by Jack McDevitt
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
With Firebird, the sixth novel in his Alex Benedict series, Jack McDevitt has his formula for the novel down pat. Someone approaches antiquities dealer Alex Benedict with a rarity to auction and in the process of researching its provenance, Benedict and his partner/narrator Chase Kolpath, uncover a mystery just begging to be solved. Despite following a formula, Firebird is not formulaic as McDevitt has also perfect his skills as a story-teller and breaks new ground with his characters and their situations.
In this instance, the plot is set in motion by Karen Howard, whose brother-in-law, celebrated physicist Chris Robins, disappeared more than four decades earlier. Howard is interested in selling off Robin's effects and Benedict agrees to the commission and sets about reminding the world of the physicist's quirky theories of multiple universes and his own inexplicable disappearance. In the process, Benedict and Kolpath uncover more mysteries and find themselves embroiled in a public debate over the sentience of artificial intelligences and the potential appearances of lost spaceships that occasionally seem to reappear, like Brigadoon. Each of their discoveries follows naturally from the investigation, even when they lead down different paths, and what seems like a major mystery turns out to be relatively minor.
Not only does McDevitt allow his characters to investigate and have adventures, but he also treats them as people. Over the last few books, Benedict seems to be playing a larger role in the narrative and that allows McDevitt to look more closely at the way the rest of the world perceives him...as a grave robber, an adventurer, and simply unethical. However, as the story is told from Kolpath's point of view, allowances are made for all of his actions, but seeing the alternative point of view adds dimension to the character. In Firebird, McDevitt also delves into the manner in which Chase entered Benedict's employment after working for his uncle, Gabe, an archaeologist who saw Alex in many of those negative terms.
McDevitt doesn't spend too much time on Chase and Gabe's backstory, which is another strength he has long demonstrated as an author...the ability to create complex-seeming worlds and characters that only hint at their complexity and the stories which are not being told. Often this takes the form of a cool idea which McDevitt could easily turn into additional books.
To McDevitt's fans, Firebird offers the familiar, but with enough additional layers that it doesn't feel repetitive. His story is fresh and he can explore new areas of the universe and characters, both of which have long histories which have only been hinted at in the books he has written so far. In Firebird, he not only postulates an intriguing mystery, but goes beyond to show societal change for his world. For those who haven't yet been introduced to his characters or worlds, McDevitt does an excellent job of introducing everything his readers need to know in a single book.
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