Autonomy by Jude Houghton (ebook review)

August 28, 2016 | By | Reply More

Set in the near future, ‘Autonomy’ takes us to an over-populated world where there are so many people that the majority work on extremely low pay, retired in their thirties because they’ve been worked to exhaustion and live in shacks on shortages of food and water. A minority of elites live lives of wealth and luxury. All citizens poor or rich, have iNet glasses, which give them access to a virtual world. Due to a head injury as a child, Balmoral Murraine is very much the dictionary definition of logical thinking. She is an amazing coder, proficient at hacking the iNet system. She lives with her family in a shack and grows up to work in a factory, But how long can Balmoral keep her coding a secret from the government?


Pasco and Tristram are elite twins. Tristram grows up to work for the security services, where he is tasked as an undercover killer. Pasco works with life sciences as a scientist, however his career and life change drastically when he visits Churin, Balmoral’s district.

The Bedouin are a cell of an organisation called the Dish, who are determined to take down the Autonomy, the ruling government. Fleur was recruited to the Bedouin in her teens and spends her life going out on missions. As the Autonomy become ever more tyrannous, the Bedouin try to pull off even more daring missions to take them down.

What will happen to Balmoral? Can she go on coding undetected? Can she change the world? Can the Bedouin pull off their biggest mission attempt yet and what will happen to Pasco and Tristram? Where will life take Pasco and can Tristram run around the Autonomy killing people without being killed himself?

This novel is definitely very action-driven. Jude Houghton is certainly not an author who is afraid to shed the blood of his characters. On the contrary, we see some point of view characters replaced by new ones as they are killed off. Because of this, there is no surety about who will live or die. The pace is fast with one thing happening after another in quick succession, with little time to process the event or to explore the aftermath. This did seem a little overwhelming at times but, at others, it kept the reader engaged in a world which is very much bleak and laborious. So much of the world is made up of people who don’t necessarily know where their next meal is coming from. There are situations like groups of people employed to crawl around and cut the grass by hand because it’s cheaper to use human labour, which due to over-population barely cost anything than power. There are situations where manufacturing projects that will kill millions of people are seen as good, because they are economical with no use of safety equipment and because they reduce some of the high population. In this world, though, people might be skeleton thin but they all have a pair of iNet glasses giving them access to the net. This world is so mind-blowingly bleak and messed up that you need a fast pace to plough you through it a considerable amount of the time, otherwise it would just become mind-blowingly unfixable and boring.

The fast pace also fits really well with our main character, Balmoral Murraine. She has a very logical mind with little emotion. She has a fit for computer coding, which is very powerful in a world where so much is controlled by computers. Everyone, from the age of one up, has a pair of glasses called iNet glasses, which give them access to the Net. They can browse as we do these days on the Internet as well as playing games, which including virtual reality simulations. So, in this world, a hacker like Balmoral Murraine can be pretty powerful. Because of her being so logical, though, it makes her quite a complicated viewpoint character, as her thought patterns are very different from those of most humans. I think Jude Houghton pulled off writing a character like her quite well, however, I think the main thing that allowed him to do that was the fact that he was jumping from one bit of action to another.

One of the main things I like about Balmoral is that she is not another woman trying to rage war on the world with a sword, a gun or a bow and arrow, she’s fighting the world in a unique way, through coding. She proves that despite being extremely poor and having a head injury, there is so much she can do. She’s also fascinating because of her perspective on the world. It is quite daunting to watch someone have a totally logical and unemotional response to situations that would have most people in tears and acting irrationally.

Then we have Pasco. He’s an interesting character because he goes on quite a journey and his loyalties switch on multiple occasions. Interestingly, with the way the book’s synopsis is written, you go in with the impression that Pasco is a second main character and that this is the Pasco and Balmoral story, but I don’t think that’s the case. I shan’t provide any spoilers as to whether there is or isn’t a Pasco/Balmoral relationship in the works, however, what I will say is they don’t do much together. In fact, for a good proportion of the novel, they’re on opposite sides. There is some argument in the fact that the events that occur around the first time they meet each other, change both of their lives in pretty drastic ways, because they do, but it’s not directly Balmoral that changes Pasco’s life and Pasco that changes Balmoral’s.

Another thing is that we do spend a considerable amount of time following Tristram in his undercover work for the government. It’s an interesting dynamic, following someone who is doing evil because, as he is running around nearly getting himself killed, I found myself willing other people to kill him rather than willing fate to keep him alive, like I would most viewpoint characters in other books who are going out and having adventures. This is because Tristram is pretty evil. It’s more complicated than that but, for the most part, as harsh as it sounds, I want him dead.

