State Machine is the third book of the Rachel Peng series, and K.B. Spangler’s fourth book set in the same world as her webcomic, A Girl and Her Fed. I highly recommend any and all of her work.* I especially recommend reading this series in order, for though Spangler does do small, narratively appropriate summaries in each book, you’ll have an unnecessarily long time of catching up if you start with State Machine. Also, you’d be missing two excellent books. And if webcomics aren’t your thing: don’t worry! It’s not necessary to read the webcomic to enjoy the books (in fact, reading the books inspired my sister to read the webcomic, whereas I discovered them the other way ’round), though there are definitely moments in the books and comic when it is REALLY nice to be a fan of both. Those moments add layers to those who know, but still serve perfectly functional roles in the respective formats.
Now, onto the specifics of the book.
I remember being a little shocked at how different Maker Space (the second book) was from Digital Divide (the first book). By the time I wrote my review, I had come to the conclusion that the difference was a necessity for the character. Rachel needs to be pushed against as many boundaries as possible, partially because she’s so reluctant to push them herself, partially because she’s best in the thick of things. This is never more true than in State Machine. This time, it’s not the murder that’s weird or a wild bomber on the loose. It’s actually pretty straight-forward: a robbery gone wrong with the suspect on video. Nah, what’s weird are all the situations Rachel finds herself in.
Why in heaven’s name was she called to investigate a crime in the White House? Why are political bigwigs and leaders approaching her as opposed to her bosses? AND SINCE WHEN DID A BROKEN LUMP OF INDETERMINATE MATERIAL/ORIGIN MERIT MURDER?! Rachel is confused. And a confused Rachel is a lot more fun.
Part of the reason confused Rachel is such great fun is because it leads her to consult a varied cast of experts. Some of them are expert cyborgs, some of them are expert cops, many of them are experts in all things geek, but all of them are a joy to be around. Mark Hill really got a lot of time in this book, and I’m so glad he did. He and Rachel are both gifted interrogators and the scenes in which they work together and separately are fascinating. The rapport that comes from this shared talent and similar military histories is better. Mark doesn’t say much, but when he does, it’s usually a fantastic scene. Phil, Jason, Santino, Mako, and Zockinski are all back in full and glorious form, too. Rachel never lacks for good company. It makes for a wonderful series in which the core cast of characters is so solidly enjoyable, but the rotating cast of characters is nothing to sneeze at, either. One of Spangler’s talents is in memorable, compelling characters of all types and involvement. I found myself missing tertiary characters from the previous novels and hoping that some of the tertiary characters in State Machine might be coming back.
Another part of the reason that confused Rachel is a better Rachel is that she functions on instinct. And that instinctual, reactive behavior is often hilarious and intense, but it also has the potential to go very, VERY wrong. I love that Rachel is deeply fallible. Her instincts serve her well a goodly portion of the time, but sometimes they’re dead wrong. The fact that, when she is wrong in this book, she admits it, commits to doing better, and brings in people she can trust to hold her accountable shows a remarkable amount of character growth from previous books. Not that she’s perfect – Rachel still has a secret or ten – but she’s starting to realize that her instincts aren’t always the best thing to fall back on. She’s growing in the books, and I love her for it.
(Let’s be honest, though: the biggest reason confused Rachel is so fun is because she is the worst cyborg in the history of cyborgs and this means Santino, her partner in the Metro PD, gets to tease her more. That’s excellent giggles, that is.)
As always, I must mention how refreshing it is to see a diversity of race, religion, gender, sexuality, etc, so seamlessly and thoroughly melded into a script. In the tiringly white, straight entertainment world, Spangler’s multi-dimensional cast is a sweet relief, and makes for a much more enjoyable experience than standard, popular fiction fare. That the main character is female, Chinese-American, and a lesbian (AND NO ONE – in world – GIVES A DAMN) is all the more precious to me, as a reader. Perhaps the only thing I haven’t seen represented in the books are trans individuals of any type (transgender, transsexuals, non-binary, genderfluid, etc) and while it is a curious lack, I have faith. It was just in this book that Spangler included a polyamorous relationship, so I know she continues to do her best to include more people and more perspectives.
It’s difficult to talk about specific plot point without spoilers, but the emotional notes this manuscript hits are right up there with the amusing ones. Rachel’s ability to see the emotional spectrum could easily lead to an over-wrought, mawkish manuscript. Rather, this ability lends itself to endless puzzle-solving, acknowledging both the universality and individual complexity that is the human experience. Also, while the morality of technology and how humans use it is addressed, it’s not preachy or even definitive. It’s a discussion consistent to these books, and I appreciate the layers that come with each new plot and situation (I loved the ‘what is math and what does that mean’ scenes in this book).
I will say, sometimes Spangler can be a bit hard to follow from conclusion to conclusion. Not that she lacks a certain clarity, but because I am convinced she wants the reader to conclude for themselves. Imagine a chasm just broad enough for you to have to stretch to leap across – that’s much what the reading experience is like. As a long-time reader, I’m used to this and can better track the thought processes of her and her characters. New readers do, however, sometimes struggle. (For example, while my sister and I enjoy the challenge of puzzling out the steps Spangler takes, a dear friend of mine couldn’t make it work and therefore couldn’t get into the books.) Know that, in my humble opinion, it’s worth it not only because these gaps allow for reader interaction and interpretation, but for the interesting ways in which it makes the brain consider the problem. I am of the opinion that a good author MUST do this, but acknowledge that not everyone enjoys the stretch (or re-reading passages a couple times when necessary).
The wonderful political scheming is back. I am a big fan of political conspiracies, so long as they’re not of the ‘every one is terrible and there is no hope’ variety (AKA: a LOT of popular books and TV shows). Everything, even the casual conversations at parties, could be high stakes. It’s so much fun to follow Spangler (and Rachel) through these labyrinthine mazes to see which of the many potential outcomes resolves at the end of the book. And though it hurts, it’s nice that Rachel rarely wins entirely, and sometimes loses miserably.
All in all, what I love most about the books keeps coming back in new and interesting ways. I adore this series and am thrilled at the prospect of a book from Hope Blackwell’s perspective (she’s one of the main characters of the comic), as well as the future Rachel Peng installments. I have so much fun being a guest in this world, I wish I never had to leave.
A+ (flawed but improving main character, excellent secondary characters, new situations with brilliant continuity, intrinsic diversity, complex political and moral discussions; no trans characters, occasionally difficult to track the thought processes, never long enough to last between book releases)
*It’s no secret that I’m an avid K.B. Spangler fan. I’ve been eager and anxious for each book, supported the first when it was in serialized format, bought extra copies of the books for my local library, etc, etc, etc. So, do take this with as many grains of salt as you feel necessary, as I am a SuperFan ™. That being said, I think I treat the manuscript fairly and accurately. Because I am said SuperFan ™, I always have high expectations for Spangler’s work. She has never disappointed.
For your convenience: here is the link to Spangler’s link round up of the places you can buy her Rachel Peng novels (I have no idea why The Russians Came Knocking isn’t on there). Also, my reviews of her other books (which, for some unknown reason, I have not cross-posted on here) can be found at these links: Digital Divide (Rachel Peng 1), Maker Space (Rachel Peng 2), and The Russians Came Knocking (Josh Glassman 1).