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Book Review: Robot and Monk Series by Becky Chambers

They still loved performing tea service—or at least, they loved what it had been. But as they tried to connect to what had once been so captivating, they felt nothing but yawning absence. A void where they’d once been filled.

I received a copy of A Prayer for the Crown Shy by Becky Chambers for my birthday, and decided I needed to revisit A Psalm for The Wild Built, which is the first book in the series.

I read it when it was fairly new but never wrote about it!

Robot and monk 1 and 2

This fantasy series is set on a populated moon called Panga. At some point in the past, there was a human-caused environmental disaster that the ecosystems are healing from; around that time there was also the Awakening, when the robots that did the menial work of keeping humanity working gained consciousness and decided to leave society. Since then, robots have lived in the wilderness and kept to themselves; humanity has remodeled civilization, using what went wrong (it is never fully explained) to create better solutions. There isn’t the sharp difference between wealthy and poor, as there is no money but a system based on trade and doing good things for others. They’ve recycled the garbage of the old world into new buildings. Everyone does work that they love, and if you don’t love your work you can seek out something else to do. The rivers are finally clean again.

In this happy world lives Dex, who leaves his work as a monk doing work with plants in the monastery’s garden to become a tea monk. Tea monks perform tea services in towns across the moon. They bike a wagon from town to town, and people who are tired, lonely, frustrated, or stressed in some way arrive. They listen to them and prepares a cup of tea in a combination of flavors he thinks will help them. And then they just listen.

Dex might be the best tea monk on Panga, but after a few years of doing it, the same feelings that caused them to leave the garden start to rise. One day they decide to leave the civilized part of the world and head off into the wild—where they bump into Mosscap, a robot who has been tasked to check up on humanity. Mosscap is supposed to go into the civilized part of Panga and ask people “what do you need,” but before it does, it continues into the wild with Dex, in search of a monastery ruin and the song of crickets.

In the second book, Mosscap and Dex return to civilization together, where they begin Mosscap’s quest.

These books are amazing. They are kind without being gentle, in the sense that while the characters (and the setting itself) is one with noble ideals, it doesn’t look away from the remaining unhappiness that might just be an inevitable part of being human. The society humanity has managed to create is one without poverty, hunger, or want. People’s needs are met and the gods are benevolent. There is kindness here that I cannot imagine living inside of. And yet, Dex still has that same human question: What is my purpose? What do I mean? Why am I even alive?

I think this is a story that is best to just experience (maybe why I didn’t write about the first book when I read it?). Because it is built on the concept that the universe is entropic at its core, the story sparks many thoughts in the reader. For me, where I am right now in my life: fifty-something, a bit unhappy with my work, questioning if I have done good things with my life—it did not give me any answers (Dex and Mosscap would know what I mean I think) but it did make me feel less alone.

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