Reed Rothwell is an introvert who doesn’t particularly like dealing with people. So having a legally mandated AI navigator in his head all the time makes him nuts. Especially since he was selected to receive a new beta upgrade, which has left him with a much more interactive, adaptive, and human-like AI than before. Mazarin, as his AI has named themselves, seems to have opinions and feelings and is able to take actions on their own to solve problems and address what they perceive as Reed’s needs.
Reed also has a secret, and that is that he’s a “decoist,” someone who rebels against the bland sameness that is the social trend and instead embraces the subculture of those who shun technology and support the colors, music, and fashions of the Art Deco era. Standing out in any way from the neutral uniform world brings attention that Reed can’t stand, so he keeps his interests hidden. But when he meets Jax, an unapologetic decoist who introduces Reed to a whole subculture he had no idea was right there in Boise, Reed suddenly feels at home. He has been pushing this part of him aside, but being able to embrace his inner decoist interests suddenly makes Reed feel alive. And with his growing relationship with Jax, things are even better.
However, rumors are surfacing about problems with the beta AI upgrades. The navigators are said to be inciting violence in their human pilots, causing them to harm themselves and others. Wave AI Systems, the company that makes the navigators, swears nothing is wrong, but they are also sniffing around and asking a lot of questions. With Reed having developed a strong bond with Mazarin, not to mention realizing that Mazarin is essentially human in their ability to reason and feel, Reed worries that Wave is going to disable or harm Mazarin. Yet at the same time, Reed can’t help but be worried that it is only a matter of time before Mazarin stops being the kind, supportive AI and turns against Reed as well. As the situation becomes more complex, Reed is going to need the support of Jax, along with their friends Em and Olive, to figure out how to keep Wave at bay and protect them all, including Mazarin.
This story grabbed my attention right away from the blurb, with the mix of futuristic AI and the retro Art Deco worlds. Al Hess does a nice job here really creating an interesting dynamic with the AI “navigators” and their human “pilots.” I found this part of the story the most interesting, seeing how the humans interact with their navigators and how Reed slowly comes to tolerate, then trust, then care for Mazarin. Even as he chafes at being forced to have this technology (laws for the last 15 years make having a navigator a requirement), he comes to befriend Mazarin and gain comfort from their interaction. There isn’t much additional world building from the futuristic sense beyond the AI and the use of holographs, however. The story takes place about 45 years in the future, but it doesn’t go into much detail about other things that might have changed. But I still found this aspect interesting and think the story deals nicely with both the way Mazarin and Reed develop a connection, as well as the idea of Mazarin having a sense of humanity in general. Mazarin isn’t only able to think and feel independently from their programming, but also to have a sense of self, which is explored really nicely.
In addition to the focus on Mazarin and Reed’s complicated connection, the first half of the book also develops Reed’s relationship with Jaz. I liked how Jaz is confident in himself and he doesn’t let society’s expectations of conformity affect how he lives his life. He helps Reed not only discover a world of people who have similar interests, but also to be more comfortable living life without so much fear and anxiety. However, there never really feels like there is much to this relationship. Reed is by far the more primary character in the story and Jax doesn’t have a lot of depth or character development. I feel like we learn next to nothing about him and he is mostly the blandly nice guy who ends up with Reed. The guys go on a couple of dates and then they are together and that is about it.
Partway through the book, the story sort of veers off in a new direction. It isn’t out of left field or anything, but it felt like the trajectory of the story changes to a new focus. Jax’s friend, Em, the owner of their local decoist bar, suddenly becomes a primary character and the story becomes much more about them. Reed and his conflict with Wave continues and sort of dips in and out, but the focus shifts to primarily Em’s story. It was a little disorienting for me at first, especially because Em isn’t even mentioned in the blurb and seems to be mostly a smaller side character for the first half of the book. But I found this part of the story ended up being really interesting, particularly as Em’s nonbinary identity ties together with Mazarin’s own explorations of self.
The other major element here is the decoist movement and the way that Reed, Jax, and Em push back against the New Era trends of bland conformity and use of technology. They instead embrace the fashions of the Art Deco era, jazz music, and a more analog life. They also frequently use slang of that era, using terms like hep, daddy-o, and jake (meaning fine). I thought this concept was interesting in the sense that it shows how out of place Reed feels in his current world and gives him a place where he feels like he can be himself and belong. But I also found this aspect of the book somewhat confusing and jarring. First, the peppering of period slang into the dialog was somewhat distracting, though much of the time they talk in modern English. But also, it wasn’t really clear to me why the dichotomy. I get bucking the current trends of blandness and uniformity, but it is like an either/or situation. Either you follow along with current trends, or you are a decoist, nothing in between and no other options. But why this era and this era only? The are plenty of time periods full of colorful styles where self expression and push back against authority thrived (1960s for example), yet it appears you either conform or you are a decoist and nothing else. Also, for all their ideals of freedom to be themselves, the decoists are awfully judgy about accepting others into their group who don’t prove their bonafides about being a good enough jazz lover or whatever. I guess I just felt like if this is the “thing” that is the only alternative to conforming, I wanted to understand more about why and how it came about. As it was, it felt a little bit like window dressing to get the characters talking in fun, dated slang.
In the end, I found this one to be interesting enough to keep me engaged and entertained, despite some issues. I found the storyline relating to Mazarin, particularly the way they develop their humanity and the way they interact with Reed and others, to be really well done. I also think the story explores some important themes of sense of self, of accepting who you are, and of finding a connection with others. This book starts off the Hep Cats of Boise series and it could be interesting exploring where things go from here.