After the strangeness of The Automation, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect beyond more screwed-up pseudo-family drama and weirdly intriguing metafiction. I figured that there might be some conclusion in sight with this volume too. Spoiler warnings for The Automation below.

The Pre-Programming follows on directly from The Automation, after Odissa revealed her deeper sordid connection with the last book’s mysterious villain, Leeland. And as people start to die, it starts becoming more apparent that Odissa is much more important to the plot than any of the cast had originally suspected. In addition, B.L.A. starts hinting at how they may have originally been Bulfinch, Odissa’s cat, with G.B. Gabbler about as incredulous about that notion as you would expect.
Honestly, this didn’t go how I expected at all, and most of the stuff that I want to talk about is spoilers. I will start off with some more generic stuff and then have a section with spoilers.
So I liked some of the character development that takes place in The Pre-Programming, as there’s a section dedicated to the Masters acting in ways that are opposite to their normal behaviour, and their various reactions and attempts to reconcile that with what they consider their true self to be. In some cases they manage the task, but in others they dramatically fail and have to face their own guilt and judgement. The development of the Odissa/Dorian relationship is interesting, but ultimately I don’t see a great deal of chemistry between them. They say that they love each other, but they only seem to alternate between bitching and sniping at one another, and Odissa coddling Dorian like he’s a small child with serious separation issues. I realise that the relationship is most likely not meant to be healthy, but there isn’t much in the way of normal behaviour that would explain why they like each other’s company enough to put up with the shit they put each other through.
So, now to the spoiler stuff. If you’re still intending to read The Pre-Programming, then skip to the final summary.
I’ve never read a book before that replaces a large chunk of the cast right before the end, and I don’t know how I feel about it. So by the end, all the Masters are dead by their own hand or by Odissa’s, including Odissa herself. And the Automata have sentience that is built from the souls of their past Masters, in preparation for the next stage of the series. It’s a pretty major change considering that before this point the Automata were less characters in and of themselves and more extensions of the Masters’ personalities, so what has essentially happened is a total cast kill. I’ve only ever seen that in stand-alone novels, understandably right at the end. Never in the middle of an in-progress series. There’s a part of my brain that is wondering why you would start the series where they did, rather than starting with whatever weird D&D game the gods will possibly be playing and providing The Automation and The Pre-Programming as backstory where necessary. But at the same time, I’m also kind of marvelling at the sheer brass balls that you’d need to pull off a left-turn quite that sudden and brazen. So I think I’m still interested, in spite of the critic part of my brain still trying to rationalise the complete cast replacement two thirds in.

On the one hand The Pre-Programming continues to do what it did well in The Automation, which boils down to a lot of really unhealthy relationships and interesting contemplation of the self. On the other hand, there is probably the most drastic left-turn that I have ever seen a series take, and I still don’t know quite what to make of it. I will probably keep an eye out for whatever comes next, just to figure out if that twist was worth it. 4/5

Next review: White Night by Jim Butcher

Signing off,
Nisa.