I bought this book primarily because the main character is an artificial intelligence. I'm happy to say it worked out really well for me.
In the world of this book, AIs are basically indentured servants. If they end up with decent-paying jobs and manage to avoid having to pay for too many of their own upgrades, they have a chance of becoming free AIs. Sarafina is an accountant AI who ends up becoming the main AI of a cruise ship after her bank is bought out. It's not at all the kind of work she's used to or would prefer to do – accounting didn't prepare her for dealing with biologicals on a daily basis – but she tries to adapt. At least the ship has one other AI, Pilot, who she can talk to, and she's delighted to learn that one of the ship's newest passengers is a free AI. Unfortunately, Sarafina's first cruise has problems right from the start, including stowaways, glitches that keep taking out security cameras (Sarafina's primary “eyes”), a drunken captain who hates AIs, understaffing, rapidly growing Life Support-generated algae paste, and trouble-making child-passengers.
It took me a while to realize that this book was not just going to be about Sarafina desperately trying to keep all of the ship's problems hidden from the passengers and somehow keep the passengers happy at the same time. There were significant mystery/suspense elements, although it took Sarafina a while to realize that some of the passengers weren't just odd.
Almost all the named characters behaved at least a little suspiciously. Belinda Keevy, a child who'd been waiting for her aunt, happened to disappear at the same time that a power surge disrupted Sarafina's memory and caused several of her security cameras to go offline. Mrs. Selsda, the child's supposed aunt, seemed remarkably unconcerned when her niece wasn't immediately found. Instead, she was more interested in gambling and flirting with either the First Officer (not surprising, since he was pretty handsome) or the Captain (very surprising, since he was a drunkard). The Captain hated AIs and might have had something to do with the apparent suicide of Sarafina's predecessor, Big Girl. Not even Sapient Loren, the free AI, was 100% trustworthy, sometimes making comments that didn't quite fit with its usually light, flirty personality.
Sarafina's POV placed sometimes frustrating limitations on the story. She didn't always pay close enough attention to things that made me wildly curious, either because she didn't know enough about human behavior to realize something odd was going on or because her programming didn't permit it. The way she existed in the ship also meant that I couldn't get a human's eye view of what was going on, and certain sensory details were missing. It felt very odd. The way she could divide her attention also made for a sometimes hectic story.
Once I got used to Sarafina and realized I was dealing with a mystery/suspense story, I enjoyed trying to keep track of various suspicious details and guess at probable suspects. I correctly guessed Loren and Roger's role in the story only a third of the way in, although there were lots of details I got wrong or didn't even consider. The absolute mess that Sarafina and the crew had to deal with, while somehow not alarming the passengers, was great fun. I laughed when the poor First Officer realized exactly how much trouble they were all in and how few resources they had to work with since the cruise ship's owner was so cheap.
For the most part, I loved how the AI aspects were handled. Sarafina was amusingly proper. There were moments when her thoughts seemed potentially a little too human, but there was nothing that felt glaringly out of place to me. The dynamic between Sarafina and Pilot, two owned AIs, and Loren, a free AI, was interesting. I was very much a fan of Loren and would love a sequel (or entire spin-off series) starring Loren and Roger (Loren's human assistant). Their relationship was one of the more fabulous things in this book, and I didn't get to see nearly as much of the two of them together as I would have liked.
That said, not all of the AI-related stuff worked well for me. AI memories and behaviors were messed with more than I would have liked. And it wasn't just villains doing it! Not only did it upset me for the AIs' sake's, I also felt that it was sloppy on the author's part, a crutch that became overused near the end.
I wouldn't call the ending of this book entirely satisfying. The whole thing with Belinda Keevy was never fully explained (and it really needed to be, because OMG the things she could do), and a few other story threads weren't completely tied up. I really, really wish there were sequels. Even so, I'm glad I read this and plan on checking out some of McCoy's other books.
There were several things in the book that didn't quite seem to fit, but most of them were explained by the end. One possible editing error I noticed, however, was Pilot's name. Originally, he told Sarafina that his real name and nickname were both Pilot. Later on, however, it was stated that the name he was given at birth was Adonis.
- The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey – Those who liked Roger and Loren may want to check this out. The premise is a little problematic, with humans who are born badly deformed in some way being raised to be the “Brains” that control things like ships and cities. The treatment reminds me of Loren and Roger's relationship, though. Loren would count as the “Brain,” and Roger is the “Brawn,” the human who helps the Brain with things he or she can't do alone.
- You've Got Murder (book) by Donna Andrews - A mystery series starring an AI protagonist.
- Body Electric (book) by Susan Squires – A very different book from McCoy's, but it may still work for those looking for more AI protagonists. It's a sci-fi romance novel starring a human and her AI creation. I remember this being a very odd and uncomfortable romance, not because one half of it was an AI, but because the human half had some very serious issues she needed to deal with before she could be in a relationship with anyone. If I remember correctly, she preferred quick one-night-stands with men who would rough her up a little.