A TALENT FOR WAR
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In the past couple of years, I've read all of Jack McDevitt's novels, from his debut, The Hercules Text, to his most recent book, Moonfall. One of the things I discovered was that while I've enjoyed all of McDevitt's novels, none of them are quite the novel I wish he had written. This simple fact was brough home when I read A Talent for War.
McDevitt has a (probably unintentional) tendency to give the impression that his novels will go in one direction and then take them in a different direction. Or possibly his background is so well thought out, that throw away lines, or subplots, or minor characters, have enough information behind them to make the reader want to see their story as much as the main plot of the book. While slightly annoying, this is, I've decided, a strength of McDevitt's writing since it shows the depth of his created worlds..
A Talent for War is the story of Alex Benedict, whose uncle, Gabe, was killed when the starship upon which he was traveling disappeared during a routine trip. Before Alex can claim his inheritance, Gabe's house is broken into and Alex is set on a course to recreate the amateur archaeological research which Gabe was undertaking at the time of his death. The resulting story is a mixture of detective story as Alex pieces together the clues and historical background as both the accepted history of this civilization is revealed and Alex begins to discover where reality may have diverged from the history which is taught in the schools.
McDevitt's weakest point in this novel is his depiction of relationships between characters and their motivation. Although the mystery of Gabe Benedict's research is interesting, McDevitt never really examines why Alex is willing to put his own life on hold in order to continue the research of an uncle he hadn't seen for years, particularly given the travel involved and Alex's own dislike of travel. Furthermore, Alex's relationships with his partners, whether Quinda Arin or Chase Kolpath, never really ring true. In fact the most interesting characters are the ones who have been dead for two centuries.
The mystery Alex Benedict is trying to solve surrounds Chrisopher Sim, the uniting force behind the Confederacy which governs human society during his time. A mythology has grown up around Sim similar to the mythology which has grown up around the founding fathers of the United States. As Alex delves deeper into the primary sources, he quickly discovers that Sim was not necessarily the heroic paragon of virtue the standard school texts make him out to be.
In this lies McDevitt's message. History has multiple levels. There is a surface history which can be taught quickly and which contains much propaganda, and there is a deeper level which frequently puts the "known facts" into dispute. In many ways, this is similar to the concept of "Lies to children" which Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen discuss in relationship to science in The Science of Discworld.
While A Talent for War is not McDevitt's best novel, it shows signs of the writer he is still becoming. Even where the characters flag, the ideas remain at the forefront and manage to place A Talent for War above a standard space opera or science fictional mystery.
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