Finder

by Suzanne Palmer

Cover image

Series: Finder Chronicles #1
Publisher: DAW Books
Copyright: 2019
ISBN: 0-7564-1511-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 391

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Fergus Ferguson is a repo man, or professional finder as he'd prefer. He locates things taken by people who don't own them and returns them to their owners. In this case, the thing in question is a sentient starship, and the person who stole it is Arum Gilger, a warlord in a wired-together agglomeration of space habitats and mined-out asteroids named Cernekan. Cernee, as the locals call it, is in the backwaters of human space near the Gap between the spiral arms of the galaxy.

One of Fergus's first encounters in Cernee is with an old lichen farmer named Mattie Vahn who happens to take the same cable car between stations that he does. Bad luck for Fergus, since that's also why Gilger's men first disable and then blow up the cable car, leaving Mattie dead and Fergus using the auto-return feature of Mattie's crates to escape to the Vahns' home station. The Vahns are not a power in Cernee, not exactly, but they do have some important alliances and provide an inroads for Fergus to get the lay of the land and map out a plan to recover the Venetia's Sword.

This is a great hook. I would happily read a whole series about an interstellar repo man, particularly one like Fergus who only works for the good guys and recovers things from petty warlords. Fergus is a thoughtful, creative loner whose style is improvised plans, unexpected tactics, and thinking on his feet rather than either bluster or force (although there is a fair bit of death in this book, some of which is gruesome). About two-thirds of the book is in roughly that expected shape. Fergus makes some local contacts, maps out the political terrain, and maneuvers himself towards his target through a well-crafted slum of wired-together habitats and working-class miners. Also, full points for the creative security system on the starship that tries to solve a nearly impossible problem (a backdoor supplementing pre-shared keys with a cultural authentication scheme that can't be vulnerable to brute force or database searches).

Halfway through, though, Palmer throws a curve ball at the reader that involves the unexplained alien presence that's been lurking around the system. That part of the plot shifts focus somewhat abruptly from the local power struggle Fergus has been navigating to something far more intrusive and personal. Fergus has to both reckon with a drastic change in his life and deal with memories of his early life on an Earth drowning in climate change, his abusive childhood, and his time spent in the Martian resistance.

This is also a fine topic for an SF novel, but I think Finder suffered a bit from falling between two stools. The fun competence drama of the lone repossession agent striking back against petty tyrants by taking away their toys is derailed by the sudden burst of introspection and emotional processing, but the processing is not deep or complex enough to carry the story on its own. Fergus had an awful and emotionally alienated childhood followed by some nasty trauma, to which he has responded by carefully never getting close to anyone so that he never hurts anyone who relies on him. And yet, he's a fundamentally decent person and makes friends despite himself, and from there you can probably write the rest of the arc yourself. There's nothing wrong with this as the emotional substrate of a book that's primarily focused on an action plot, but the screeching change of focus threw me off.

The good news is that the end of the book returns to the bits that I liked about the first half. The mixed news is that I thought the political situation in Cernee resolved much too easily and much too straightforwardly. I would have preferred the twisty alliances to stay twisty, rather than collapse messily into a far simpler moral duality. I will also speak on behalf of all the sentient starship lovers out there and complain that the Venetia's Sword was woefully underused. It had better show up in a future volume!

This unsteadiness and a few missed opportunities make Finder a good book rather than a great one, but I was still happily entertained and willing to write that off as first-novel unevenness. There are a lot of background elements left unresolved for a future volume, but Finder comes to a satisfying conclusion. Recommended if you're looking for an undemanding space action story with a quick pace and decent, if not very deep, characters.

Followed by Driving the Deep.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-02-21

Last modified and spun 2021-02-22