Book Club #7: Finder: Voice, by Carla Speed McNeil

Welcome to the Fantastic Fangirls (Comic) Book Club!

Over the past few weeks we’ve all read Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder: Voice, the most recent installment in the Finder saga from McNeil.

Voice cover

The Finder series has been described by McNeil as “aboriginal science fiction.” Set in a distant future, possibly on Earth, possibly not, Finder explores human relationships through characters within and outside a set of elaborate and rigid clan structures. Inside the city of Anvard almost everyone is in a clan. Clans specialize in genetically encouraged looks and talents, and self-segregate into differing fields of endeavor. Outside the city live the unaffiliated, the Ascian (themselves a clan with entirely different rules,) and everyone else. The grand sweep of Finder largely concerns itself with how we as humans know our place in the world, and the differing means people use to define their relationships.

Voice is the story of Rachel Grosvenor, a young woman about to decide her family’s future place. Rachel is the daughter of two clans who might, might be able to pass the conformation tests for Clan Llaverac. If she can, if she does, she wins security for herself and her half-and-half siblings. If she fails, the best they can hope for are lives of poverty and servitude. The story hinges on an unlucky accident, a mugging, a theft, and a twenty-four hour (more or less) quest for a ring, answers, and the mysterious man who once formed a part of Rachel’s childhood. If Rachel can find any of those three things, she’ll triumph. It seems, however, that fate and the city of Anvard are conspiring against her.

There’s much to talk about with Voice — this isn’t the first collected set in the Finder world, Rachel Grosvenor and Jaeger Ayers are recurring characters, there’s the art, the setting, the footnotes — but I’d like to start out talking about the plot and character arcs. What did we think of the story arc? Did the quest set-up work? What did we think of Rachel Grosvenor, at the beginning and the end of her arc?

Caroline: Whoa, let me just take a step back and say — that’s what was going on there? I mean, when you lay it out like that, I’m nodding along. I don’t think anything you said there is something I missed. I’m thrown back, though, to one of our early discussion books, Ghost in the Shell. I don’t know that I could have explained what was happening in this world with a gun to my head, but I was able to pick out a familiar type of plot (the investigative procedural) and that gave me enough to go on and enjoy the book.

Likewise, with Voice, I got that Rachel was looking for something, and I was able to follow the individual steps in the quest. As to a larger idea of what the stakes were and why, though, I admit I was a little lost on this. (For the record, this isn’t my first exposure to Finder; I read the first volume a few years ago, but I’m not sure that helped. Anyway, this is being sold as a standalone OGN and I think it’s at least arguably valid to approach it that way.)

The way it worked, then, is that I was able to follow Rachel’s emotional state through the different stages of her quest. And — I think she won? I think she got what she wanted? I will say, though, I never really felt like that was the point. In fact, the story seemed to skip over the climax, and then it left me with a disappointing wind down. I wasn’t at all convinced that, by “winning” Rachel had gained anything valuable as far as her character development. What stuck with me in this book was the act of seeking. I enjoyed it for the depiction of that particular emotional state. So I wonder if the standard conversation about ‘character arcs’ has any relevance to what McNeil achieved here.

Jennifer: I’ll be honest — I couldn’t really follow a character arc, either, but I think that came more from the way I could never quite tell what Rachel was actually looking for. I never got a sense of what she really wanted, beyond the basics (helping her family), and I couldn’t tell if the clan itself and its properties actually appealed to her. She certainly rebelled from certain aspects of it, or at least was able to point out its flaws, yet her desire to be a member at times came across as genuine. And her search for her mother’s ex-boyfriend, without the context of the rest of the series, came across as random and disconnected from the rest of the plot (even before the psychedelic sequence about ¾ of the way through.)

