Cover Art by Kekai Kotaki; Design by Adam Auerbach
Recommended – One advantage of being an accomplished short story writer is knowing how to get the ball rolling. It doesn’t take Suzanne Palmer long to ingratiate readers to Fergus Ferguson, the hero of her debut novel Finder: he has an appreciation for ironic self-deprecation and for little old ladies who can survive out in “The Gap”, a sparsely populated region of space near the outskirts of the galaxy. Being nice to old ladies may be a cheap ploy for sympathy by the author, but it works, and it’s undeniably efficient. No sooner are Fergus’ profession (a kind of interstellar repo man called a “finder”) and goal (to retrieve a stolen ship called Venetia’s Sword) and prospective enemy (small-pond robber-baron Arum Gilger, who stole the ship) established through his salty banter with tough-as-nails native Mattie “Mother” Vahn, than an escalating sequence of obstacles come cascading down in front of Fergus, and the novel picks up the breathless pace it sustains through the end. This narrative formula serves Palmer’s celebrated shorter works well, as her Hugo-winning novelette “The Secret Lives of Bots” can attest. Palmer’s writing doesn’t sacrifice subtlety or nuance, she just knows how to use such tools without disrupting the tempo. The pace she sustains in Finder mostly benefits it, and it’s so entertaining that the ways it falls short are easy to forgive.
Fergus is a Scotsman, Earth-born but allied to the generations of Martian émigrés living under harsh earther occupation. He’d rather avoid bringing up his past: people know him as a hero of the Mars resistance even as far out as anarchic Cernee, a rock ruled by a loose confederation of chieftains and the loyalists in their employ. He doesn’t see himself the way others do, but he has a penchant for executing outrageous schemes to achieve his ends. The heist he must pull off to retrieve Venetia’s Sword is akin to jacking a smart car with a keyless entry, though getting past the ruthless Gilger and his enforcer Borr Graf prove to be the most harrowing part of his task: Gilger has chosen the day of Fergus’ arrival to make a play for total domination of Cernee. Now Fergus and his allies—Mother Vahn’s family of identical offspring who swear they’re not clones and Gilger’s longtime rival Harcourt—find their plan to put the squeeze on Gilger turned into a brutal fight for survival. Further complicating matters are the Asiig, a mysterious and terrifying alien race who mostly carry out ominous flybys over Cernee in their black triangle-shaped ships, abducting random citizens then returning them days later in, shall we say, a different state from how they found them. And the Asiig have taken an interest in Fergus and the conflict on Cernee.
It would be an understatement to say Palmer has a gift for piling on the plot factors. That she can sustain such an approach over the course of a story that is something like a dozen-fold longer than the stories she usually writes is impressive. She takes a block-by-block approach to building her world and her characters’ back stories, distributing little bits of context clues and expository statements to brace up the larger context. This combination of depth and efficiency elevates Finder above the rabble of space operas that crowd the current SF marketplace.
The story stretches out like a rubber band from Cernee back to Sol System and Mars, then snaps back to Cernee for the grand finale. This is the only element of the novel that didn’t sit well with me. I understand the author’s need to reconnect Fergus emotionally with his past on Mars, and while the reason she contrives to get him there is integrated into the plot early on it still came across as forced. There was perhaps also a sensible desire to liberate the action from the confines of a single location. I felt that the mcguffin Palmer uses to lure him back to his roots isn’t developed well enough beyond its functional purpose and is a non-factor once Palmer returns us to the main storyline.
None of that changes the fact that Finder is a thrilling space adventure from an expert hand who loves the art of genre storytelling. There is so much happening with this setting and so much potential for growing it even more. It’s also a welcome slice of madcap fun, full of rich, fully realized characters and delightful far future odds and ends.