One of the books that I recently read was Suzanne Palmer’s Finder, which… left a lot to be desired.
I had high hopes for the book. Palmer earned a Hugo award last year, and the description for this book was particularly intriguing: it’s about a man named Fergus Ferguson whose specialty is recovering things like spaceships. When a Cernee crime boss named Arum Gilger steals a ship called the Venetia's Sword, Fergus is sent off to recover it, and ends up in the midst of a civil war.
The first half or so of the book is quite a bit of fun: Palmer sets up an intriguing world, and sends Fergus and a bunch of newly-acquired companions after their target. Capers are always fun, and I dig the idea of someone trying to pull off a heist in the middle of an orbital civil war.
But by the end of that first section, Fergus recovers the ship something that should be the finale of the entire story. He’s then captured and brought onboard an alien ship, given some fantastical powers (he can generate electricity and zap people), ends up back in our solar system, then heads back to Cernee to finish out the rest of the conflict. In short, it’s a mess, because it becomes so unfocused. Ultimately, the book is a good demonstration for what not to do with a story.
While the plot turns into a bit of a mess (it honestly feels a bit like it started out as a shorter work, and was expanded), but it’s the character of Fergus that ultimately bothered me the most and undermined the entire narrative.
He gets a pretty comprehensive backstory: he ran away from home at an early age from his home in Scotland, ended up on Mars, and bounced around the galaxy, getting into trouble. But while he’s established as a roguish figure, I never really get the sense that his backstory really influences his decisions for this new adventure. He’s just … sort of along for the ride, and he’s a character that really should have more agency here. He talks a lot about his past, but it never connects in a meaningful way, and it feels as though Palmer is just juggling too much. I’ve been noticing this a lot in stories: authors have a lot of interesting ideas, but they end up undermining the story by throwing too many in, where they might be better served by slimming the story down a but to give it focus. I think this is a habit from my work at The Verge leaking into my story preferences, that it’s a good preference to have.
What’s annoying here is that this is a story where the character should be right in the center, driving the action forward beat by beat. That was fine for the part where he’s recovering the ship, but he’s soon pulled off in various directions, none of which really circle back to the ship. He’s given fantastical powers by a mysterious alien species, but that feels like part of the plot that’s bolted on as a bit of an afterthought. Furthermore, I just... really didn’t care about the characters by the end of the book.
Ultimately, it’s a story that reads as though it needed a good, critical scrub of an edit to work out some of the kinks. All of the right parts are there, but they just don’t line up in a satisfactory way, and it didn’t work for me.