The Bedouin resistance cell are particularly interesting because this is a dystopia, where the resistance group is just one plotline in a much bigger picture, rather than merely the end goal for our protagonist. In fact, Balmoral herself doesn’t do all her coding because she wants to take down the Autonomy. She does her coding because it’s a way for her to interact with the world and get through a life where she’s expected to work long factory shifts, for a tiny amount of pay and live in a slum. She does become interested in taking down the Autonomy, but that doesn’t come until later.

Then there’s Fleur, who works for the Bedouin. She’s interesting because, when she got in to the resistance, it seems that she didn’t quite know what she was letting herself in for. While she does believe in the resistance and has sacrificed a lot for it, ultimately, she is more invested in self-preservation than the cause. This plays out as quite an interesting dynamic as it sets Fleur apart from your average resistance member in the dystopian genre.

Another interesting thing Jude Houghton does, is the way he handles back-story. If you’ve read enough books, you’ve probably came across or at least heard of a book that spends forever and a day going through back story. It’s a big issue for writers, but Jude Houghton tackles it in a way I thought was really interesting. He starts his story following the generation before the one which is the main focus of the story. By doing this, we follow Balmoral’s mother, Li, and Tristram and Pascos’ father, Dagmar. This keeps the story flowing fast, while also showing some light on the back-story of our main characters. It also gives us a different perspective on them. What the twins Tristram and Pasco were like together as children, before they went their own separate ways as adults, is quite fascinating, particularly from the point of view of their father. It’s interesting to see what parts of their father’s personality has rubbed off on each twin. Similarly, Li watching Balmoral as a child, gives an outside perspective on her. Following Balmoral with her complete reliance on logic is a unique experience. However, having seen it from the outside first, shows us just how logical and extraordinary Balmoral actually is. It gives us context to actually understand what we’re dealing with when we’re thrown inside her head. Having back-story delivered through characters of the generation prior to those focussed on in the main story, is a really cool trope, certainly not often done, but one I’d like to see more of.

Having said that, I did feel that at times, because we were so busy rushing from one event to another, it felt like the events weren’t explored as fully as they could have been. There were certainly many gaps and unanswered questions in the narrative. The bustle from one event to the next sometimes made the story lack meaning. At times, it felt like it was so fast-paced because Jude Houghton didn’t have answers to some of the philosophical questions he was asking or didn’t even believe there were any answers to be had. Character development also suffered at the hands of action. I didn’t feel like I had the opportunity to fully get to know many of the viewpoint characters.

Additionally, I definitely felt that, morally Jude Houghton and I were on very different pages. The way he dealt with certain issues such as: violence, abuse, beliefs and family felt quite off hand and dismissive at times.

Without being too spoilery, there is a theory towards the end, that a character in the novel claims to scientifically disprove. My objection to this storyline is twofold. Firstly, the theory is misrepresented to the extent that the book assumes the evidence disproves the theory, but actually the evidence, if it were even possible to gain this evidence in the way they claim, does not disprove the theory, it neither proves nor disproves it. Secondly, it’s a very controversial theory to try to claim you’ve disproved, as there is no evidence for it at present and I genuinely think taking the story down this route discredits the story. I assure you, the above will make perfect sense when you’ve finished the book. Hopefully, you will see what I mean when I say it was something I couldn’t not discuss.

Overall, I think this book stands out in that it takes dystopia, something that’s been done countless times before and gives it a fresh spin. The fast pace, having the story start early to avoid back-story, the ruthless killing off of so many characters I wouldn’t want to try and give a death count, includes characters who are quite central to the story and the general atmosphere of the plot and world that just felt different, all make ‘Autonomy’ something unique.

I think it’s definitely one to check out if you like action. Also, if you like strong females, Balmoral is definitely an interesting one. It’s nice to see a woman who has the potential to tear the world apart, without involving swords or guns or any other form of physical force. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good female warrior, but what’s even better, is to see a woman using something other than physical strength to save the world. Also, if you’re a writer, I think it’s an interesting one in terms of plotting, pacing and what I can only describe as a lack of bonding between author and characters.

Rebecca Thorne

August 2016

(pub: Kristel Ink Books/Grimbold Books. 565 page e-book. Price: £ 3.95 (UK). ASIN: B01H3GYR5C

622 page paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-90984-596-1)

check out website: www.grimboldbooks.com/our-imprints/kristell-ink/

Category: Books, Scifi

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