The title character of Santiago is a legendary outlaw in the outer Frontier of a galactic Democracy. The sort to which a thousand different acts are attributed, which everyone has heard of, but no one has seen. The sort of person everyone can pin their hopes on.
The story follows three characters who all have different hopes they think Santiago can make come true. The Jolly Swagman wants the vast collection of rare antiquities he's sure Santiago has. Virtue McKenzie (never has a first name been less accurate) wants to make her reputation as a journalist by finding Santiago and either get his story, or record his death. And Sebastian Nightingale Cain, who had been part of a series of failed revolutions before becoming a bounty hunter figures that killing Santiago would at least be doing something that mattered.
The book is ultimately about Cain, what he's after really. He's the gruff guy who's actually good inside, or the battered idealist. Not an asshole, but not going out of his way to help people. When he does help people, it seems to be in the hope they will stop pleading with him to do so if he does so he can have some quiet. Which is a motivation I found relatable. Still, when he throws in with Virtue or the Swagman, he tries to honor his side of the deal, in sharp contrast to those two who both sell him out at the first moment they think there's a better horse to back. Then when they learn they guessed wrong, they try to insist they're still partners with Cain.
Virtue seems to fare worst in the story. I don't think she's nearly as bad a person as the Swagman, and yet somehow I dislike her a lot more. Maybe because the Swagman is honest about the fact he doesn't give a damn about people, that they're merely potentially useful resources to help him acquire the collectibles he desires. While Virtue doesn't seem to take any pleasure from people being hurt, and seems constantly surprised that other bounty hunters are as compassionate as Cain, she also tries to carry this veneer or morality. Like there's some nobility to her goal which justifies using people and tossing them aside as casually as the Swagman does.
Also there's the fact she's presented as pretty incompetent. She bluffs a lot, and I kept waiting for her to encounter someone who either calls the bluff or flat out doesn't care about her threat and just kills her, but no dice. But she never has nearly as much information as she thinks, and half the time only seems able to stay involved in the hunt because certain parties think she makes a good decoy. Credit to her for leveraging that, I guess, but it's hard to be impressed by a character who's only actual skill is bullshitting.
Resnick had to go to some lengths to set things up so Cain couldn't simply kill them but I still would have found it more satisfying if he had. Once the characters reach Santiago, the end of the story is clear, but Resnick built up to it well. The entire process of Cain's pursuit of Santiago could be seen as a final series of tests or challenges to pass, to gauge his worth or mettle.
Resnick populates the book with a large cast of other characters, from other bounty hunters, to drug-addled artists, to corrupt businessmen, and so on. Each one gets introduced through a verse of some immense song created about the notables of the Frontier by a bard everyone calls Black Orpheus. Each chapter starts with a stanza, then the first page or two discuss how accurate Orpheus was in his song, as well as the circumstances of his meetings with the characters. And as this goes on throughout the book, it sort of charts the course of Orpheus' life as well, wandering the stars, meeting people and immortalizing them. Although Cain hates the song, since it stuck him with the nickname Songbird.
The plot moves at a brisk pace, and it's an easy read. I got through 100 pages one night, and when I realized I didn't have anything else I particularly wanted to do, I went ahead and tore through another 100. It's always nice to read something like that.
'"You're forcing me to insult you. the food is barely worth eating, let alone describing," said the Swagman irritably. "You're ruining what was a totally unmemorable meal to begin with."
"You owe it to me!" demanded Schussler.
"Later," said the Swagman. "It's tasting worse by the minute, thanks to your nagging."
Cain sighed, reached over with his implement, and picked up a piece of the artificial shellfish, after first rubbing it thoroughly in the cream sauce. he chewed it thoughtfully, then began describing the nuances of flavor to Schussler while the Swagman picked up his plate and walked back into the command cabin to finish his meal in isolation.'