Welcome to Outer Earth, an eighteen-mile diameter ship that orbits 300 miles above planet Earth. On Outer Earth live the last remaining million humans, eking out their lives on a ship that's slowly falling apart. Some of those million people make a living being couriers, running packages from one end of the station to the other, no questions asked. But then Riley Hale mistakenly looks in her pack and sees what she's delivering to Oren Darnell, the chief engineer of the Air Lab. Thus begins the story of Tracer.
Tracer is first and foremost an action novel. I say this because the story suffers in a lot of other ways. The characters feel very flimsy to me, especially the antagonist. Boffard attempted to give him a motivation, but in the end, he came across as being a Snidely Whiplash caricature. That the other antagonists fell in line with the ideology of the main antagonist seemed unrealistic to me. The protagonists weren't much better, and it felt like Boffard was populating the story with the usual cast of characters featured in any YA novel.
Speaking of which, I couldn't help but feel like this was written as a YA novel. I don't have a problem with them, mind you, but I like to know what I'm getting into when I start reading a book. There was no indication anywhere that this was a YA book, and it certainly wasn't marketed as one. It reminded me of The Flight of the Silvers in that some of its content doesn't reflect a typical YA book, but the narrative and the story do.
The story also depends a lot on coincidence and luck. The main characters are resourceful, sure, but when a character gets written into a corner, with no easy way out, Boffard gives them a serendipitous easy way out. Again, this is an action novel, so some of this is expected. I'm doing my nitpicking thing again, because by about 10% of my way into the story, I started seeing a lot of problems with it.
For some reason, the present tense voice didn't work that well for me, either. I've read other books written in the present tense that didn't bother me, but for some reason, it grated on me here. Part of it was when Boffard went into a flashback in the middle of another scene -- it would be written in past tense, and then the jump back to the present tense jarred me. My guess is that he wanted to give the story more of a sense of immediacy this way, but I can't help but feel it wasn't necessary.
The story jumps through a handful of different characters, each chapter being told from the point of view of one of them. This isn't a problem, but for some reason, Boffard writes one of those characters' voices in the first person, while the others are in the third person. It seemed like an odd thing to do, and that choice, in addition to writing the novel in the present tense, meant he made two unconventional choices in how he wrote the story.
The book is currently only available as an ebook, and as I was reading, I kept checking to see if the book had been self-published. The writing feels amateurish, unedited, almost like the writing in The Martian and the Silo series, both of which started out as self-published works. And, oh, the cliches Boffard uses. They made me wince. At one point, without irony, he has a character shout "Don't you dare die on me!"
I couldn't help but think of the first two-thirds of Seveneves as I was reading this book, since the story does enter into a survival-in-space-despite-someone-trying-to-sabotage-it mode once the action gets underway. What I remember about Seveneves was its theme, that space does its best to kill you, and the focus of the entire story was what was required to survive it; Tracer seems to touch on that theme, but for the most part life in space seems pretty easy, easy enough at least to support slums, open markets, courier services, and the like. That seems pretty impressive, and implausible, considering that the station has only been in space for 100 years. I'm aware that the stories are significantly different, but it doesn't help to have read this book after the detail Stephenson went into regarding how difficult it is to survive in space.
Despite all that, Boffard did manage to surprise me a time or two as he wound up the story. And it's not like I was struggling to stay in the story; the book moved quickly, and the action scenes were written well. It just needed a lot more character development and a more traditional narrative style to raise this book from good to excellent. It did have enough good for me to consider reading the next couple of books in the series.