Alex Benedict is an antiquarian. If you are unfamiliar with that term, look up American Pickers on the History channel in the United States. This is what Alex Benedict does. He finds old things collectors value and picks them (in today’s parlance) so he can sell them to the collectors who desire them. He is part historian, part sleuth, part archaeologist and, according to his detractors, part grave robber. This is the seventh book about Alex Benedict written by award winner Jack McDevitt, and is itself nominated for a Nebula Award this year. It is classic space opera. Here is the publisher’s summary.
Thousands of years ago, artifacts of the early space age were lost to rising oceans and widespread turmoil. Garnett Baylee devoted his life to finding them, only to give up hope. Then, in the wake of his death, one was found in his home, raising tantalizing questions. Had he succeeded after all? Why had he kept it a secret? And where is the rest of the Apollo cache?
Antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his pilot, Chase Kolpath, have gone to Earth to learn the truth. But the trail seems to have gone cold, so they head back home to be present when the Capella, the interstellar transport that vanished eleven years earlier in a time/space warp, is expected to reappear. With a window of only a few hours, rescuing it is of the utmost importance. Twenty-six hundred passengers—including Alex’s uncle, Gabriel Benedict, the man who raised him—are on board.
Alex now finds his attention divided between finding the artifacts and anticipating the rescue of the Capella. But time won’t allow him to do both. As the deadline for the Capella’s reappearance draws near, Alex fears that the puzzle of the artifacts will be lost yet again. But Alex Benedict never forgets and never gives up—and another day will soon come around…
This book was a very enjoyable read. It didn’t have any moments that made me drop my jaw in awe, but one of the two main plot arcs did take me by surprise. The ambush was very well done too. All the foreshadowing was there, I just didn’t put the clues together to come up with the correct conclusion. I am so cynical of certain character types I was sure one of them had done something nefarious. That sort of blinded me as to what was really going on, and when the plot arc reached its climax I was taken completely off guard. I can’t say any more or it’ll go into spoiler territory and that’s not what I do. I’ll just say, “Well played Mr. McDevitt, well played.”
The other plot arc, for this book seemed two novellas in one binding, had a couple of moments that put me on the edge of my seat impatiently waiting to see what happens. It was good old-fashioned risk suspense. It worked like this. The odds say they have a 90% chance of making it – providing all the assumptions are correct. It’s far from certain the assumptions are even valid let alone correct. The real odds may be less than 50-50. No one can tell with any certainty. Part of the uncertainty has to do with the nature of quantum mechanics. The other part in the fact no one has ever done anything like this before. That too was well played, though personally I’d have liked more good hard theoretical science in the arc – but that’s just me and this is space opera I’m reviewing.
I found no issues with the characters in the story. The main characters are well-developed after six previous books, but fortunately Mr. McDevitt did not drag me through the regurgitation of past events. This book stands well on its own. A few characters were stereotypical, but they were well done with just enough nuance in their mannerisms to make them real. At the end, I felt some of the stereotyping was done to mislead me as per my comment two paragraphs above. If that was indeed the case, it’s the mark of a very good writer. But don’t take me opinion as gospel. Just look at all the Nebula nominations Jack McDevitt has received in his writing career: no opinion necessary. He is that caliber of writer.
The issue I am going to take with this book is on the book cover. Not the art, but the quote by Stephen King. Jack McDevitt is not “the logical heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clark” – period. That Stephen King would say such a thing shows how much he needs to stick to the horror genre. When I see a comment like King’s, I remember reading the end of 2010: Odyssey Two. I am not exaggerating when I say it made me stop, stare off into the distance, and try to imagine what Arthur C. Clarke had just written. Then there is Issac Asimov whose uncanny ability to foresee how technology would impact human society awed a generation. Everyone knows his three laws of robotics, and that’s just one example of the man’s ability to logically extrapolate technology’s impact on the human race. Jack McDevitt isn’t either of these Sci-Fi giants. There is nothing scientifically awe-inspiring in this book. The science is fantasy for the most part, and relies on a benighted vision of the universe unsupported by current theory. Some would even say current theories have proven it can’t exist at all as described in the book. That is why I can’t condone the quote. I understand it’s not Jack McDevitt’s doing, and perhaps some of his other books are worthy of Clarke or Asimov. I wouldn’t know. This is the only book of his I’ve read. But the quote on this book’s cover is ridiculous marketing hyperbole. Had this book not made the Nebula list, that quote would have made me pass it by on any shelf. I prefer hard science in my fiction, and when I see an obvious space opera with a quote like that affixed to it, I know it’s just going to let me down.
But honestly, I don’t mean to run Jack McDevitt down. The quote is not his doing and I know authors very seldom get any say in the covers that go onto their book. Mr. McDevitt is a damn good writer. Books are about characters and their interactions, not technology or science. In that regard, his characters are first-rate and his plots purposeful. His wordsmithing is a pleasure to consume. Within those parameters, the quote is valid and you’ll definitely enjoy this book.