Tracer is a sci-fi dystopian novel, packed with action, wrapped around some interesting characters.
The narrative centres around a slowly decaying space station, Outer Earth. The last bastion of humanity, perpetually orbiting a world eternally marked by cataclysm, its creaking environs are one of the stars of the text. The author has created a claustrophobic world, one in which merely existing is a struggle against entropy. But it’s also a world that makes sense - there’s a focus on the control of air, on food supplies, concerns over a growing population. The station that serves as the character’s world is struggling under a lot of the same concerns as our own – environmental, economic, social. It feels lived in, and it feels real. On the other hand, it doesn’t feel like a particularly nice place to live – there’s a metaphorical grime patina across everything. Systems are slowing down, or already non-functional. Flickering internal lighting shows areas of the station run as slums, gangs controlling water points. Other areas remain under governmental control, but there’s a whiff of totalitarianism about the security forces – less-than-affectionately named the ‘Stompers’ by our cast. What Boffard has created is an environment that displays enormity and fragility at the same time, and then dropped characters into it, with events that ratchet up until the whole station is a pressure cooker.
Speaking of the characters – the main focus is on one of the titular Tracers. Seemingly a cross between parkour enthusiasts and cage fighters, they run packages through the station after the demise of any more efficient postal service. The protagonist here is Riley, a Tracer who discovers more than she should about one of the packages she’s carrying. Riley manages to give the vibe of being the strong female lead – she carries off her work competently, can fight effectively in hand-to-hand combat, has a surprising amount of emotional depth. The first two of these traits cover a great many action heroes, in this post-Hunger Games world, but it’s delightful to find a heroine who is more than a cardboard cutout. Boffard shows us a relatively young girl carrying around rather a lot of emotional damage – which largely manifests as emotional distance, with a razors edge of paranoia wrapped around it. Our protagonist is not easy to get close to, in the physical or emotional sense. But this feeling of damage and distance is well crafted – Riley’s internal monologue reveals causes, explains and drives reactions, and drags the reader into her head. At the same time, her casual competence and wry humour makes for a pleasant read.
Quite the reverse is true for the villain of the piece. I won’t get into details here for fear of spoilers; however, I will say that the author has done a masterful job with his antagonist. There’s less delicacy around the motivations here, the psychology behind them made more explicit – and a little less nuanced. But at the same time, every page oozes with unpleasantness, with a kind of creeping horror and crawling sense of internal filth; it’s an absolute masterclass in unrepentant villainy, a sci-fi Othello. The sections where the antagonist features heavily aren’t a pleasant read, but they are an incredibly compelling one.
The plot suffers a little alongside the setting and the characters. It feels like a big budget action movie dropped onto the page. This isn’t a bad thing, mind you. In particular, there’s some wonderful tension in the early sections, before the later ones turn the action up to eleven. There’s decisions within the narrative which, on closer inspection, served the plot, rather than the characters – but in the heat of the moment, they also serve the narrative flow, and so are easily forgiven. There’s a fair amount of running, jumping, and struggling against impossible odds. A smattering of betrayal and personal loss. A fair amount of well described hand-to hand fighting. And a refusal to lower the stakes at any time.
Solid characters. Tight plotting. Well realised setting. It makes for a very compelling, compulsive reading experience, and one that’s thoroughly entertaining – this one’s worth picking up, if you’re in the mood for some sci-fi action.