Science fiction and fantasy novels are filled with roguish misfits, from heroic starship captains who just can’t stay on the good side of the law to ghoulish assassins who dispense justice from the shadows. Because this trope is so popular, authors sometimes lack the ability to surprise and delight readers with new twists on this old tune, and it takes a clever mind to turn it into something exciting, but both Suzanne Palmer’s Finder and Sam Sykes’ Seven Blades in Black do just that.
Finder is the kind of science fiction you’d get if “Firefly” and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising had a baby—an adrenaline-packed, heist-filled ride with a heavy side of political intrigue. Set against the backdrop of deep space colony Cernee, Palmer’s debut novel follows repo man Fergus Ferguson as he attempts to complete a seemingly straightforward mission: find (and reclaim) the stolen spaceship Venetia’s Sword from one Arum Gilger, local trade boss. When the colony is suddenly pulled into a civil war, Fergus must balance his job against protecting the lives of the locals who he has—unfortunately—begun to care about.
Palmer spins a story that pays homage to the rogue archetype so common to space operas without feeling like a stale copycat. As Fergus Ferguson careens from one end of Cernee to another, we are treated to not just frenetic fight scenes, daring escapes and tense intrigues, but also to the crushing uncertainty of what it would feel like to live in a human colony at the edge of the alien unknown. This contrast enhances an already complex (and not always predictable) plot that captures readers and drags them through to the book’s unlikely and unsettling end.
Like Finder, Sykes’ first entry into the Grave of Empires trilogy is, at first blush, a simple story. Sal the Cacophony is slated for execution but refuses to go until someone hears her final words—even if that means roping an officer of the Revolution into listening to her and being late to her own death by firing squad. Part Gunslinger and part Kill Bill, Seven Blades in Black is a revenge story both classic and wholly original. Sykes brilliantly weaves a tale of adventure, loss and revenge that is set against the backdrop of a countryside torn from decades of magical warfare between the magic-wielding Imperium and the Revolution, which is led by their former slaves.
What stands out most about Seven Blades in Black isn’t the characters, although Sal and her companions are beautifully crafted and far more nuanced than first meets the eye. It also isn’t the magic system, which is both complex and thoughtful in its execution. It isn’t even the breath-stealing plot, which makes the novel’s roughly 700 pages fly by. Instead, what makes Seven Blades in Black so compelling is the depth of the world Sykes has constructed. Sykes isn’t afraid to ask more questions about his world than he answers, leaving readers knowing that there’s more adventure around the corner. That ability to immerse readers in a new world without over-explaining things is difficult in the first book in any series, but Sykes deftly rises to the occasion.
Although radically different in setting and tone, both Finder and Seven Blades in Black offer fantastic, fantastical stories that are sure to delight. Either would be a great pick for anyone who loves rascals, rogues and high-octane adventure.