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Firebird (Alex Benedict) by Jack McDevitt
Cover Artist: John Harris
Review by Ernest Lilley
Ace Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780441020737
Date: 01 November 2011 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

Ships that fade into view and then disappear before they can be boarded, or ones that vanish from sight and are never seen again are standard fares among sea stories. In Firebird, Jack McDevitt's sixth entry in his Alex Benedict stories, it turns out that space has its share of such phenomena as well. Benedict's talent for unraveling mysteries gets tested here when he delves into the disappearance of a fringe scientist and possibly his own uncle, an event that takes us back to the beginning of the series.

Ten thousand or so years hence, Alex Benedict is a dealer in antiquities, more Holmes than Jones, and Chase Kolpath is his Watson...or if you've read much Rex Stout, perhaps his Goodwin. In either case, Chase is the narrator, a bright, attractive woman who serves as Benedict's starship pilot, investigator and administrative assistant.

So it happens that when the heir of Christopher Robin, a fringe physicist who disappeared mysteriously forty years before, shows up to ask if Benedict would handle the sale of some heirlooms. It's Chase that talks to her, though she is more impressed by the fact that Robin had once written a popular song, and is surprised when Benedict turns out to be delighted with the prospect of this job . A famous mad scientist, a mysterious disappearance, talk about parallel universes...it's a story he can spin for the media to boost the worth of the pieces, and a genuine mystery that he can tease apart for his own amusement.

It seems that Robin came home one night after a trip with his starship pilot, but disappeared between stepping out of the flitter and reaching his front door. No witness saw the physicist, though a few saw the flitter arrive. True believers want to believe he crossed over to a parallel universe. The police wondered if his wife had done him in for philandering. His pilot might know, but he died the same night, saving children trapped in a freak quake. Cosmic mystery, or did he just walk off the edge of the bluff by the ocean his home was near, looking up at the stars rather than his feet, as distracted scientists are wont to do?

Knowing Jack McDevitt's writing, it could go either way, which makes the mystery more compelling.

The fantastic explanation, that his researches into crossing over to other universes, pulls at the investigation, and the pair dig into clues to reconstruct the physicists moves and thoughts. Along the way, those clues take them to Villanueva, once a paradise where the planetary population had ignored the knowledge of certain doom, and now a planet of broken toys -- robots and AIs -- are the legacy of the colony. The AIs have kept things going, but do not take kindly to visitors, and the planet is generally considered off limits.

It's here that the author picks up a second storyline, when Chase and Alex rescue Charlie, an AI who had been alone in the elementary school he has run for the past seven thousand years. Although some of the AI's have turned killer, Charlie is determined to see that the planet isn't abandoned, and that those who can be saved will be. Getting Alex to champion his cause, with its accompanying agenda of AI rights, does nothing for the dealer's street cred, except with fringe groups. In fact, this entire story is a sequence of opportunities for Alex to put his reputation on the line for wild ideas, and Chase's reluctance to be a party to it. As in Charlie's case though, once she commits herself, she's all in.

The Benedict stories are, as I've intimated, really more whodunits set in a star faring future than space opera, either high or low brow. Though I enjoy both of those forms quite well, this thoughtful armchair exploration is every bit as enjoyable, or maybe even more so. While I often race through tales of galactic war to keep up the rush the action provides, I find myself watching each word go by here, looking for significant bits.

McDevitt's future, generally looks like a cleaned up version of today, with a hint of pre-WWII England, which is part of its charm, though some might regard it as a limitation of the universe. The people are mostly reasonable, though not without passions, and the intrigues are on more of a personal scale than galactic.

The Alex Benedict novels are a bit less cynical than his other major series, about survey starship pilot Pricilla Hutchins whose character I like a lot. Hutchins' series is set on a future Earth as it backs away from space exploration, which is as sad a note in his stories as it is in our mundane reality. Benedict's is set after humanities expansion through the galaxy, and there are even some alien races in the mix.

One wonders how long the author has been plotting this particular storyline, since it goes back to the beginning of Alex and Chase's partnership, and to the first book in the series, A Talent for War. Before they met, Chase had been pilot to Alex's uncle Gabe, an archeologist that she'd been close friends with, until he disappeared on a ship that jumped into the void and never returned.

Though Chase isn't happy with the windmills Alex chooses to tilt at in this story, the lure of finding out what happened to Gabe is a strong incentive for her. How that actually turns out is hinted at, but we'll have to wait for another book to see what happens. Hopefully we won't have to wait too long.

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