It’s fashionable among a certain throwback segment of science fiction fans to claim that the entrance of so many new women writers to the field has somehow diminished the quality of stories being published. This, despite the fact that women have always been writing in science fiction from its inception. But whatever—all I have to say is I don’t know what SF they’re reading, because much of the best SF I have read in recent years has consistently come from women. This is particularly true of space opera, a subgenre I’d largely given up hope on, until I discovered established titans like Bujold and Moon and newcomers like Dunstall. Finder isn’t technically space opera, I don’t think, but it has many space operatic elements to it. Suzanne Palmer continues to prove that not only are women not diminishing this genre; they are actively bringing fresh stories that make it more of a pleasure to keep reading. So there!
The premise of Finder is incredibly simple, which is always a good sign: Fergus Ferguson (it’s a whole thing) is the eponymous finder. In this case, he has already found his object: a stolen spaceship. He’s going to have to steal it back on behalf of his clients, the rightful owners. But it’s in the hands of a particularly nasty piece of work, a warlord/gang leader who controls a part of a backwater solar system. Fergus inadvertently stumbles into the middle of cold war that he quickly ignites into a warm war—oops—and, oh, there are aliens involved too. Somehow.
The charm of Finder lies in how Palmer takes this simple premise and blows it up into a system-wide civil war without somehow losing the reader in all the chaos. Fergus is a likeable rogue type, and Palmer manages to balance perspicacity with errors in judgment. He comes up with a clever plan, executes the plan … and it goes horribly wrong, so he has to improvise, and come up with another clever plan. This formula repeats for about 300 pages, and it works quite well. We never spend too much time in one place or on one subplot before Palmer redirects us into another new adventure. I wouldn’t exactly call Finder “cinematic” in the sense we often mean when we use that word, but there are screenplay-like elements to this story that for some reason I find quite appealing here.
There’s also a good cast of minor characters who revolve around Fergus and offer alternatively comic relief, sidekick help, or sheer badassery. Fergus has a badass background, what with being a reluctant hero/rebel type on Mars, and a “particular set of skills,” but Palmer makes it clear he is more of a jack of all trades than a master of many. So he acquires various support characters throughout his quests, coalescing into a rag-tag crew for the final assault on the Big Bad.
This is where Finder kind of falls down for me. The Big Bad doesn’t seem all that imposing or, crucially, interesting. He’s an upstart warlord exiled from his home system for not being the right kind of religiously wacky. He’s supposedly this Xanatos gambit genius of a villain who is always one step ahead of all the other leaders, and indeed, he packs a serious punch throughout this book. Yet as a character he remains a frustrating, off-page cipher for almost the entire book. We only ever really hear about him through others. I’m not trying to say he’s misunderstood, just that as far as villains go, he’s boring. I want a villain who is convinced he’s not the bad guy and is doing this all for “good reasons,” or I want a villain who, while irredeemably cruel, nevertheless chews the scenery with the best of ’em. This guy … is neither of those things.
I’m also not on board with the alien subplot. It’s well-executed in terms of how Palmer integrates it with the rest of the story. It feels like a setup, though, for something that will run through the rest of the series. I guess I can see why that might be desirable, but as far as this one book goes, the reveal at the end regarding the aliens is frustratingly cryptic instead of charmingly cryptic. But that could just be me.
Overall, I’d say that I found Finder to be an entertaining, almost captivating work of science fiction. It kept me interested in reading from page 1 to the end, which is not something I can say for every book, and I really did enjoy both the characters and the situations in which they found themselves. None of the elements of the plot are, individually, all that novel or fascinating. Nevertheless, Palmer crafts them together into a coherent story that serves its purpose well. I would maybe read a sequel and would definitely check out other stories Palmer offers up in the future.