A review by Sam Sheikh
By Rob Boffard
A young female protagonist in a dystopian setting fights to save her world against a psychopath, while struggling to define her feelings for a young man close to her. The plot of Rob Boffard’s debut sci-fi novel Tracer will ring familiar to many of us. It checks off all the young adult literature boxes without thinking too far outside the box office.
Earth has been destroyed by a massive nuclear war. Three hundred miles above the dead planet, humanity’s last remnants survive on Outer Earth. A rundown space station, Outer Earth is short of everything except hungry and thirsty people. Built for a half million lives, it houses twice that many.
An orphan who lost her father in a space crash on Earth and her mother soon after, Riley Hale has had to survive on her wits in the mean rings of Outer Earth. She is rescued by Amira Al-Hassan, who teaches her fighting and parkour skills, and recruits her into the Devil Dancers, a crew of tracers. With everything breaking down, including law and order, Outer Earth now relies on tracers to deliver everything from batteries to medicines. To deliver their goods, tracers have to brave corrupt cops, vicious gangs, oblivious civilians, and presumably bored workers pouring cement along their routes.
While on a run, Hale is ambushed by a gang. She escapes, but discovers she is carrying an eyeball. Pretending that she doesn’t know the contents of the resealed package, she delivers it to Oren Darnell, a vicious, violent gang leader. Darnell sees through Hale’s pretences, then later dispatches an assassin to kill her. But Hale survives and returns to the Devil Dancers’ nest for help. Meanwhile, Darnell kidnaps Prakesh Kumar, Hale’s childhood friend and protector. He proposes an exchange: Kumar’s life for Hale.
By following Arthur Gray, who had ordered the delivery, Hale finds both Darnell and the kidnapped Kumar. Just when things look desperate, cops brought by Al-Hassan rescue Hale and Kumar. Darnell is arrested, but the larger plot remains unsolved. What is the eyeball for and what is behind Darnell’s madness? What is his link to the Sons of Earth, an apparent doomsday cult that may have infiltrated Outer Earth with sleeper cells? The entire space station is in jeopardy, with Hale between a million lives and the end of the human race.
With its grim sci-fi setting, quick action, and young characters, Tracer is firmly directed at the young adult demographic. Boffard writes his novel in the familiar present-tense, first-person perspective, à la The Hunger Games, driving the plot using short chapters and brisk writing. His highly readable novel reads like a movie or video game script. The fighting and parkour sequences are fast and furious. The challenges are just difficult enough for Hale to overcome so that she can progress to the next level. Unfortunately, despite several plot twists, many scenes lack genuine suspense, particularly given the knowledge Hale features in later books.
Oddly, in constructing Outer Earth, which could have been as important as any character in the novel, Boffard hews closer to Dicken’s Oliver Twist than Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Outer Earth’s six sectors—Apex, Gardens, Chengshi, Apogee, New Germany, and Tzevya—have no defining regional characteristics except general squalor.
The main characters, particularly the Devil Dancers, are young, ethnically diverse, streetwise, and tech savvy, as if genetically engineered to appeal. The bad guys, unsurprisingly, are older characters who manipulate, betray, and kill. Yet every character—whether named Yao Shen, Kevin O’Connell, Prakesh Kumar, or Riley Hale—behaves like a typical early 21st Century young, middle-class consumer of Western pop culture. It’s more like the United Colors of Benetton than the Star Wars cantina.
Tracer’s best qualities are its readability and pace, but Boffard’s debut novel competes in a crowded field. Nevertheless, he has created a strong star character who will doubtless feature in many more novels to come.