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If the romance genre just has to cross over into SF, dammit, then we could do a whole lot worse than space operas whose covers feature pissed-off heroines holding men at gunpoint with a "Just try something, motherf—" look on their faces. After all, if these novels are wish-fulfillment for women, there's something to be said for knowing your audience.

Of course, there's something else entirely to be said for pandering to that audience. And it so happens that the romantic elements of Finders Keepers are its weakest. Perhaps my Y-chromosomes are playing a part in reaching that conclusion, but I'd like to think not. After all, the vast majority of this novel is classic space opera, the sort of story in which rough-hewn pilots of either gender chug along space lanes in rickety old ships held together with duct tape, and sinister galactic empires plot against all and sundry for power. Not for Linnea Sinclair the spiffy, cutting edge man-machine futures of Ken MacLeod, Greg Egan or Charles Stross. C.J. Cherryh and Lois McMaster Bujold are Sinclair's obvious SFnal antecedents. (In particular, the opening scenes of Finders Keepers directly reference Shards of Honor.) But when you look at the understated way in which Bujold introduces romantic subplots into her novels, compared with the hilarity Sinclair resorts to ("[He] pressed his...gorgeous body against hers in sickbay, leaving no doubt as to his masculine charms"), it's pretty obvious that Sinclair won't be anywhere near Bujold's level until she learns to weed out the bad influences — pretty much all the the romance novel ones — from the good.

Happily for this book, the cheese is mostly spread over the first hundred pages, after which the good stuff kicks in. Trilby Elliot is a scruffy but still-fetchingly-feminine-in-a-Meg-Ryan-kind-of-way independent starfreighter pilot who, as the novel opens, is in the midst of a pit stop on a remote world, undertaking some much needed repairs and fretting over her debts. What should fall out of the sky but a fighter belonging to the devilish alien Ycsko. But upon investigating the wreckage, Trilby finds not a dead 'Sko but a living human studmuffin. After he awakens on her ship, and a few basic misunderstandings are cleared up — a process involving some physical scuffle, with him, of course, entirely nude — he indentifies himself as Rhis Vanur, a lieutenant of the Zafharin Empire, longtime enemies of the 'Sko. He has recently escaped a 'Sko prison planet and needs Trilby's help to get back to his home base.

Immediately Sinclair tries to set up an irresistible sexual tension between these two, but, more often than not, she ends up tickling your funnybone as opposed to, well, the other bone. Sinclair's reliance on paperback romance clichés are just so strong here that it's hard to take it all seriously. Rhis is the stereotypical romance-reader lust object (not that romance readers don't have a right to those!), the untameable, arrogant rogue whose steely facade nonetheless melts when the Right Woman comes along. Cripes, Sinclair has Trilby accidentally slip and fall into Rhis's arms within the ship's cramped corridors so many times in the first hundred pages that it goes beyond funny into the realm of the ridiculous. Again, comparison is invited to the work of Bujold. Note the way the love between Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith evolves naturally as a result of their shared experiences. Conversely, Trilby and Rhis are drawn to each other by nothing more than the requirements of romance formula.

Sinclair finally has them get it on on page 128, by which time the reader crescendo of "Will you two just boink already?" will be starting to peak. From that point, something nice happens. The book finally turns into the entertaining space opera we were all wanting to read in the first place. Traveling with Rhis back to the Empire — a situation she can't really help, as he has reprogrammed her ship — she learns that he hasn't been entirely forthcoming about his identity. What's more, it appears that he has uncovered evidence that someone very powerful within the Conclave (the area of space from which Trilby hails) is attempting to sell the Conclave out to the 'Sko, thus giving the 'Sko a dire advantage over the Empire. A friend and fellow pilot of Trilby's has gone missing, probably because she got too close to the truth; thus Trilby has a personal stake. But can Trilby risk trusting Rhis again, even to help him defeat this potential mutual enemy?

Well, you know she will, if only because we wouldn't have a story otherwise. But it works because Sinclair, despite proving to be a boilerplate romance writer, is actually a pretty decent space opera writer. I found myself charmed by her old-school approach to the genre. If anything about this book is really romantic, it's Sinclair's allegiance to the notion of a universe filled with the kindred spirits of Han Solo and Dominic Flandry. Though I love seeing the envelope pushed as much as anyone (and more than most), I admit to finding the whole hard SF trend towards post-Singularity, post-human futures sometimes alienating. Give me a dank and grimy spaceship with coffee cup rings on the consoles. The human touch counts for a lot.

Also, what originates as cliché in the book's early scenes gradually evolves into characterizations informed by more and more genuine human feeling. While Rhis never quite outgrows his romance-hero origins, Trilby matures into a likable heroine whose conflicting feelings of confusion, mistrust, and duty eventually ring true. To what degree this may be due to Sinclair's identifying with her is up for debate, but whatever the case, it shows that when Sinclair is willing to throw off the shackles of formula, there's a decent writer standing there.

Finders Keepers is overlong at just over 450 pages. But — pardon the pun — it rises to the occasion (even if the 'Sko, when we finally meet them, turn out to be some of the dumbest evil aliens ever). And it did some things that many more "important" and heavily hyped recent SF novels have failed to do. It entertained me, held my interest and left me wanting more. Three for three. It must be love.