Found Family, Forests, and Fantastical Storytelling from “In the Lives of Puppets” – Chicago Review of Books

With In the Lives of Puppets, Lambda Literary Award-winning TJ Klune offers speculative fiction and young adult readers a fresh new tale. By loosely adapting The Adventures of Pinnochio, Klune tells the endearing story of a father creating life under unorthodox circumstances and a boy on a dangerous journey to a far-off land and back home.

Victor, a notably “real” boy, is starkly out of place in a land of robots and machines. Raised by Giovanni Lawson, his android father and inventor, Victor spends his days scavenging the scrap yards of another civilization for spare parts and hiding away from the detection of machines much larger than themselves. With his robot companions—an anxiety-ridden cleaning vacuum and a sarcastic and self-professed sadist nurse robot—they live happily in their wilderness workshop as a family. One day, Victor and the robots salvage a defunct and amnesiac android thrown out in the graveyards. Without telling his father, Victor repairs the android—offering him a new name (Hysterically Angry Puppet, or Hap for short), a new functioning heart, and a new life with his makeshift family in the forest. When Giovanni learns of Hap’s existence, it brings chaos that reveals secrets his father has hidden for years and a dark shared past that threatens their family’s safety. That chaos spurs Victor, Hap, and his companions on a life-altering journey from their idyllic treehouse in the forest to rescue his father from the City of Electric Dreams—a futuristic, robotic-run city void of humanity, free will, and the near-omnipotent power of The Authority.

Klune has penned a literary young adult novel that is never sparse with the details and stays inventive with its characters and world-building. In the Lives of Puppets takes delight in its quasi-fantasy, quasi-science-fiction setting, inventing new lives for its staple characters and bringing to life thoughtful questions about what it means to be human—as nebulous as that word can be. Here, Klune strikes a similar chord to his last two novels, House on the Cerulean Sea and Under the Whispering Door. With lovely prose and a profoundly whimsical setting, Klune shows a deft hand for melding the fantastical with the mundane. As a queer, coming-of-age story, In the Lives of Puppets has a penchant for romance as its two leads—Victor and Hap—learn to navigate their newfound relationship in dire circumstances. Like his past work, this novel sticks closely to found family tropes, bringing together its endearing characters for quiet, lovely moments and relationships that evolve throughout the story.

We were admittedly inundated with Pinocchio adaptations last year—from Guillermo del Toro’s energetic and politically salient stop-motion film to Disney’s CGI-overwhelmed yet live-action adaptation to the quickly forgotten Russian animated Pinocchio: A True Story, voiced by Pauly Shore and only remembered for its memetic trailer. Thankfully, In the Lives of Puppets is not wholly an adaptation of Pinocchio but a mishmash of all its essential elements with a touch of dystopia. While Giovanni, Victor, Hap, and their companions differ wildly in adaptation, their core roles remain the same. The Blue Fairy, the Coachman, and the Terrible Dogfish—all familiar characters from the original Pinocchio tale—appear newly formed in an unfamiliar setting. With cues from The Swiss Family Robinson and WALL-E, Klune crafts a cozy fantasy adventure with stakes that pile high. Despite its dystopian premise, Klune’s latest novel is less concerned with what calamity may have brought humankind to extinction but with how its surviving machinery reproduces the anger, sorrow, and loneliness they sought to leave behind. It is a soothing post-apocalypse—reminiscent of those in Studio Ghibli films—with burnt-out androids and downtrodden robots all longing to find a purpose other than that which they are programmed to do.

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Unfortunately, the novel takes a little time to find its way through the plot. We are almost halfway through the book when our intrepid crew finally sets out on their life-altering journey. What starts as beautiful atmospheric world-building begins to feel like too much padding in front of the good stuff. Victor’s quippy robot sidekicks eventually begin to feel less like hilarious companions and more like a repetitive nuisance—repeating the same jokes and becoming a hindrance to romance and the plot itself. The novel takes some time to get into motion, but once it does, it is a gripping standalone adventure and gets where we want to go with an imaginative vision.But despite these small pitfalls, Klune masterfully mixes the ordinary with the extraordinary to new effect. In the Lives of Puppets is found family at its finest and a great addition to the growing library of queer fairytale retellings with new energy.

Cover of TJ Klune's "In the Lives of Puppets"

In the Lives of Puppets
By TJ Klune
Tor Books
Published April 25, 2023

Reema Saleh

Reema Saleh is a writer and journalist based in Chicago. She is a graduate student at the University of Chicago studying public policy, and when she’s not doing that, her face is buried in whichever fantasy book has caught her eye. She can be followed on Twitter or Instagram at @reemasabrina.

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