The most interesting thing I can say about Meg LaTorre’s debut novel “The Cyborg Tinkerer” is that it was an unexpected pleasure to read. This isn’t a criticism of LaTorre’s marketing of the book, which was ubiquitous on her Youtube Channel IWriterly or her blog, which can be found here, or her other social media platforms. When I purchased the book and read the initial blurb, I was expected something fairly straight-forward and mildly predictable. What I got instead was a well-written first novel with a few hiccups but an enjoyable read nonetheless.
To avoid spoilers, I won’t be delving too much into the major plot points. The novel is pretty standard length, something that could be easily read in a weekend (or two if you don’t read it through rapidly). The main character is Gwendolyn Grimm, a ship’s tinkerer in a universe where traditional sailing vessels roam open space in a mash-up of steampunk and cyberpunk. Gwen is a rough character in so much as she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty and knows how to throw down. She’s also foul-mouthed to a degree that would make hardened sailors or Marines blush. The other main point of view character is Rora, a gymnast of grace and ruthless demeanor, who is at times not the easiest character to like, which is by design. LaTorre uses Gwen and Rora as foils and love interests, showing two people who are on similar trajectories throughout the course of the novel, mainly starting as largely selfish people who eventually become more open to caring for others.
The main impetus for the plot is that Gwen only has weeks to live due to an inoperable brain tumor. It is in this dark hour of her life that she is offered the chance to become a cyborg for a circus filled with cyborgs. Her job will be to serve as the tinkerer for the circus (hence the title of the novel), charged with maintaining the cybernetic implants all of the performers have installed. In this universe, cyborgs are outlawed by imperial decree, making Gwen’s transformation into a new cyborg illegal and punishable by death. But with the prospect of dying slowly and painfully from the tumor in her head, she agrees to serve the circus for thirteen years. The person who brings her into the circus, Bastian, serves as the ringleader and erstwhile ally as Gwen finds herself a part of a group despised by the masses. But upon becoming part of the circus, she finds herself in an even worse situation: The Circus will be performing for the Emperor and only the best acts will be allowed to perform. A lethal competition is started among the performers, of which Rora is a member, and those who fail face the prospect of having their cybernetic implants forcibly removed by the new tinkerer.
One of the unique aspects of this book that I love dearly is that it is a fiercely LGBTQ+ novel. As someone in the LGBTQ+ community, a novel where the two main leads are bisexual and polyamorous is both encouraging and refreshing. There is also a strong amount of sexuality displayed in this book, particularly in the first chapter and then sprinkled throughout until the ending. LaTorre handles the sexuality of her characters quite well, infusing romantic tropes and situations with fresh vitality. For those expecting a cyberpunk/steampunk adventure, I do need to mention that the majority of the novel is devoted to the potential love affair between Rora, Gwen, and Bastian.
The only real concerns I have are that LaTorre does rely on foul language more than I felt was necessary. This is a personal quibble rather than a dig at her as an author. Vulgarity in fiction is an excellent addition that can add punch to dialogue and internal thoughts but when used excessively, it loses its luster. That happened for me about halfway through the novel. If LaTorre felt it was appropriate for her characters, then that is her call to make as the writer. The second concern is that the novel does not do a great job of making the villains more than two-dimensional “bad guys”. While one of them is given some depth toward the end of the novel, the other, Abrecan (an obnoxious performer within in the circus) serve no real purpose except for being antagonistic to Rora and Gwen over something as simple as rejection. Since this is ostensibly the first book in a series, my hope is that the villainous characters of the first novel are given more depth and more time to shine in the sequels.
For a debut novel, Meg LaTorre shows that she is an author to keep an eye on in the future. If you’re looking for a romantic romp with plenty of sex, adventure, and intrigue, I thoroughly encourage you to check out the “The Cyborg Tinkerer”.