The Robots of Gotham
by Todd McAulty
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018
The Robots of Gotham is a science fiction adventure story detailing the tail end of humanity's war against the robots. And no, it has nothing to do with Batman... it's not even set in New York. I have no idea where the name came from.
The story follows Canadian businessman Barry Simcoe as he is accidentally swept up into the war for the remnants of the United States of America. Trapped in the ruins of an abandoned Chicago, he inadvertently attaches himself to not one, but two of the many infighting military/political factions, and these aren't two factions that necessarily get along. At all. As is the nature of protagonists, he finds himself in the center of an unlikely chain of events, starting with his imprisonment by the Venezuela peacekeeping force and leading to his accidental acquisition of a number of forbidden and unknown technologies that many powerful people (and robots) are willing to kill for.
Our hero is a fairly non-assuming but hyper-competent computer technician, who has a serious empathy problem. His adventure starts when he gets caught trying to save a dying soldier's life, and is suspected of attacking him. He redeems himself, at least partly, by spending the first few hours of his detention by helping his captors set up a working field hospital and trying to save a foreign dignitary whose coolant system was cracked during the attack. This places him centrally in military and diplomatic events, which is going to be a big part of his story.
But that's just the start. Barry has a chronic habit of helping, and a war zone is a target-rich environment. He tries to save pets trapped in abandoned apartments -- and finds some explicable and quite powerful technology. He attempts to procure some medical equipment, and discovers an underground robot community fleeing from genocide. He attempts to courier critical medical information across town, and accidentally makes contact with a resistance fighter with inexplicable powers.
But wait... their's more! As it becomes apparent that all the weird and dangerous things in the city of Chicago are drawn to Barry, he starts to take some seriously questionable risks to try to protect himself. Before long, he finds himself sneaking around, playing out an alternate personality as American Rebel Agent... to fool his pursuers into thinking that he is not an American Rebel Agent (he's not! Why will no one believe him!?)
This is an interesting novel; it is 675 pages long, involves a somewhat contrived hero that I found it hard to identify with, and often reads like the author was mostly hoping that someone would make a movie out of it... and even so, it was really quite good, and was a rather quick read. It is wonderfully twisty, and while it often leans towards deus ex machina and super-technological artifacts of power, these are also well explained by the plot and backstory. While one might often question Barry's choices, and it's hard to predict what he might do in response to the next crises, he is also always has adequate reason for doing the things he does -- he just happens to be a rather unusual personality in an extremely unusual situation.
All in all, this is a fun and engaging adventure story with lots of cool robots and technology battling for the fate of the world on an epic scale, skillfully boiled down to one adventure in one city. I would generally recommend it to anyone who likes SF adventures, particularly if you like military themes, traditional robots, and lots of weird stuff going on all at once.
Todd McAulty is currently working on his second novel, The Ghosts of Navy Pier. At this point all he has said is that it is set in the same world as The Robots of Gotham, but as there are a number of loose ends hinting at a sequel to the first book, it is fairly likely that this will be the further adventures of Barry Simcoe.