(I received a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.)
3.5/4 stars. This book is definitely of the bleak cyberpunk varity. People escaping their lives through augmented reality. Being able to bring the dead ones to life by using the memories they left imprinted into servers, which in turns makes them puppets, as the living can do a roll-back to specific moments of their former lives whenever they want. "Gods" that may or may not be AIs, revealing the inner despair of those who worship them, as they don't seem to be anything else left to clutch to—and ironically contrasting (or not?) with the Totality, openly proclaimed AIs. The world the story's set in is mainly a decadent solar system. Earth isn't such a nice place anymore. Humans live on Station, and formerly on Mars and the moon, before the Soft War destroyed this, and the peace is fragile at best.
Jack Forster, the protagonist, an accountant unwillingly turned soldier, has spent years in prison after having surrendered to the Totality and being branded a traitor. When he's finally set free, it's only to face dire prospects: almost completely cut from the weave (augmented reality internet), thus unable to see the world as everybody else does; closely monitored by Internal Security as a parolee; haunted by the very case that prompted caused him to be sent to the front; and, last but not least, soon to be wiped off, personality-wise, by Hugo Fist, a combat-AI shaped as a puppet and installed within him.
Jack could just take it easy, live his last weeks quietly before his mind is obliterated by Fist's, make peace with his loved ones (what's left of them: his friends all turned their backs on him after his surrender). And yet, he keeps wanting to do something, to make things right, to reopen that old case and discover who had him and the other people involved disappear in various ways—even though this means being pitched against those who have so much more power than him. It's somewhat useless, futile, but still heroic in its own way.
The writing was a bit rough on the edges at times, with bursts of short sentences that, even though they fit the pace, felt somewhat awkward. As we're thrust into the world of Station, we have to piece things together, which wasn't always easy (but to be honest, I prefer to have to do such "work" rather than be fed pages of info-dumping). There were some predictable turns of events, too, especially at the end. However, the action made them interesting, and mostly I managed to ignore what bothered me in terms of style, and to remain focused on the story.
I couldn't help but see Hugo Fist as the puppet in that Buffy episode, "The Puppet Show": creepy, aggressive, and foul-mouthed. He and his fellow combat-AIs were shaped as puppets in order to be more appealing to children, as their birth directly followed a terrorist attack on the moon, one that killed hundreds of kids... And this was just frightening and wrong, because Fist and the other puppets would likely have been terrifying for most children. There's such a dicrepancy here, which is part of those twisted themes I enjoyed in the book: toys turned killing machines (the Totality's minds *are* minds, not mere rotes unable to evolve or have ideas of their own), the lines getting blurred between what's right and wrong, people lost in their worship to the point of ignoring their own dreams (Corazon) or clutching at the past (Lestak and Issie)...
I liked the relationship between Jack and Hugo, in any case. Fist kept nagging him about what he'd do once he'd inherit his body, urging him not to do anything dangerous in order not to damage it, and Jack managed to face this in quite a stoic way. It's not even like Fist was threatening him: none of them had a say in it, in fact, as it was all a matter of lease and contract in a world ruled by corporate entities and automated such contracts.
The puppet also evolved throughout the story, as any properly-devised AI should, and was definitely more of the jerk with a heart of cold kind, rather than remaining a murderer of artificial minds (or worse). I couldn't help but to smile at his gleeful antics, the "fun" he took in getting into the action after Jack decided to see things through, the way he went about manipulating data and breaking into servers, reflecting a change he wasn't even aware of.
Conclusion: A bit rough in parts due to the style, and not always too easy to follow, but I thoroughly enjoyed the themes developed here, as well as the main characters.