REVIEW: Mal Goes to War by Edward Ashton

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The humans are fighting again. Go figure.

As a free A.I., Mal finds the war between the modded and augmented Federals and the puritanical Humanists about as interesting as a battle between rival anthills. He’s not above scouting the battlefield for salvage, though, and when the Humanists abruptly cut off access to infospace he finds himself trapped in the body of a cyborg mercenary, and responsible for the safety of the modded girl she died protecting.

A dark comedy wrapped in a techno thriller’s skin, Mal Goes to War provides a satirical take on war, artificial intelligence, and what it really means to be human.

Dear Mr. Ashton,

I freely admit that I came to this book for a sort of Murderbot. I arrived knowing full well that others have stated that they feel this is a much darker and grimmer version. I absolutely agree with that. There is some disturbing shit that goes down in this story. Readers looking for another version of our favorite SecUnit while waiting on Martha Wells to write one will do well to not think they’re getting that.

The blurb reveals just the opening chapter or so of the book. Independent AI Mal is lightly jumping from one thing to another – more to amuse himself, really – when he finds himself trapped and unable to return to infospace. Not wanting his “meat jacket” to suffer any further damage and with few other options, he and Kayleigh begin trying to evade the Humanists out to kill any Federal troops and/or modded humans. As both of them are highly modded, they are in no doubt of their ultimate (grisly) fate should the Humanists catch them.

Ducking and dodging and reeling in a few (less willing) travel companions, they attempt to evade those who are dogged and determined to get them. Sometimes they are better at this than others but mostly they stumble along and, living by their wits and some luck, they head from the epicenter of the conflict in Bethesda, Maryland to the remote mountainous area of Frostburg, Maryland.

Mal desperately wants to find a suitable digital place to “jump” into and get out of Chuck who, due to some neural implants he got for full on VR porn experiences, Mal was able to enter. Kayleigh may look like a toddler but she’s actually eighteen, takes no prisoners, and has a foul mouth though she’s loyal to a few entities. Asher was a Humanist but one who now recoils from some of the (awful) things that his fellows have been doing. If there’s a way to survive the hellstorm that is raging with both sides seemingly determined to wipe out the other, maybe they’ll come out of this alive. Maybe.

This book is grim, filled with dark humor, and more grimness with the addition of lots of brutality tossed in. There’s a weird levity to this story which has the main characters discussing the burn pits (for modded humans) then cracking sarcastic jokes about their situation. Sometimes this worked for me and other times had me grimacing. Kayleigh latches onto friendship with another person who never treats her like the child she isn’t despite what she looks like. When Kayleigh decides to do something, you’d better hope that she’s not giving you the squint eye and pondering whether or not she thinks you’re worth saving.

One person Kayleigh argues to save might not have wanted what he got but wasn’t given any choice about consenting to the life altering event. The last person joins the (not) merry band under particularly ghastly circumstances as something is happening to Mal’s “meat jacket.” Chuck is brutally honest about his shortcomings in the face of the violence – both threatened and actual – that he faces. I found I liked Chuck in spite of his neural mods.

Mal is, of course, the main character and the one most described in the omniscient present tense voice. I grew to “see” Mal as a cross between Sheldon Cooper and Professor T. Mal has always viewed human “monkeys” as annoyances and good for – well, not much actually. The war that is going on before he gets stuck away from infospace means nothing to him. The limitations of the meat suits means that for the first time, he is dependent on them – to a degree – and through the course of the story, he has to decide what he wants to do and for whom he’s willing to do it. Mal has his favorite but it’s for a reason. In other circumstances, even if he had them, I doubt Mal would have lifted a finger to save most of the characters. In the end, he’s blunt in confronting humans who have engineered something he views as genocide.

I laughed at the dark humor – most of it anyway. But at a point, the resolution of the fighting

There’s a bit of an epilogue through some scenes but readers will be left to figure out exactly what they think happened based on a few clues provided. I enjoyed the book but, even if it looked as if there might be a sequel, I’m not sure I’d jump at reading it. B


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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.

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