I’m going to admit an embarrassing truth right now — I actually do that child-like fast walk inside the bookstore when the latest Jack McDevitt book hits the shelves. Yes, I could order it from Amazon, but then I’d have to wait a number of days for the book to arrive and I just can’t do that. So, last Tuesday (New Book Tuesday for book geeks) I found myself hustling out of my truck, in the front door, and up the escalator to the sci-fi section. I won’t make a stink here about the fact that, for some reason, Barnes & Noble doesn’t feel the need to put McDevitt’s latest book on the New Release table just as I walk in the door — I’ve grown tired of wasting 30-45 seconds circling that table over the last five or six years. Now I just know better and head straight up the escalator, making a right, and bee-lining it for the new release sci-fi section. I did it for The Devil’s Eye, Time Travelers Never Die, Echo, and now… Firebird. I didn’t discover McDevitt until 2006 so I missed the first releases of many of his earlier works, including the first three books in his Alex Benedict series.
Before I get into Firebird, let me tell you this — if you love reading good sci-fi and you haven’t read a Jack McDevitt book, you’re really missing out. McDevitt has a number of novels (and short stories) that stand alone and are part of no particular series. In my opinion, however, it is McDevitt’s two series — The Academy Series and the Alex Benedict Series — that have a place of honor on my shelves. Most of the books that make up these two series have been found on the nominees list of numerous awards and a few of them are winners, including the novel that introduced me to Jack McDevitt, his 2006 Nebula Award Winner Seeker (Alex Benedict series). After reading Seeker, I began hunting down his earlier books. As with Seeker, I found myself typically finishing McDevitt’s books in one or two days which usually meant another trip to the bookstore. (I’ve since read just about everything he’s written, including his journal entries at jackmcdevitt.com and many hard to find short stories. Yes, I’m an uber fan.)
I’d like to try to avoid talking about favorites, but I can’t do that — I’m simply too big a fan of the Alex Benedict series to hide it. This series follow antiques dealer (and treasure hunter/profiteer to his detractors) Alex Benedict and his assistant/pilot, Chase Kolpath, as they chase down rare and exotic items that have been present at some of history’s most memorable events (some good, some bad). The stories take place around the year 11,000 (give or take), but what I love so much about the series is that given the 9,000+ years that have passed, humans remain human. The technology has advanced, planets have been colonized, and governments and civilizations have risen and fallen (not just human). Through the entire series (starting with A Talent for War in 1989), McDevitt has populated a series of worlds that make up the Confederacy with politicians, scientists, novelists, musicians, historians, pilots, and more. Throw out the interstellar ships and the antigravity vehicles and the AIs that are all a part of everyday life… and the stories that McDevitt tells could take place today. As you read his stories, the technology takes a backseat to story, and that is where this series really shines.
The most obvious theme for all of the Benedict stories (and most of McDevitt’s other series and stand-alone stories) is mystery. McDevitt is a master at creating them. With Polaris, for example, the story revolves around the missing crew and passengers of a luxury space vehicle. Sixty years ago, the Polaris was taking a group of well-known scientists and other celebrities (yes, scientists are often celebs in his universe) to witness a rare stellar event. The ship goes missing but is later found adrift with no one aboard. Alex Benedict gets his hands on some artifacts from the ship and he and Chase begin their search for what really happened to the ship and crew.
Other books in the Alex Benedict series have Alex and Chase looking for a 9,000-year-old spacecraft that left Earth with colonists who chose to keep their new home’s location secret or tracking down a stone obelisk with a possible alien language or trying to locate a popular horror novelist who has disappeared after discovering a catastrophic event in the making. With each and every book in the Alex Benedict series, McDevitt has set up a mystery that grabs you and does not let go until resolution at the very end of the tale. How he comes up with these mysteries, I do not know… but I do know that they’re enjoyable, well-plotted, and completely logical (given the sci-fi settings). McDevitt has made it well known that he’s a fan of old time mystery theater radio shows with unusual puzzles that most often are resolved with logic and rational explanations. He’s simply extrapolating his own unique mysteries to blend with an advanced technological society.
