Bot Wars, by J.V. Kade (Dial, March 21, 2013, middle grade), looked to me from its cover and its title to be a story of a boy fighting in a war against robots. It turned out to be a lot more complicated than that, in a good way, and is, in fact, an excellent example of a somewhat rare type of book--a sci-fi dystopian adventure for the middle grader reader.
In a future America, robots were once everywhere, both in the factories, and in the home. Twelve-year-old Trout St. Kroix had been one of many American kids raised by a robot nanny. But then came the Bot War--the robots had become too human, and xenophobia had reared its ugly head, with much bloodshed resulting. Now Trout's America is a land without any robots at all, his father is missing in action, and his older brother is home from the war, minus a leg. But some of the southern states didn't join in the uprising against the robots, and there, behind a wall, is a territory where the robots still thrive.
And there, it turns out, Trout's father is still alive--and an enemy of the northern totalitarian government. With the result that Trout and his brother are suspect, and as well as being potentially valuable hostages.
Just as the government moves to arrest Trout and his brother, Trout escapes--thanks to a robot sent from behind the wall to help him reach his father. But his brother remains behind...captured, tortured, and in danger of death.
Trout has barely time to take in a world in which robots are not beings to be feared, but sentient members of society, before he decides to risk his own life to save his brother. So with the help of (the somewhat stereotypical stock figure) the plucky girl sidekick, he sets off on an impossible rescue mission....
I enjoyed it quite a lot. I thought the whole set-up of dystopian, anti-robot North pitted against enlightened South was a most interesting one, I sympathized with Trout, and found the question of robotic sentience nicely addressed. And, on top of that, I found the pacing brisk without being frenetic. A bit slow to get going, perhaps, but a page-turner once it does.
(Yay! I also just found my bus pass, tucked inside the book).
I just went and read the Kirkus review; whoever wrote it did not share my positive opinion. I can't help but think that I approached it with a mind-set more akin to that of an eleven-year old, in that I didn't question the science (I generally try to avoid questioning the science, unless it really forces me too), and I did not find it in the least "naïve and condescending." In my case, it was the Kirkus review I found condescending. For the young reader who hasn't read much dystopian sci-fi, I think it will be a very satisfying read, and the robots in particular, scientifically improbable though they might be, may well be utterly enchanting to such readers.
Note on age: There are serious issues of a grim sort addressed, but it is not a dark and gritty book, and so perfectly suitable for fifth grade readers on up. It is undeniable that older readers may well find the made-up slang and the future youth culture in general a bit tough to swallow...and Trout's rather easy conversion from a boy who is terrified by robots to their friend is not exactly nuanced. And, like the Kirkus review points out, the science might not satisfy a sci-fi veteran. But I enjoyed it, and it made my bus ride pass very quickly indeed.
Short answer: there really isn't much sci-fi action/adventure for middle grade kids, and I think this is an entertaining addition to the field that will be welcomed by its target audience.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher