Automatic Reload – by Ferrett Steinmetz (Review)

Standalone / Noob #1

Cyberpunk, Scifi, Romance

Tor Books; July 28, 2020

304 pages (ebook)

5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Tor/Forge and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

A cyborg with a conscience. A genetically enhanced assassin who suffers panic attacks. A love story for the ages—albeit kind of an odd one. A cyberpunk-romance about two heavily augmented badasses who take on the world, and have a breakdown when it gets to be too much. A couple that is more machine than man, but turn out to be more human than most of us.

I could go on, but you get the gist.

Mat is one the best at what he does—a black-market merc with a heart of silver (not quite gold, but close). A killing machine that would rather not have to, and manages to do his job without as much as possible. And does it far better than most humans. That’s because Mat is more than your average human. He’s post-human: a cybernetically enhanced body-hacker who uses his deadly, deadly augmentations to save innocent lives.

He’s the best at what he does for two reasons. One, because he maintains his equipment and preps for his missions with an OCD mentality. He lives and breathes cybernetics—always tweaking his limbs to improve performance and firepower, to minimize casualties rather than increase them, obsessively watching and rewatching video of his previous assignments to learn what he could’ve done better, who he could’ve saved. He takes posthumanism to the next level—a search for perfection.

And two, he never strays into the light of day. Mat is the big fish in his stretch of river, and he likes it that way. As such, he makes a point never to draw too much attention to himself. If any of the bigger fish from downstream noticed, they might fancy a trip up. And if any fishermen caught wind of him, they might stop by. But behind both the fish and fishermen, there’s a larger threat. The IAC—called the “Yak”. They’re the shark-man in this scenario. The uh… landshark. The government agency that makes body-hackers disappear forever. And Mat would do anything to keep off there radar. But, like everyone else, it appears this self-preservation has a price.

And that’s $3 million for two hours.

With the biggest score of his life on the line, Mat accepts a mission he knows is trouble from the outset. And it all snowballs not an hour in. When an unknown power attacks his convoy, Mat learns that the shipment he’s been contracted to protect isn’t a package at all. It’s a woman.

Enter Silvia: genetically engineered assassin and ultimate badass. And current prisoner of the IAC. The organization that no one wants to be at war with. The shadow cabal that Mat has done his best to avoid, his entire life. And two minutes after meeting Silvia he decides to throw it all away. And frees her.

But when the biggest score of his life turns into its biggest fight, Mat learns three things surprisingly quickly—one, he’s not the big fish anymore. Even with the IAC, the police and other body-hackers out to get him, it becomes clear that Silvia is the biggest fish. She’s Jaws and this is her movie. Two—whatever else Silvia may look like, the woman beneath the mask is ultimately more interesting than the assassin itself. With reflexes Mat would kill for but a self-confidence that provokes a panic attack every other action, Silvia is definitely more than meets the eye. And three—whatever else you might say about their issues, the two are infinitely better together than apart.

But will they be allowed to explore this budding romance in full, or will Jaws end like the movie—with the shark dead, the romance over, no chance of a sequel, and not a dry eye in the theater?

Automatic Reload is a cyberpunk-romance thriller—it’s what would’ve happened if Nicholas Sparks had authored Altered Carbon, only with more explosions and panic attacks. Written by ‘Mancer author Ferrett Steinmetz, it’s the action-adventure blockbuster I wanted, with the relatable stories I needed. No, I’m not talking about the government-trained assassin bit. Nor the cybernetic ally augmented super-solider. I’m talking about both. Mat only lost the first limb. Shredded in a military mishap, it was replaced with a prosthetic that promised better, faster, stronger performance than the original. From there it was easy to see the promise of posthumance. He quickly swapped out the old meat-suit for a fresh batch of new toys; a body that would manage to correct all the mistakes of the flesh that he couldn’t fix himself. Mat was after the power to safe others, only at the cost of himself.

Silvia didn’t choose her augments. Where Mat went with the body-hacker enhancement option, Silvia went the therapy route. Experimental, government, classified therapy. In hindsight, most of those should’ve been red flags. But at the time, she was desperate. Desperate to get on her own two feet, to get her life together—to please her family. The family that had done everything for her; her Mama, who both supported and belittled her, but loved her more than anything; and Vala, her sister, who lived and died for Silvia, fighting to build her up whenever their mother put Silvia down. Though the government reformed her body, they didn’t repair her mind. I guess that was Step B in therapy.

I related very well with each of these characters. While I know nothing about being a soldier, I know everything about depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and not feeling in control of your own mind. It’s an incredibly humbling, immensely frustrating experience. One that has you often desperate for a miracle cure: something that can fix you, fix everything, the dream of post-humanism. A role that Mat and Silvia fill perfectly. There is so never any chance of perfection in life—despite the fact that this is what Mat does, what he strives for day after day—it’s just a pipe dream. Silvia is about as far from perfection as one can get. Not only can she not control her mind, her body is suddenly alien as well. Before, neither has lived very well. But now, they are forced with a decision. Apart, the odds of survival are almost nil. Together… well, it’s higher. So, better together. Better together, but not perfect.

But life is never perfect, and death the only alternative.

TL;DR

An amazing cyberpunk adventure. Action-packed, romantically steamy, emotionally unstable, and more—Mat and Silvia represent a team that I’d love to see more of down the road. A few unique and unexpected twists later on in the story kept the plot intriguing, and never hard to read. I have very few complaints about this book. The story was great. The trials and travails faced within were both relatable and inspiring. Despite the leads being debatably “more-than human”, each demonstrated their humanity perfectly. It’s unclear whether the text argues more for or against transhumanism. I think it makes the case for posthumance, but urges restraint. But you can decide for yourself. My biggest issues were with the world-building—that we so rarely got a glimpse of the world outside the immediate story—though it’s a minor gripe. Truth is, I loved this book. Probably my best of the year thus far. Easily recommend.