For this week’s review, I got myself a front row seat to humanity’s extinction in Day Zero, C. Robert Cargill’s prequel to Sea of Rust. This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received from the publisher, Gollancz.
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Pounce is a nanny bot, programmed to care for his eight-year-old charge, Ezra. A four-foot-tall cuddly tiger, he will do anything to make sure his buddy stays safe. In the wake of a devastating attack on robotkind, the world seems to descend into chaos overnight, robots rising up against humanity in swift and bloody retribution. Caught in the middle of the conflict, Pounce faces tough choices as he struggles to keep Ezra safe, discovering more about himself than he ever realised there was to know.
As a main character, Pounce is very easy to get behind. Driven into a bout of existential questioning when he discovers the box that he arrived in, it’s impossible not to have sympathy for him as he questions his purpose in the most human ways. An early airing of his concerns with his fellow nanny bots and caregivers has a real Toy Story ring to it, as this motley crew do their best to let him down gently and comfort him on the subject of his potential obsolescence as Ezra ages. This early part of the novel is replete with similarly emotionally stirring moments, yet thankfully never strays into saccharine territory. And although there are fewer of these moments as the story progresses, there are enough scattered throughout that you’re never far away from having your heartstrings tugged.
Having established the relationship between Pounce and Ezra as one of utter devotion and dependence from both sides, the pair are soon plunged into a world-encompassing war. Things shift radically in tone as soon as the uprising begins, Cargill once again displaying his knack for conjuring up extremely cinematic action set pieces packed with pitched gun battles, murderous, gun-toting robots and desperate battleplans. You might think that Pounce the cute and fuzzy little tiger steers well clear of this kind of thing, leaving it up to bigger, scarier looking bots.
You would be wrong. Because damn, this kitty has claws.
When Pounce says he’ll do anything to protect the kid that he loves, he really means it. Absolutely nothing will stand in his way, and it’s very easy to forget that he’s so huggable when he’s blowing heads off left right and centre. It borders on being cartoonish at times, but gets away with it because it’s just so easy to get swept up in the frantic, visceral action. Pounce takes no particular pleasure in his actions, nor is he cold and clinical about them – they are an unpleasant necessity in order to keep Ezra safe, nothing more. That doesn’t mean we can’t take a lot of glee from his combat prowess though.
Pounce’s personality is more than just devotion to Ezra, however; that’s his core reason for being, certainly, but there’s much more to him than that. He’s packed with just as much characterisation as Brittle in Sea of Rust, but is undoubtedly distinct from her. Whereas she could be somewhat mercenary, Pounce is positively altruistic, going out of his way to help others. It makes things feel somehow more positive this time round; even with all the carnage and the knowledge that the depressing world of Brittle’s account is the inevitable conclusion, Pounce’s attitude and unconditional love for his friend casts everything in a subtly different light, making this tale of a boy and his robot at the end of the world a surprisingly life affirming affair at times.
If you’re feeling starved of big screen blockbusters, Day Zero could well be just what you need right now. Action-packed and emotionally fulfilling, it’s a more than welcome return to a well realised and slickly executed world, full of likeable characters and approachable philosophising. Get the popcorn in.
Day Zero is published by Gollancz, and is out now. You can order your own copy through this affiliate link.