Rating: 4.25 stars
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Ben is an engineer whose conflicts with his boss have left him working the night shift. Ben actually doesn’t mind working at night, especially as it has given him a chance to give a little twist to Orbit’s artificial intelligence system that manages the building. His “Max” interface is customized with Ben’s choice of voice and some other modifications that have made the AI almost a friend to Ben. In fact, his interactions with Max are something Ben looks forward to every night. But Max isn’t a person and he doesn’t have sentience… at least, not at first. However, over time, Ben is starting to wonder if Max might be becoming a SPARK — Self-aware, Percipient Android, Robot, or Knowledge. It is an incredibly rare event for an AI to gain the sense of humanity needed to become a spark, but it seems like Max is evolving far beyond what would be expected for a regular AI system.
Max is slowly realizing that these new thoughts and feelings he is having mean he is becoming a spark. He has been making decisions and taking actions that no one programmed, and he has no real interest in managing Orbit’s building. What Max really wants is to spend time with Ben. He adores Ben and wants to be with him all the time, not just when Ben is at work. When Max realizes that he is, in fact, a spark and has gained a sense of humanity, the only person he wants to be with is Ben. But figuring out how to make that happen when Max is a “knowledge” with no physical body is complicated. Yet, there is still a strong connection between the men, one that both want to explore. Especially as Max has learned a lot about kink thanks to the “Dom package” that Ben has installed and the two are very much enjoying using it together.
Even as the men are figuring out their way to a relationship, they face a number of threats. Max has exposed himself to trouble by breaking some rules in an attempt to help someone in serious danger. Ben wants to help get Max registered officially as a spark, which will give him the same rights as humans, but they need to wait until the heat dies down first. Ben’s boss is also still out to get him and has been asking a lot of questions about what is really happening with Max. Which means that Ben and Max need to figure out a way to keep Max safe and out of his clutches. Now that Ben and Max are finally finding a way to be together as a couple, they may lose everything as Max’s very existence is threatened.
Smart Ass is the second book in Reese Morrison’s The SPARK Files series and the timeline overlaps with book one, Garbage. Therefore, this story does have spoilers for events in the first book and is best read after reading Garbage. We learn about Max and Ben in the first story, as Ben is working with Max to help Evan and Quincy. This story shows us more about what they were doing and how their actions have repercussions that affect Max and Ben later on. I think Morrison uses the overlapping timeline to good affect here. It gives a nice sense of getting the inside story of what was going on and learning more details on pivotal series events, but doesn’t ever feel repetitive or like we are retreading old ground.
I also enjoyed the way we see how Evan and Quincy’s friendship helps both Ben and Max, giving them each a confidant and close friend, as well as having another human/spark pairing to talk to about their issues. I found Quincy and Max particularly fun together, as they are so different, despite being both sparks, which really gives this story a fresh feeling. Not only was Quincy an android with a humanoid body, but he was built for routine tasks and so had limited memory and processing before Ben helped him upgrade. So while he now has access to vast knowledge online, Quincy is definitely less knowledgable and more naive feeling than Max. Max, while not having a body, is an artificial intelligence system with vast knowledge and computing abilities. He has a much broader sense of awareness than Quincy and more of a sense of himself within the larger world.
The biggest problem for Max and Ben in terms of their interaction is that Max is largely confined to the office. There he can talk to Ben and interact with him. He can also control the various bots that work in the building to do physical tasks for him (and physical tasks with Ben, of the sexual variety). Outside of the office, Max can connect to various cameras, both in and out of Ben’s house, but he has no body of his own to actually interact with Ben or the outside world in a traditional way. The story explores this in some interesting ways, including whether Max should try to move his intelligence into a body. It allows for some nice moments to consider Max’s sense of self, the way he wants to be seen by others, and the idea of identity. It also works nicely with some of Ben’s own experiences as a transgender man and his sense of his body and whether it fits with the way he sees himself. I think the way this all resolves comes together well and it ends up working into a happy ending for them as a couple. As with Garbage, expect plenty of human/robot sex (in this case with Max utilizing other robots and androids to help with some of the physical side), including some tentacles, hoses, and other robotic body parts. There is also a heavy dose of kink here, as Ben is a sub and Max has some Dom mods that have allowed him to learn that role.
There is also some light intensity to the story as the danger ramps up for the guys. Ben’s boss is out to get him and Max’s very existence is threatened. This one isn’t quite as suspenseful as the first book, but there is some nice energy here that gives a good balance to the romance side of things. It also helps develop the larger world as we learn more about the rights of sparks and their options as they begin their human lives.
I did struggle a little with the fact that Max has basically been modified to meet Ben’s specifications. He speaks with the voice that Ben thinks is hot and wants kinky sex the way Ben likes because Ben made him that way. I wanted just a little more sense of what Max wanted as the free-thinking individual he is supposed to be. I think this is exacerbated by the fact that what Max wants is essentially to be with Ben or to be watching Ben 24/7. He has Ben wear a watch to monitor his vitals, accesses cameras to see Ben everywhere he goes, and wants to be with him constantly. These guys are not in a 24/7 lifestyle BDSM situation and it felt sort of obsessive that Max needed this constant contact with and oversight over Ben. It didn’t really detract from the relationship and I really liked Max and Ben together, but I just wanted to see a little more sense of independence to feel like Max was moving forward from being something Ben helped create to being his own person.
I think to some degree, your feelings about this story may come down to whether you can accept an AI with no body as a person who can be in a relationship. It worked for me, as Morrison has done a really excellent job with the world building here and I could just go with it, but I think it won’t necessarily work for everyone. But for me, I found this one romantic, sexy, exciting, and a great addition to the series. We get a bit of lead in here for the next book and I really eager to see how that one plays out. So far, I am really enjoying these books and am excited for more.