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

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