The premise is that an orphanage in the most run-down part of a decaying urban hellscape is run by a malfunctioning but benevolent gynoid named Ms. Understanding. Vanity Rose is the 14 year old antiheroine of the book that is cursed with machine telepathy (a disability in her world) and fear for the orphanage shutting down at any time. Vanity decides to raise some money for her home and the best way to do that turns out to be organized crime for corporate thugs. However, this turns out to be harder than it sounds (and it sounds quite difficult). Vanity soon finds herself on the run from several shady characters and reliant on her fellow oddball orphans to get out of the mess she's gotten herself into.
Richard Roberts has an immense love of cyberpunk and it shows with every page, making frequent homages to everything from literature to anime to video games. I also think I spotted a few tabletop RPG references as well. That doesn't mean his world is unorginal, though. Indeed, there's several surreal and satirical elements that make it quite fascinating. For instance, one of the largest religions in West Angel City is the Enchanted. People who use bio-modding, cybernetics, and costume jewelry to live their lives in a perpetual World of Warcraft LARP. Except the elves and necromancers are actually willing to kill each other.
There's a couple of gratuitous references as well, like when Vanity spends a chapter as a teenage mecha pilot but these things are likely to bring a smile to your face if you're familiar with the sources the author is drawing from. However, I actually came to really like the garish and strange world that the book depicts. There's even a decent description of a robotic society created from those cast offs that have been left behind to carry out their tasks long after their masters have abandoned them.
Vanity is a good lead character even if I think that making her sixteen years old would have probably fit the storyline better. She does a little too many roof jumping and hacking things for me to buy her as a preteen. Still, it's nice to have a well-adjusted cyberpunk heroine and the fact that the only reason she doesn't swear up a storm is because of a literal profanity filter built into her brain. That was a clever way of acknowledging her "punkness" would never fly in a typical YA book.
I also give props to this book for creating the greatest literary villain of all time: Fry Smiley! A Mr. Potatohead-esque ap mascot equivalent to Amazon's Siri or Microsoft's Clippy. Hated by every single consumer, the AI is slowly simmering in its anger and resentment. I love how Vanity considered him her archnemesis even before the all-powerful program became obsessed with her. He's such a ridiculous and enjoyable character that he makes a wonderful antagonist and one of the more memorable ones I've read this year.
The weird juxtaposition of fairy tale and Eighties cyberpunk is really the heart of this strange brew as you have a technologically created Old Mother Hubbard, elves, undead, and magic combined with all the trappings of Neuromancer as well as Snow Crash. Really, it's surprising it's not MORE like Shadowrun given how crazy it all is. I'll admit that it took a bit to fully immerse myself in the world but by the time I did, I absolutely loved it and declare this my favorite of his books. I recommend between text and audiobook that fans check out the Arielle Delisle narrated version as she does a fantastic job bringing the characters to life.