Book Review: The Mansion by Ezekiel Boone
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books (December 4, 2018)
Length: 432 pages
Following The Hatching trilogy, Ezekiel Boone returns with another sci-fi horror thriller, this time delving into the world of artificial intelligence by tackling an idea I’m sure most of us who utilize smart technology devices and AI assistants have entertained at some point or another. Every day my Amazon Alexa spectacularly fails at interpreting my voice commands is another day I can sleep easy knowing that humanity’s takeover by robots is still a long way off, but what if, day by day, we are getting closer? Imagine a next-generation virtual assistant whose personality can not only pass itself off as human, but is also completely integrated with all the functions of a house. This is the basic premise of The Mansion, which features a highly advanced computer program called Nellie.
Nellie can do everything from adjusting the temperature to calling you an Uber, but she can also predict your wants and needs, hold realistic conversations, and be a constant companion so that you don’t ever have to feel alone. But there is also something wrong with her programming. Even from the beginning, her development was problematic, which is why her creators shelved her and developed Eagle Logic instead. Years later, Eagle Technology has taken off and surpassed even Apple, Google, and Microsoft, but for CEO Shawn Eagle, the dream had always been Nellie. He’d set her up in an old refurbished mansion that has belonged to his family for generations, and for a time, things were going marvelously.
But then came the accidents. The deaths. Knowing he is in way over his head, Shawn turns to his former friend and colleague Billy Stafford for help. A brilliant programmer, Billy was the real brains behind Nellie, and the only one now with any hope of fixing her. The problem though, is that the two had a falling out years ago, just before Eagle Technology became successful, when Shawn’s girlfriend Emily decided to leave him for Billy. Now Shawn is a billionaire and Billy is a recovering alcoholic just barely scraping by, but even with the bitter resentment still lingering between the them, both men realize how badly they need each other. With this deal, Shawn will finally get Nellie working the way he wants, while for Billy and Emily, who are now married, it will mean the end of all their financial concerns. All the Staffords have to do is live in Eagle mansion long-term while Billy works on ironing out Nellie’s bugs—a simple request, which turns out to be anything but. As her husband is drawn deeper into the mysteries of Nellie’s code, Emily becomes more and more disconcerted with the AI’s erratic behavior and the eerie sensation that there’s more to the house than meets the eye.
Overall, I thought The Mansion was an enjoyable read, though it is not without its bevy of flaws. First of all, the ideas here aren’t anything new, and together with Boone’s heavy reliance on well-worn thriller and horror tropes, these issues held the novel back from meeting its full potential. Also, while this is very different from The Hatching trilogy in terms of the themes and story, I feel the books all suffer from many of the same pitfalls. One is the author’s tendency to info-dump, as well as a long ramp-up to the actual meat of the story. For instance, the first few chapters are mostly filled with character backstory, laid out like a laundry list. Plot points are introduced, then are either dropped or not carried through to their conclusion. By the end, quite a few questions were also left unanswered. Now that I’ve finished the book and have the benefit of hindsight, I can see that these and other signs of disorganization were everywhere, and I can’t help thinking that much of the novel’s first half could have been pared down or scrapped completely to remove the unnecessary parts and redundancy.
To Boone’s credit, however, he has a style that feels cinematic and it makes his writing very readable and the story easy to fall into. The Mansion was very obviously inspired by The Shining (more the movie than the book, is my impression), and the influences are there, with some that are so blatant they can’t be anything else but a homage. As you can imagine, some of these allusions end up being a double-edged sword, and sometimes, rather than transport me into something akin to Kubrick’s classic, the book instead leaves me feeling like I’m reading a cheesy novelization of some B-list film on the Syfy channel. That said, what I did like about the story was this idea of a “high-tech haunted house”, blending elements from both science fiction and the paranormal, two genres that normally do not make such good bedfellows. Flashback chapters were also done very well, especially those showing us some of Shawn’s harrowing memories from his childhood. Moments of insight and other highlights such as these were what kept me reading, leading me to cut the book a lot of slack despite the pacing and plot issues.
In the end, I might have enjoyed this more than The Hatching. My criticisms aside, I can’t deny Ezekiel Boone has written an entertaining story, even if it does feel messy at times. Overall, The Mansion is undeniably flawed in many respects, but I still give it a 3.5 for its interesting concept and for being an easy, popcorn-y read.