So, with all that said, let me give you a mostly spoiler-free review of Firebird, the latest Alex Benedict novel.
Alex and Chase are no strangers to the media — given Alex’s profession and a good percentage of the population’s disdain for what they see as grave robbery, matching up buyers and sellers of historical items brings with it a certain level of both celebrity and notoriety. And these two aren’t typically sitting still — Chase is an interstellar pilot, allowing the pair to frequently set off following leads on abandoned cities, derelict spacecraft, and all sorts of items.
Years earlier (explained in A Talent for War), Chase was employed as a pilot for Alex’s Uncle Gabe, a historian. Gabe went missing when a ship he was on jumped into hyperspace and disappeared, never making its destination. This doesn’t happen often, but given the number of ships over the thousands of years of interstellar travel… it’s happened before and will happen again. Alex inherited Gabe’s estate (and continued Chase’s employment), and all the stories up to Firebird have revolved around other types of mysteries, not missing ships. But that all changes with Firebird.
Alex and Chase are approached by a relative of a semi-famous scientist who disappeared 40+ years earlier. The scientist was on his way home (witnesses saw his arrival at his house where his wife was asleep), but his wife never saw him again. His friend (and ride home) was killed a few days later in an earthquake and was unable to be questioned about the event. The mystery begins to build as we learn this scientist was connected to theories and research regarding black holes, alternate universes, and… ghostly ships. Specifically, ships (often with strange, alien markings) that appear briefly to witnesses over the centuries before fading away and reappearing elsewhere centuries or even millennia later.
Alex and Chase agree to help sell some of the missing scientist’s belongings to collectors, but Alex being Alex, he decides to try to grow some interest (and prices) by investigating the scientist. As the investigation moves forward, the pair begin to discover much more about the scientist and his research that lead them to a planet with a catastrophic history and a group of AIs that wish to be freed (as well as some AIs that don’t want to let them go).
What happened to the scientist? Where do ships go when they disappear and don’t come back from hyperspace? What is the origin of these ghost ships that continue to appear? And are AIs sentient or not? These are just a few of the questions that are asked and (mostly) answered in Firebird. And, as with all Jack McDevitt mysteries, the answers are slowly revealed and leave me smiling and wanting more.
Now, after finishing Firebird, I have to say that this is my favorite of the Alex Benedict series. All the previous stories are excellent, but I think McDevitt hit a grand slam with this one. It’s got a huge payoff for sci-fi fans, and I’m still shaking my head and wondering how he pulled it off.
I’m always worried that McDevitt’s going to announce his retirement after each new release. Thankfully, it does appear that he may have left a hint that there’s another Alex Benedict story in the works. I know he bounces back and forth between his various series and stand-alones, but I just can’t imagine not having another Alex Benedict story to look forward to. (Of course, I have my fingers crossed that he may one day consider doing a follow-up to his stand-alone Time Travelers Never Die, a novel that you MUST read if you enjoy time travel tales… the plotting is unbelievably complex and after reading it a few times, I’m still blown away by the careful planning McDevitt had to do and the fact that I can’t seem to find any inconsistencies in the twist and turns.)
You do not have to have read the previous Alex Benedict stories to enjoy Firebird — really, any of the books in the series can be read stand-alone as McDevitt does a good job of not forcing readers to rely on knowledge of previous books and provides just enough background to get you up to speed. But if you wish to give the Alex Benedict series a look, do be aware that the first book in the series, A Talent for War, is narrated by Alex. All the remaining books in the series are narrated by Chase. McDevitt has stated in an interview or journal entry somewhere his reasons for changing the point of view, and I have to admit that A Talent for War is my least favorite of the series for just this reason — Chase plays the role (often) of Dr. Watson, and we (the readers) only have the information that she has, not the stuff that Alex knows (like Sherlock). Having Alex narrate the first story feels a bit strange during a recent re-read, even though the story and mystery it offers up is just as fun to read and solve. If you wish to read the series in order, the books in the Alex Benedict series are as follows: