is an obvious target. When strange things begin to happen at his school, Lee can only be in denial for so long that Charlotte may indeed be coming after him next. And there is obviously more to Nico than it at first appears……
At heart, this is a romance with some sci fi trappings. Messages about whether AI are life forms is the theme but takes a back seat to Lee getting hot and bothered about Nico and going on dates (which should have been interesting but was kind of dull). Problematic for me is that Lee seems more like a 12 year old, hormone addled tween than someone nearing adulthood. His actions, as well, are about as illogical and idiotic as are most of the other characters. There is no layering in the story or characterizations and plot twists are so obviously telecasted as to ruin all sense of drama or suspense.
Honestly, I was looking for something a bit more sophisticated. Alex Ryder and Percy Jackson are the parallels rather than Simon vs the home Sapiens Agenda or More Happy Than Not. In fact, give Alex Ryder a male love interest and then make him vapid and hesitant – and you have Lee Fisher.
Those looking for a near-future and somewhat simplistic/easy read tale will likely enjoy Willful Machines. Those needing depth of storytelling and characterizations may find the shallowness frustrating. Certainly, I did begin to skim about half way through and finished the book in under 1-1/2 hours. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.