I think my primary problem, here and with most high fantasy and science fiction, is that the world was so immersive. For some people that’s a selling point, but I’ve always preferred fish-out-of-water fantasy — Harry Potter as opposed to Lord of the Rings — where a character from “our” universe needs to have things explained to them about this strange new world they, and we, have entered. Perhaps if I’d read other volumes of Finder I’d have had something to latch onto, but for the most part I felt adrift in this world, failing to comprehend its intricacies, and that made me care less about its characters. I couldn’t, as Caroline said, figure out the stakes. And certain aspects of the worldbuilding, like the strange gender identities and pronoun usage of the Llaverac (which I had to read the footnotes to even begin to understand), seemed illogical and lacking in punching satire. Why is a clan that prizes femininity above all else and has eradicated all things masculine still clinging to male gaze-y beauty standards?

There’s a lot to like here, and I don’t want to be a downer from the beginning; I welcome counter-arguments. But as far as character and story were concerned, I was more lost than anything else.

Anika: I wasn’t lost. But I didn’t like it. Maybe I might like a different Finder story better because my main problem was Rachel. It reminded me of The Hunger Games in that I was interested in the location — in the world and the consequences that exist because of the world — but I just can’t stand the whiny protagonist. I spent most of the book wanting to slap her. I guess we are supposed to believe that she has agency because she goes on this quest, because she entered the beauty pageant in the first place. I guess she does. But she whined about it the whole time. She wanted validation for all the sacrifices she was making to help all the people she was helping. Even when she was upset that she and her family hadn’t helped Roy and when she realized that she maybe got two people killed by making one phone call of complaint she seemed more upset about what it said about her than what had happened to them.

And then she got drunk and drugged and gang raped and transformed. Or maybe not (she blacked out and can’t remember), but she got a ring for going through it. And somehow knowledge that she could use. And I admit that yelling-and-blackmailing her way back into the pageant is at least (as the grandfather-judge said) interesting but it is too little too late. I already don’t care about her.

Sigrid: Oh my goodness, you GUYS. I am laughing as I am typing this, because I love this book so hard, and you all … do not.

I must say, I am a little surprised by that, since I thought, going into this, that we all more-or-less enjoy stories about young women coming of age and making decisions about their future. Witness the choices of Nana and Greendale as previous book club selections, right? That is what I perceive this story to be, so … there are clearly some barriers to either relating, or to comprehension, or something else is going on.

Anika, you clearly didn’t find Rachel likable, which, fair enough. I didn’t like the protagonist of Greendale. That’s a large barrier to liking a coming-of-age story. Jen, you seemed to find the immersive nature of the worldbuilding to be a hurdle to comprehension. Can you tell us a bit more about that? How did the art factor into your reading?

Jennifer: You know, I’m looking at the art again, and — my first instinct was that it was a problem. But flipping through, I find it to be really lovely, with a lot of detail and some fantastic layouts and facial expressions. So I don’t think the problem is so much McNeil’s art itself, which is very good and lovingly rendered, but with some of the choices McNeil makes with regard to what she chooses to show. The art is focused on close-ups, which serve to illuminate character but at the expense of really giving the reader an idea of the world outside. Establishing shots are few and far between, and the lack of color doesn’t help, either — especially considering how flamboyant Llaverac culture is. And when McNeil gets more abstract with her art, as in the scene Anika described, I find myself completely lost. I didn’t, for instance, understand that she had been drugged and possibly raped — if that is indeed what actually happened.

So the lack of external details in the art didn’t help to make the universe less immersive, and it was part of the reason I found myself in a constant state of scrabbling to hold on, trying to figure out what was happening while also attempting to follow a character’s personal arc. The footnotes helped, and I’m sure if I reread this a few more times I’d get more out of it, but my time, and the time of any reader, is finite. Should we need footnotes and multiple readings to be able to follow the basic elements of a story? Is this story even meant to be read without reference to the rest of the series?

Sigrid: I can’t really answer that, Jennifer, since I have read the rest of the series — but I read them entirely out of order and found each story to stand perfectly well on its own as I came across them. Certainly, some things made more sense once I read the backstory from another volume, but …

… but I don’t mind being a bit lost. I have no idea why the Llaverac clan chose to embrace the sexual displays that it did. I don’t mind not knowing — the world is the way it is, and I simply know that Rachel cares — or has extremely conflicted feelings! — about that standard.

