Jay Kristoff’s YA post-apocalyptic novel LIFEL1K3 (2018) stars seventeen-year-old Eve as its tough, fauxhawk-sporting protagonist. Eve is a gifted mechanic who lives with her grandfather, her only relative, in a post-apocalyptic island version of “Kalifornya” called the Dregs. She has a cybernetic eye and a memory drive (“Memdrive”) implanted in the side of her head, with silicon chips behind her ear that give her fragmentary memories of her childhood and supply her with other useful life skills. Eve’s secret pastime ― at least it’s secret from Grandpa ― is engaging in robot deathmatches to fund Grandpa’s anticancer meds. Eve’s besties are a feisty redhead named Lemon Fresh, whose name comes from the box in which she was found abandoned as an infant, a cranky little robot named Cricket who has major self-image issues related to his short height, and a loyal cyborg dog, or “blitzhund,” named Kaiser who is internally armed with a powerful suicide bomb.
Eve’s latest robot gladiator battle goes badly: not only does her robot, Miss Combobulaton, get reduced to a useless heap of parts, but at the end of the battle Eve manifested a psychic power that completely shorted out the robot she was fighting. Now several factions are out to capture or kill Eve, including the dreaded Brotherhood that kills all mutants as a tenet of its faith, a stunningly powerful and physically augmented bounty hunter called Preacher, and the local greedy and bloodthirsty gang.
On the way home from her ill-fated robot battle, Eve and her friends see an aircraft crash land in a junk heap of old auto wrecks. They pull the remains of a handsome android, an illegal “Lifelike,” from the pilot’s seat. At Eve’s and Grandpa’s home, the android, Ezekiel, unexpectedly comes back to life. Ezekiel seems to recognize Grandpa and Eve, though he calls her by a different name, but can she trust him? Maybe she’ll be able to figure it out while they’re on the run …
Kristoff originally pitched LIFEL1K3 as “Romeo and Juliet meets Mad Max meets X-Men, with a little bit of Bladerunner cheering from the sidelines.” LIFEL1K3 is a cheerfully violent pastiche of those iconic works and more. There’s a Terminator type of character, an unstoppable bounty hunter cosplaying an Old West preacher. Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics play a vital role in the plot. Pinocchio is also expressly referenced several times by the characters, just in case any reader might have otherwise missed the allusion.
It may be derivative, but there’s creativity and enthusiasm in the pages of LIFEL1K3 as well. As our main characters quickly move from place to place, the pace moves swiftly as well. Robot battles and other armed conflicts are interspersed with the developing relationship between Eve and Ezekiel. The human (and android) drama element of the story is also heightened by flashback scenes of a mass murder that plays out at the beginning of the first several chapters, and by Eve’s gradual gain of knowledge about her past. Sometimes Eve overreacts to the new facts about her past; though she’s a volatile character, it seemed (especially at the end) artificially included for the sake of the plot and increased drama. I couldn’t quite believe and accept some of the characters’ actions and reactions at a few key points. The villains in this tale are also a bit cartoonish, with motivations that are understandable but rather simplistic and single-minded.
The romance, though it’s central to the plot of LIFEL1K3, never really took fire for me, perhaps partly because it involves sex (though not explicitly related) between a fifteen year old girl and an android. Despite the unusual and star-crossed partners, the romance itself remains firmly mired in standard YA romance land. More powerful for me was the depth and loyalty of the friendship between Eve and Lemon.
The cyberpunk-infused post-apocalyptic setting is, even if inspired by other novels and movies, well-imagined, with many gritty, vivid details that add to the realistic feel. Also adding to the pleasure of reading this novel were the twists and turns in the plot. Kristoff deftly threaded the needle here with twists that were surprising but had enough foundation in the previous events of the story that they didn’t come completely out of left field. My only quibble was with the very end of LIFEL1K3, which added one additional and rather unlikely twist of the knife to a cliffhanger ending. We’ll have to wait for the publication of DEV1AT3 to see how it plays out, and I’m definitely on board for that.