Reviewed by Louise Leetch
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My taste in books runs to the ilk of Cold Mountain. I haven’t read one single vampire book. I never read the Harry Potter series and I never could get into fantasy books–including the Lord of the Rings! I guess I’m just a snob.
When I began reading Ben H. Winters‘ mash-up novel, Android Karenina, my hopes were not high for a quick, light or funny read. Oddly enough, it was all three. Mash-ups are the latest thing in the literary world, mixing classics with new world monsters and demons. It’s not really all that new; the music world has been doing it for ages. Mad Magazine used to rewrite the comics–Al Capp writing Brenda Starr, for instance.
Winters, a playwright, librettist, and author of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, connects all of Tolstoy’s dots in the cleverly bizarre world he has created and he transforms a Russian novel into a reasonably demented work of science fiction.
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is the original drama queen. She falls in love with a dashing soldier, deserts her husband and child for him and complains when he doesn’t dote on her every minute of the day. We all know that Russian novels tend to have a gazillion characters, so what does Winters do? He adds more!
The author introduces us to the world of Groznium, which is the essential ingredient for the new classes of robots. There are Class I robots acting as toys, candles and self-extinguishing ashtrays. Class II robots perform the functions of domestics, train drivers and miners. Upon reaching their majority, the upper classes receive a Class III, a beloved-companion robot.
The robot is part alter ego, part Jiminy Cricket, part personal valet/maid. They provide a memory bank and communication, as well as protect, groom, mimic, nudge and commiserate with their human counterparts. Eventually, we meet the humanoid Class IV robot, the ubiquitous “toy soldiers.”
Count Vronsky’s Class III is shaped like a wolf; Anna’s is svelte, but still robotic. Anna’s husband, Alexei, has a robot that takes form as a partial face, a la Phantom of the Opera. Alexei is extremely important in the Higher Branches of the Ministry of Robotics. He controls all the robots and protects the populace from the UnConSkia terrorists, former state scientists who threaten Russian’s utopian way of life.
The religious enthusiasts are now Xenotheologists who believe “They will come for us in three ways” and those ways are in the form of hellhounds to delight any fan of Star Wars sand creatures. Vronsky’s English stallion, Frou Frou, becomes an exterior, a sort of suit of armor, for the cull–a steeplechase in which the contestants must eliminate each other. The true marvel of this mash-up is the way the author flips the events thoroughly and seamlessly from Czarist Russia to something more akin to 1984.
Louise Leetch divides her time between Chicago and Wisconsin. Both houses are just crammed with books. She collects her reviews on her GoodReads page.
Editor’s note: Quirk Books contributed a prize package in our World’s Longest Literary Remix contest.