Similarly, I don’t need to know what the Ascians are doing, or what they think of Rachel. It’s clear that she entered an important rite of theirs and they incorporated her into it. From one point of view she was drugged and very possibly raped — though I think the art is unclear on that point. She likely danced naked with a whole lot of them. From another point of view, Rachel chose to throw herself at the unknown culture of the missing Jaeger, her mother’s sometime-boyfriend, and experienced a transformative religious ritual. Whichever is the case, Rachel is clearly transformed into someone who can blackmail Llaverac clan matron Rodzhina. I find that I care far less about what the Ascians think — though they clearly formed some sort of opinions about her — and more about what Rachel takes away from the experience. Strength and daring.

Anika, you really didn’t like Rachel. Can you tell us a bit more about that, or, alternately, what parts of the book did you like despite the protagonist?

Anika: What I mainly didn’t like about Rachel was that she seemed constantly angry at her world and her situation, but also resigned to it. I love angry young women and I love selfish characters but I can’t stand whiny characters. Rachel spent the book running from one place to another, wishing and whining that it would magically be different. And then, basically, it happened. I think, maybe that is actually my main complaint — not that Rachel is so horrible, because she shares some characteristics with characters I adore — but that her whining is rewarded. As I mentioned, I like that she forces her way into the finale of the competition. That is not whining, that is complaining — making a scene and expecting, demanding that someone DO something. But I am unconvinced that moment defines her and it only comes about because she gets a magic ring from a magic people who magically improve her life and that annoys me. So, maybe it’s unfair to put it all on Rachel. But she’s honestly really whiny.

I liked the structure of the city, though I didn’t fully understand it until I read the notes. I can imagine a city being built up and down as the surface gets too crowded and used to be viable. That’s an interesting world. But what I liked best were the periphery characters particularly Brom, the ladies on the bus, and Roy. The whole thing was a bit like a video game where you go from encounter to encounter and you don’t really know what the point is and those are the encounters that stood out. The random ladies I like because they put Rachel’s clan aspirations (and her attitude) in perspective. I took Brom to be Rachel’s Spirit Guide, I kept wanting him to come back like the old guy in Sucker Punch. And Roy’s just a cutie.

Sigrid: Jennifer, did you have any further thoughts on the world or the supporting characters — are there any bits that stood out positively for you?

Jennifer: First of all, I have to throw in one more negative. McNeil calls this “aboriginal science fiction,” and presumably the Ascians are the closest to the aboriginal/Native American stand-ins. So while I appreciate that they exist, and I gather that they may be depicted in a better light in other stories, it did bother me that they basically existed here to be weird and magical, with spiritual rituals that contained rape connotations, in order to provide magical assistance to the white/mainstream protagonist.

That said, I did like the hints we saw of character relationships, and I think that was the story’s strength. I liked getting to see Rachel’s interactions with various members of her family, from her sick father to her two very different sisters (/brother), to her intriguing and enigmatic mother. I found Brom to be creepy, but in an interesting way, and I, too, liked Roy. There are bits of this world I’m intrigued by, though I’m not sure any of it piqued my interest enough to check out more.

Caroline: All right, I haven’t had much to say, but that’s not because I didn’t get enough out of the story to enjoy it. I actually did enjoy it. I just didn’t comprehend the story thoroughly enough to talk about it. One reading doesn’t leave me in a position to be able to pass judgment on the characters or the society, or to be able to make pronouncements about character arcs, and. . .

To me, that’s okay. Jennifer asks if we should need multiple readings and footnotes to follow a basic story, and my response is that there are a lot of things I like that I don’t find immediately accessible. Poetry, complex music, even a lot of short stories and films beg to be encountered multiple times with different levels of understanding. And sure, absolutely, a reader who isn’t interested in wrestling with a particular text is free not to do that. But I’d hate to make a rule that no one should ever create a work of art that requires too much, well, work on the part of the reader. It’s not an either/or. Surely there is room for different kinds of story telling.

At this point, I’m sure I sound like I’m just copping out because I didn’t “get” the story. To some extent, that’s true, but I would also like to reserve the right to read a book, say, “That was interesting,” and tackle it again once it’s had time to settle. Internet review culture tends to privilege first impressions, which may explain why I frequently find posts I made months ago that reflect opinions I don’t ever remember having.

