Suzanne Palmer is a relatively new author and this novel from last April is her debut, but she's already a Hugo winner for a novelette, 'The Secret Life of Bots', so was a name to watch even before this saw print. This novel does a fantastic job of living up to that promise.
It's a reasonably traditional space opera full of strong sf ideas to enhance the well-drawn characters, action-filled conflict and imaginative set pieces at its heart. However, while the core story is resolved before we reach the last page, there are also a bunch of important elements that are kept vague enough to be included obviously as part of a series arc. For instance, that ominous black pyramid on the cover is a spaceship belonging to a mysterious alien race called the Asiig. They play a role in this novel even if we leave it knowing about as much about them as we did when we started.
Our protagonist is a large Scottish redhead with a passion for alliteration. I believe Fergus Ferguson is his real name, though he goes by many others in this book and I'm sure more will show up in the sequels, and he's a repo man in space. He was born on Earth but left it young and has spent much time on Mars and other locations in human occupied space. As we meet him, he's just arrived at Cerneken, colloquially known as Cernee, on a job. He's been asked by the Shipbuilders of Pluto to retrieve Venetia's Sword from a gangster who goes by Arum Gilger who took it on a test drive and never returned it.
Cernee is a space colony way out in the backwaters of space. Its design is a major success for the author, because it's a vast, sprawling creation that's somehow rather like a small town in that everyone believably knows everyone else. It’s built around a space station named Central but many residents live in a network of habs that are linked to Central by cables like a giant space mobile. Those cables carry power from the gigantic shields that sit between the colony and its sun and they also allow transportation via cable cars and smaller devices known as spiders.
It's complex but organic and the map I drew in my head resembles the London Underground in space. It's called the Halo and it could be easily expanded by new arrivals effectively plugging whatever they have that's airtight into the grid and finding a way to get along with their neighbours.
I'd be surprised if Palmer isn't a pantser, because this feels very careful for a while but not too long.
The first three chapters play like a novelette, introducing Ferguson and an acutely savvy old lady named Mother Vahn, who's about as close to a classic Heinlein character as I've read in a while. Sadly, the cable car to Central that they share is attacked and, in their joint attempts to escape, Vahn is killed. The next few involve the aftermath of that attack, Ferguson rescued by the Vahns, the entirely female family that Mother Vahn led. And then, as he moves on out, we get to what we expect is the MacGuffin of the novel. It takes Ferguson five pages to find Venetia's Sword.
But, and you knew there was a large but coming, it's very well protected and by the time Ferguson is able to plan to repo it, in the unsurprising company of Mari Vahn, the relatively stable truce between faction in Cernee goes to pot and there are much bigger things to worry about than repoing a ship, not just staying alive but inevitably helping out the Vahns and other good guys who Gilger and his cohorts plan to either dominate or make extinct.
And here's where we really get to the point. While Ferguson is a repo man by trade, his business card could also read "accidental hero". He has a history of getting involved in things bigger than he is and making a difference even if he doesn't really intend to. What's going down in Cernee was always going to go down anyway, but our hero's arrival proves part of the spark prompting them to go down now and to go down in a particularly big way.
'Finder' succeeds for a few reasons. The setup is great, not just how Cernee is structured physically but also societally and technologically. Bringing a wildcard like Fergus Ferguson into that imminent chaos makes for much viable conflict in a whole slew of directions. A repo man has to be able to plan on the fly and he comes up with some truly outrageous ideas using whatever's at hand. The core characters are deeply drawn, though the ensemble cast is too large to extend that success across the board. The villains are sadly mostly just villains.
And, once it gets going, which really isn't far into the novel because even the intro chapters build through tense action, the action does not let up. I could point out that Mother Vahn dies because she knows how far Arum Gilger will go and where he'll stop and, for once, she's wrong. Gilger really isn't holding back and the action he sparks is emphatic and incessant. You're not going to be putting this one down often, if at all.
As a ride, this is glorious. As a debut novel, it's fantastic, a mature and engaging romp that's much deeper than its synopsis might suggest. However, I can't say that it's perfect. There are a few points that are driven by plot conveniences that should have been planned better. Too many questions remain unanswered and too many characters remain unexplored except at the surface, especially on the side of the bad guys. Some grand ideas have to wait for a future book and not just the Asiig, about whom I'd have liked to know more, even with a series arc to come.
But hey, few books are perfect. I devoured this four hundred page novel in a day and wanted to dive immediately into its first sequel, which has already reached shelves because I'm reading Finder in mass market paperback. I don't have Driving the Deep yet, but it came out in May and I'll pick up a copy as soon as I can. This is highly recommended as a novel and, I'm sure, will be even more highly recommended as the first book in a series. ~~ Hal C F Astell