Most automatons lack the true depth of emotion and free will of humans, a fact which allows society to view the creations as less than human, treating them as commodities to be bought and used. Ordell, however, is an automaton unlike any other. He is all but indiscernible from true humans thanks to his independent thoughts, strong convictions that stem from his own internal compass, and his genuine emotions.
Ordell has spent years assisting his engineer father build countless automatons. As Ordell’s nebulous feelings on the issue of buying quasi-sentient creatures to use as service slaves finally start to crystalize, a customer comes to the shop one day demanding something beyond the de rigor sexbot. The very idea of continuing to sell the automatons he views as his siblings into sexual servitude is starting to revolt Ordell. Little does he know how deeply he is connected to the social order that normalizes a behavior he abhors, or what he could do to change the status quo.
The events in the story are fast paced and keep the reader guessing, so there was never any lack of drama or a sense of adventure. The author also managed a good balance between that side of the story and the romance that unfolds between Ordell and the automaton Eilas. The prose was also perfectly readable, no glaring grammar or syntax errors.
That said, I found little to enjoy about the story.
First, the setting is grossly underdeveloped. The book is categorized with a steampunk theme. I might be able to overlook descriptive passages giving details about the look of the current setting or what characters are wearing and props they might use. That said, I was flabbergasted at the almost complete lack of anything remotely steampunk in the book–it seemed to top out at mentioning “gears” and “gas light” about two times, a couple of mechanical animals, and the existence of automatons. Personally, as a fan of the steampunk aesthetic, I felt pretty cheated that there wasn’t much here to actually MAKE it steampunk. This was most egregious, I thought, in descriptions of Ordell where the author chose to give him blood and injuries sustained fighting a mechanical cephalopod. Given the choice in words, I was preparing myself for our hero to turn out to actually BE human, but in reality, it just seemed like sloppy writing.
The structure of the story ended up being a disappointment as well. With the non-stop action and the way each tableau flows into the next, the author’s plot points are too numerous and far too rushed for my liking. Maybe some people will enjoy a new plot device every five pages, but I found it tiresome. Every page offering a twist or a change or a ZOMG moment makes for wearying reading. Ultimately, it makes the story come across like a first draft where absolutely everything made the cut. I prefer stories where either strong characters or a tantalizing plot with a big finish carry the book, but I thought Project Ordell failed to deliver in both areas.
Speaking of characters, it was nice that we weren’t saddled with just our two main characters, Ordell and Eilas. That said, the entire cast felt conspicuously inconsistent. Many characters express conflicting opinions about the same thing in sequential scenes without any explanation for the change of heart. We’re also expected to accept that Ordell and Eilas fall ever deeper in love by sheer fact that they kiss every now and again. The portrayal of their relationship hinges on the author just telling us that they’re in love and that they kiss. While I certainly don’t need explicit love/sex scenes, sometimes they can be used to great effect by showing how vulnerable new lovers are. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see that side of Ordell or Eilas. To me, the lack of any action between the sheets coupled with the need for a shallow stream of events rather than a deeper pool of story put this firmly in the YA for actual young people.
Project Ordell falls entirely too short of the mark for me. Although the constant stream of events keeps things moving along, it isn’t enough to cover up the poor world building and paper-flat characters that flipflop like they’re in a strong breeze.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.