Jennifer: I just want to jump in and clarify that I’m not opposed to art with several layers of meaning, or art that takes work to understand. But I think the key word here is “several.” I like a piece of art to have, at the very least, one level of interpretation that is possible on a first reading. Giving a reward to readers willing and able to spend more time and thought on a text is great. But for me, Voice essentially had no surface for me to grab onto, and that’s why I couldn’t enjoy it. Your mileage, of course, may vary, but I don’t want it to seem like I didn’t enjoy Voice because it’s a layered story. I just wish one layer of this underground city had been, well, above ground.

Anyway. I do have to say that this was a beautiful bound volume with a lovely, minimalist cover. What did you guys think of the format and packaging?

Caroline: This is the part where I have to say I made the wrong choice. From the glimpses I’ve seen of the physical book, it looks quite lovely but. . .I went and bought the digital copy from the Dark Horse website. The price was right, but unfortunately this book was definitely not optimized to be read on a laptop. Try as I might, I couldn’t widen the page to my entire screen, nor could I move up and down the page or zoom as I liked. Basically, I had to follow the format of tabbing from panel to panel. When I got to the footnotes, I couldn’t read them at all, because there was no way to change the size of the print. I’m sure it would be great on an ipad, but barring smashing my face up against the screen, there wasn’t much to do about it.

Honestly, this might have contributed to my difficulty with the text. With a graphic novel, I like to be able to flip easily through the pages and take the whole thing in. When I read prose ebooks, they’re actually simpler to navigate than the paper kind, because I can do word searches, flip between chapters, and use a table of contents. This experience with Finder reinforced my feeling that digital comics are actually less convenient than the print kind. I doubt I’ll try that app again.

Sigrid: I love these volumes that Dark Horse is putting out, and hope that they will continue to publish Finder for me. I have not found any digital way of reading comics that I can stand, yet, despite wanting such a means. (My goodness, if you could see the complete lack of coherent comic book storage in my life … ) I think, Caroline, that Finder may be an especially poor fit for digital, what with the flipping back and forth to the end notes and previous scenes.

Anika: The digital platform has been explained to me as being optimized for devices like an iPad, not a laptop. And in demonstration comics looked amazing on an iPad. I’m not going to argue for it without firsthand experience of this title, but I wanted to put that in as an aside. But I will say I didn’t flip back and forth to the notes, I read them all after reading the whole story, and I took them as more of an interview with the author than footnotes. Which may not have been the intent but I guess I just want to point out that everything I got out of the story was in the story, not the notes.

Caroline: Oh, I know that’s how the digital comics are optimized. I just find the failure to make digital comics readable on a laptop baffling, since a lot more people still have them than have ipads. On the other hand, comics are the main thing that make me want an ipad, so probably I’m the victim of a vast global conspiracy to sell me an ipad. I will say I’ve read previous volumes of Finder in print and I did enjoy the footnotes, though I don’t recall relying on them for my appreciation of the story.

Sigrid: I think that just about wraps up our views on Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder: Voice. I have to say, this is one of my favorite books, from one of my favorite series, in all of science fiction and in all of comics. Not only is it a favorite, I think the book is genuinely brilliant — but none of that negates the criticisms you all have raised. I love Rachel’s selfish and un-directed meandering quest. It reminds me strongly of my own early-20s unwillingness to take responsibility for what I did. But if you don’t find her charming, then the story is not for you. I love the immersive what-the-hell-is-going-on quality of the Anvardian world. It makes me feel like I am a participant, not a tourist to whom things must be explained. But if you don’t like being a little bit lost, the book is not for you.

I know that Finder is for me, and I’m glad it’s there to be read.

What about you, Dear Reader? For those of you reading along at home, what did you think of Finder: Voice? How did you find Anvard, and Rachel Grosvenor? What do you think of the Ascians, the footnotes, and the quest for Jaeger? Did any of you read the book in a digital form?

Tell us what you think about Finder: Voice!