Tracer - Rob Boffard


by Robert Boffard


I absolutely love scifi that creates worlds that are grungy and derelict rather than shiny and perfect. A bit of grime makes the futuristic technologies feel familiar and mundane, which in turn adds a vividness, that is absent from the standard spotless, hygienic scifi space stations. This added sense of tangibility was one reason that I was so excited to read Tracer. A decrepit space station hovering above a destroyed earth? It sounded like the perfect environment for a fast-paced, gritty thriller. Objectively, I think Tracer carried through with that.


Years ago, the earth erupted into nuclear holocaust, leaving the inhabitants of the Outer Earth space station as the only remnants of humanity. But now even Outer Earth is breaking down, fracturing into politically, and sinking into lawlessness. A growing sect even believes that humanity should voluntarily go extinct. For Riley, these are simply a few additional obstacles in her role as a Tracer, a courier who carries messages and packages from one sector of Outer Earth to another. Riley herself is carefully apolitical; she even considers it part of her policy to never know what is in the packages she carries. But when circumstances force her to peek inside of her cargo, Riley is thrown into a desperate situation that threatens all of Outer Earth.


On paper, Tracer should have been perfect for me. But somehow, I never became invested in the characters or the world. There’s nothing objectively wrong with the characters, but they just never grabbed me. Part of my sense of disconnect may be due to the narrative style, as I find first-person present peculiarly unnatural and artificial. Part of the story is also narrated from the perspective of the villains, and somehow this made the story feel all the more artificial to me. Even getting the world from their perspective failed to make their motivations seem real to me. The plot, too, should have been exciting, but the events felt so forced and unrealistic to me that I just somehow never became invested in the characters’ circumstances.


Let’s start with the eyeball. Since Riley et al refuse to look at the contents they carry, they are obviously aware that they often carry illicit materials. What’s so awful about an eyeball? Given how common and casual violence and murder supposedly are in the story, Riley’s freakout over the eyeball seems off to me. Considering I can think of ways and reasons to transport an eyeball that don’t involve murder, why is it such a big deal? I kept waiting for the cultural importance of eyeballs to be explained, but it never was. So considering how often violence is threatened and carried out, and how little importance is given to a murder or two, what’s the big deal?


Now let’s move on to our villains. My mind boggles. Without humans, there will be nothing to create light, so all of Darnell’s plants will die. Does that mean he doesn’t care about them, either? And what’s with everyone’s extreme revenge stuff? So Riley’s dad is pissed off. Considering he’s well aware that everyone at the space station believed he was dead, why is he human-extinction-level revenge-happy? It just doesn’t click for me.


And then there’s Amira, the Sleeper agent. The hell? She’s suddenly willing to kill her best friend? And why not kill her long before Garner gives up her random cryptic phrasing? Not even her obligatory villain monologue makes sense. She actually contradicts herself multiple times, first saying she needed to wait for the secret information, then that she was supposed to kill Garner without saying anything. Then she suddenly decides that the earth needs to be saved. She changes her mind and story three times in the space of as many pages. And then Okwembo contradicts herself as well. At first, she says that Garner was unneeded; then at the end, she calls her their "only hope" and says that they used Riley to get the information. Right. The information that, a few pages ago, she said she didn't need? And why spend all that effort saving Riley, considering she planned to kill her anyway? And why on earth did Darnell use Riley as the courier in the first place, considering he and Amira knew her place in all this? Honestly, it felt like the author had a few plots in mind and hadn't settled on one before the book was rushed to publication.


And then there are Darnell’s comments on Riley. So he supposedly outs her to everyone and tells them to bring her head on a platter? Why would everyone believe the random psychopath killer when he says she is one of his sleepers, especially since he obviously wants her dead? How stupid are all these people supposed to be? Did the loss of the Air Lab cause universal brain damage, or something?


And last of all, there’s Okwembo. So her (incredibly stupid) plan is that Darnell will threaten the world, and then she’ll save the day and suddenly everyone will love her? Apart from the massive risks of everything going wrong, and the terrible chaos and destruction caused by it all, Boffard really needs to read some Machiavelli. As Okwembo says,

Nothing unifies people like a common enemy, and fighting through hardship which can be blamed on that enemy will forge them in steel.

True enough, but that’s why you need the enemy to still be alive and still be a threat. People always become discontented with current circumstances, especially when the past actually is better than the present. What Okwembo actually needed was an ongoing threat to bring everyone together and provide a scapegoat for the community’s current problems. The sheer stupidity of the whole plot utterly boggled my mind

(show spoiler)

Honestly, the plot is so full of nonsensical actions and self-destructive idiots that I was simply unable to suspend sufficient disbelief.

Overall, Tracer is an entertaining enough story. If you can get past the plotholes and problematic character motivations, I think the breakneck pace and action-filled plot could be a lot of fun.


I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Redhook Books, in exchange for my honest review.