Tracer by Rob Boffard

Rob Boffard
Orbit, 448 pages
Reviewed by Ian Hunter

“In Space: Every. Second. Counts.” or so proclaims a sticker-like blurb on the low-tech cover of Rob Boffard’s novel Tracer, the first of his “Outer Earth” trilogy, and Sarah Lutz, author of the award-winning novel The Three also pitches in by proclaiming that we are in for a ride that is “fast, exhilarating and unforgettable”. Well, one out of three isn’t bad, I suppose, as I can’t remember the last time I was truly exhilarated by a novel and I wouldn’t say that Tracer is particularly memorable, but it certainly is fast. After an intriguing prologue set on a doomed spacecraft which is breaking up, we are following the very fast footsteps of Riley Hale, a courier, or Tracer, and a member of the Devil Dancers as she races through the sectors of Outer Earth with a package to deliver. As usual, some of these packages aren’t always legal, and as usual, some other people want to take them away from her. Even worse for Riley, the package she carries is intended for Oran Darnell, the very imposing, nay, ruthless figure, who heads up the station’s biotech lab. Riley has to get the package to him, no matter what. If rule one is always deliver, then rule two is never look inside the package you are delivering, you are merely the courier. The messenger who never gets to hear the message, just carries it, but when the package intended for Darnell gets damaged, Riley has no choice but to look inside and make a gruesome discovery as she tries to repair the parcel and make the drop.

The Earth is dead, but humanity continues to exist on Outer Earth, a vast, space station that orbits the wasted planet some three hundred miles above the battered surface. The station is miles long and contains a million people, but everything isn’t shiny and new. It’s old and battered and life is a struggle to survive and make the best use of the resources that are still available like air and water and food. It’s an orbiting intense, compact, claustrophobic world where the rule of law still exists in some sectors, and is imposed by the appropriately named “Stompers”, while in other areas, gangs have taken over the parts which are poorly maintained and have started to control the vital water points and the routes through which Riley has to navigate.

Like Dystopian fiction of recent times with strong female protagonists, and the new Star Wars movie with Daisy Ridley’s Rey being one of the best thing about the film, the best thing about Tracer is the character of Riley. A well-rounded, lonely, suspicious, almost borderline paranoid character, who fights every day just to survive, and her delivery of the package to Darnell and her knowledge of what was inside throws her head-long into a conspiracy that will determine the fate of everyone living on Outer Earth.

To be honest, I thought Tracer was better than average, with an interesting, but undeveloped setting, reminiscent of classic movies like Silent Running and the original version of Total Recall. Tracer is more action-thriller than science fiction, and there is a lot of action going on, a lot of the time. Apart from Riley, I found the characters to be slightly two-dimensional, and we really only get into the heads of Riley (and really get into her head because her parts are told in the first person), Darnell and Riley’s friend Prakesh who works in a lab. Given this is book one there were some teasers, and dangling plot set-ups, with the inevitable cliffhanger ending to lure the unsuspecting, but willing, reader into Zero-G, the next book in the trilogy, which is out now. It is soon to be followed by Impact which will be released in the summer, so there is plenty to look forward to if this is to your liking. As for me? Well, I’m off to the nearest escape pod to take my chances on the scarred Earth below.

This review was first published in Shoreline of Infinity issue 4.