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FINNA by Nino Cipri3.5 stars

For a novella, Nino Cipri’s FINNA is as ambitious as they come. I’ve read entire trilogies that don’t aim to cover as much storytelling ground as this little book. Like many other novellas I’ve read from TorDotCom, part of me thinks it needed to be longer to give all of its ideas room to breathe. But it is a highly entertaining, often very funny story with some really heartfelt queer rep, and you can’t exactly criticize it for having a lot on its mind.

Ava is an employee of LitenVärld (Swedish for “small world”), a cog in the machine of a sprawling corporate entity patterned only just a wee bit after a well-known Swedish big-box retailer of snap-together home furnishings. Work is stressful enough as it is, and the fact Ava’s ex-partner, non-binary Jules, also works at the same location isn’t helping. One day, a customer approaches Ava and her manager Tricia with an unusual emergency. Her grandmother has simply vanished without a trace somewhere within the vast labyrinth of the store.

Cut to an emergency employee meeting, where we (and apparently the entire non-management staff of the store) learn that LitenVärld is an active hub for wormholes into alternate universes. It would appear the elderly lady got pulled into one of these. But no worries. Management has procedures in place for locating individuals who go missing through a wormhole, involving a handheld homing device called the FINNA (Swedish for “to find”). All that’s needed are two “volunteers.” You see where this is going.

So, I’m gonna say right from the jump that FINNA is an absolute delight to read. But its ambitions do render it uneven. For one thing, there are essentially three stories competing for the reader here. The first is a wicked satire of big-box retail capitalism and how it not only reduces both its workers and its customers to mere drones, but how it finds a way to reduce everything — even individuality — to an aesthetic in a catalog. The second story is a breathless adventure through parallel timelines into other worlds, which has a kind of Peter Jackson sweep despite the overall shortness of the book. And finally, there’s a disarmingly intimate and personal relationship drama which serves as the book’s emotional engine.

With so much that Cipri wants to offer, FINNA ends up with wild shifts in tone. All the comedy is packed into the first couple of chapters, and Cipri’s parody of the IKEA marketing ethos is hysterical. I especially loved some of the home decor options in the showroom, like Pan-Asian Appropriating White Yoga Instructor, or the Edgelord Dorm Room (complete with obligatory Tarantino and Fight Club posters). I also enjoyed how much Ava’s manager is a total Karen. But as Ava and Jules venture further into the uncharted territory through the wormholes, everything shifts to suspense, action, and even terror. The final chapters of the book are filled with melancholy, as Ava comes to terms with a great many complicated issues she has never properly examined in her emotional life.

Cipri’s primary narrative concern is with Ava and Jules, how they’re coming to terms with why they failed together and how they feel they’ve been failing themselves. The journey through the wormholes becomes a very personal journey for each of them, all about figuring out who they are, what they need out of life to be the best versions of themselves. In all these parallel universes, there are Avas and Juleses who live or die, who are happy or miserable, and in the end, it all boils to which you you’re going to choose to be… right?

We care so much about Ava and Jules — and, for that matter, the lady they’re searching for — that it’s all moving in the way Cipri wants it to be. But the book’s fantastical elements feel rushed, underdeveloped. We end up at one point in a glorious steampunk ocean world, where everyone is threatened by a cosmic horror. But it’s just a setting, with the monsters feeling like fairly boilerplate enemies, providing danger and menace that’s over all too soon.

But FINNA does have tremendous compassion for its protagonists, for anybody who has struggled with finding their path, whether it’s to a better life or simply to accepting themselves. The thing is, our paths rarely end up where we think they will. When you’re stuck in a dead-end job, being able to travel to other worlds for grand adventures on the high seas sounds like the ideal Walter Mitty daydream. Then again, it’s saying something that the story’s one actual sea captain ends up choosing the quiet comfort of family and domesticity. All you can do is make your choices and see where you end up. If a portal in your world opens up unexpectedly one day, just go.

Followed by Defekt.