The Shepherd Protocol by Fowler Brown
The Shepherd Protocol was a read I was on the fence about when we went through our initial impressions. It ended up in a battle royale against two other books. At that point, I still felt on the fence, ready to push it into my top 10 if I didn’t find other books were to my liking. That didn’t end up being the case, but, happily, the novel ended up in our group’s quarterfinalists, giving me the chance to dive in even more deeply.
The Shepherd Protocol follows Melody Clay, an AI who inhabits a synethetic body. There is much anti-“synth” sentiment on Earth, and Clay ends up in Boston trying to figure out how to stop or prevent the Decay, a shutdown protocol that’s been killing synths. As she investigates, more players show up, whether it’s people hunting synths for parts, a near military state police force, or others in on the action. There’s a sense of mystery throughout, along with a kind of haunting doom for Clay.
What I hugely struggled with for this book was getting into it. Melody Clay and the other synths didn’t have that feeling of “otherness” that is almost necessary for books like this to work. Because of that, it reads more like a mystery set in the future, but even that future doesn’t have the world-building to back it up as feeling very… futuristic. The book ends up reading more like a mystery set in Boston with just a few modifications. There’s not much by way of developing the world, so readers are left with the main plot, and that, again, is unfulfilling.
The last 15% or so has some twists in it that make some of the earlier points feel like they finally have a payoff, but it reads a bit as too little, too late. At that point, it’s nice to see wider impact happening, but it would have been even better to have had those impactful moments earlier in the book, where they could help carry along a plot that otherwise feels lethargic at times.
The frustrating thing for me is that the book checks off so many of my boxes. One of my favorite subgenres of sci-fi is that of the sci-fi/mystery mashup. I also hugely enjoy robots and AIs. The Shepherd Protocol may just be one of those cases where it didn’t hit me the same as it does others. Check it out if you like any of those sub-genres I mentioned.
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