A Perfect Machine, the third novel by former ChiZine Press co-publisher Brett Savory, might be the best sci-fi action film you’ve never seen. While grounded in the written word, this wild-eyed, hyper-stylized tale of bullet-absorbing cultists, terrifying elder gods, and a city-wide battle for the fate of the human race has much more in common with surreal Japanese cinema (particularly the Tetsuo films) and high-energy action movies than its closest literary peers. That’s not damning with faint praise, either—if Savory has rooted the book in cinematic chase scenes, he has also deepened its storytelling in ways a movie never could, fleshing out the bizarro world of the Inferne Cutis through internal conflicts as much as external ones. The result is a vivid, violent, and propulsive novel that grabs you by the throat and breathlessly yanks you along at frankly unsafe speeds.
Henry Kyllo is a member of Inferne Cutis, a cult comprised of “Runners” and “Hunters” with a history that trails back as memory serves. Every night, Hunters take to the streets, bristling with firearms, to shoot Runners like Henry, gunning them down so they can reach the revered goal of 100 percent lead content—and thus, ascend to whatever comes next. This they do because their gods command it—and these gods don’t seem to be the forgiving sort. No one’s sure what happens after ascension, until the night an apocalyptic storm rolls in over the city and Henry tips the balance of power, resulting in his ascension and his best friend’s death. That achievement proves far more dangerous to everyone than the Inferne Cutis imagined, sending Hunters and Runners alike scrambling across the city to uncover the society’s dark secrets and destroy Henry before he brings their world down around them.
A Perfect Machine is fast. Action movie fast. After quickly sketching out his premise and characters, Savory drops a brick on the accelerator and cuts a path of destruction and insanity through 300 pages of nonstop relentless narrative. There are quiet moments, of course, but the factions chasing Henry Kyllo aren’t liable to let him rest for long, and soon drive him deeper into the weird, violent mess with every step. The prose keeps pace, with description coming in abstract bursts and flashes.
While A Perfect Machine wears its film influences on its sleeve, Savory takes advantage of the literary form to deepen the worldbuilding and internal conflicts. Henry’s eroding humanity is explored in excruciating detail, his each new transformation shrinking the “Henry” part of him further and further. It’s wrenching to watch what’s happening to him, as each time Henry changes, he comes close to killing his friends, only to snap back into the present, but with even less understanding of where he is than before. In the background, Savory unspools an extensive B-plot about a man and his family trying to exact revenge on the Runners, diving deeper into his world without distracting from the nonstop chase.
This is a relentless read, spiked with all the body horror and adrenaline you can handle. Take a deep breath, and get a head start, because the Runners are coming.