2018’s Finders is the first volume in Melissa Scott’s Firstborn, Lastborn series.
The Ancestors disappeared millennia ago, leaving behind some garbled myths and the scattered relics of their nigh-godlike technology. Cassilde Sam and her partner Dai Winter make their meagre living tracking down and salvaging Ancestor relics. It’s a hard life, but not one that Cassilde will have to endure much longer. Third-stage Lightman’s will soon end her life. There is no treatment for Lightman’s.
Cassilde is desperate to secure financial security for Dai before she dies. An opportunity presents itself, but it comes at a high price: accepting scholar Summerlad Ashe as a partner once more.
Before the war between Verge and Entente, Cassilde, Ashe, and Dai were lovers. Despite his ties to Cassilde and Dai, Ashe left them to fight for the Entente, pleading obligations he had no choice but to honour. The Troubles are over and a new dark age has been narrowly averted, but the memory of Ashe’s act remains.
Ashe buys conditional trust with a promise of what may be untold riches in the ruins of an orbital palace. The promised treasures are there, including one that is beyond price, but there is a catch: Ashe has another ex-partner, John Vertrage. Vertrage is hunting the priceless treasure and will cheerfully kill anyone who gets in his way.
The first confrontation with Vertrage’s crew leaves most of Vertrage’s crew dead and Cassilde transformed. Exposed to one of the Ancestor’s Gifts, Cassilde is cured of her Lightman’s. Not only that; wounds and disease heal almost instantly and she no longer ages. But there is a downside: her Gift can be stolen, which makes her a treasure worth tracking down.
The remainder of the book is one long pursuit, in which Cassilde and her partners flee Vertrage and other treasure hunters. At first, the stakes are just personal survival. As they learn more of what Vertrage plans, they realize that they must stop him before he brings the tenuously resurrected human civilization down in ruins … again.
I am not quite sure how to classify this: collapsed empires, vast powerful beings, and a breakneck race from one crisis to another says “space opera,” but the focus is extremely tight, on Cassilde and her companions. They very rarely leave their craft, generally only to explore ruins. It’s an odd combination of grand scale and claustrophobic.
This is one of those archaeological adventures in which poking around the relics of the ancient past carries with it a significant risk of stumbling over sealed evil in a tin. Still, the potential end of civilization is a small price to pay for an unreliable income.
There have been not just one but two comprehensive collapses since the height of Ancestor civilization: the Ancestors folded after creating godlike AIs who then turned on the Ancestors, while the Successors lasted long enough to loot the best Ancestor sites before imploding in their own way. The current civilization is still recovering from the second dark age, coping with the long term consequences of bad choices on the part of Ancestors and Successors. Given the extent to which it is dependent on relics it cannot reproduce, I am not am not sanguine about its long term prospects. But then, everything is doomed, given enough time.
Rather more uncommonly, the protagonist, having stumbled over facts whose implications are profound, isn’t opting for security through obscurity. Instead they’re going to inform the civil authorities of the matter. What an odd development in a genre known for its love of bold figures who don’t consult with anyone about anything.
If I am reading the ISFDB correctly, this is Scott’s first solo-written, non-tie-in SF novel in eighteen years. It reminded me of her classic Silence Leigh series; space opera in which the protagonists are attempting to recover lost knowledge, whether of magic or technology. The two series are also alike in taking polyamory for granted. In both settings, it’s just one choice among many. Readers uncomfortable with anything other than one man-one woman partnerships might bounce off this book.
This is a pleasingly written, solid adventure tale written by an experienced author. It works as a standalone, but Finders is also an introduction to what I hope will be an ongoing series.