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Book Review: Free Radical by Tyler Black

James, an employee dispatched abroad by a UK tech consultancy firm, never expected to be battling for survival in the wintry depths of a north-eastern European forest—severely drunk and heavily armed—alongside his enfeebled colleague, Kieran, and a Russian guide. A spur-of-the-moment, absurd hunting adventure that was meant to cap a week of business meetings quickly crescendos into a hellish nightmare, complete with a shooting, a skeletally redefining car crash, and a chance encounter with a suspect, geriatric couple. All the while, the doomed trio is accompanied by Tarō, a toy-sized robot with the AI capacity to learn by watching and listening to humans so it can tell “innocent lies” to—supposedly—comfort the elderly and infirm. And as its bond with Kieran deepens, Tarō just might figure out a solution to its newfound master's rapidly deteriorating mental and physical health.

Tech cuts both ways, though—what Tarō has seen and heard in the week preceding this point of no return is human behaviour in all its chaos and depravity. Jumping back and forth between the frozen forest and the capital city’s technology-driven business world and voluptuous nightlife, it becomes startlingly clear that everything has unravelled into irreversible madness. After trying to sell Tarō’s capabilities by day, by night James and his team of “free radicals” exploit their AI robot and indulge in excess, while their lives—and those of people close to them—crumble. And as James tries to find a way out from the mess—and to save Kieran from an uncertain fate—the increasingly unsettling Tarō listens, waiting for its opportunity to pounce.

In this dark and dizzying existential techno thriller, three story arcs converge in a private, off-road apocalypse that will leave readers as shocked as the book’s protagonist.

N. Daniel Review:

"I will admit when I first began this book I was a bit confused by the corporate tone of the relationships between the main characters. The story starts out as a slow burn, a more clinical and informative office drama. However, when James and Kieran venture out into the wilderness with their Estonian guide, the real adventure begins. Black does an amazing job of blending believable science fiction and realism wrapped in a desperate self-preservation based mentality. The twists and turns of the story keep the book interesting and the author's knowledge of technical concepts keeps the dialogue smart and entertaining. This book is very conversation heavy and those not familiar with some of the jargon and concepts surrounding a tech start-up may feel lost at times. I often found myself as a stranger in a strange land caught up in some of the more detailed, business style discourses and interactions. I have never felt comfortable in this type of setting so when the story opened up into a wilderness survival story it felt like a breath of fresh air to me. Even as the characters are fighting for their lives the release from their confined, controlled lifestyles almost seems liberating, comical at times and always challenging. Black's writing style precisely navigates the twists and turns of the drama, carving out every intimate detail that needs to be expounded on and shining a light in ordinary places that makes even the mundane seem interesting. The book starts off slow but once you're hooked, you won't put it down."

(5 Stars *****)

About the Author:

Tyler Black is an author currently based in Reading, Berkshire, England. Free Radical, his standalone debut, was inspired by two specific periods in his life: first, a backpacking trip that drew him to Estonia in the late 1990s, preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union, and his experience of the chaos of that short-lived period; and second, a two-year stint in the UK’s tech industry that lapsed into decades, and which allowed him to pick between the teeth of the corporate beast and glean much from colleagues’ treatment of others. Many friends were made along the way, and many sights seen, all of which shaped his writing and the characters he crafted.

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