Review: Firebird by Jack McDevitt (5-stars)

Firebird.jpg

Jack McDevitt’s latest novel, Firebird (Ace, 2011), is the sixth adventure following Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath. Alex is a well-known antiquities dealer and Chase is his pilot and assistant.

After agreeing to look into the value of some objects that once belonged to the famous physicist Christopher Robin (who allegedly disappeared near his home and was presumably lost in the ocean), Chase and Alex uncover a series of events that Robin was investigating himself: sightings of unidentified spaceships that appeared out of nowhere and then faded away. Their investigation takes them to a number of worlds, including in which one of the worst disasters in human history took place. The world is dangerous now, those who visit don’t return. But Alex and Chase brave that world in search for answers. What they ultimately find–the why Robin disappeared, why the strange ships have been appearing and disappearing throughout history, will take your breath away. And what they do about it makes for one of the most nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat climaxes I’ve read in a long time.

Firebird is the best Alex Benedict novel yet and it just goes to show that as good a writer as Jack McDevitt is (see my review of Time Travelers Never Die), he keeps getting better. This novel presses all of my science fiction buttons: it’s got a fascinating mystery, big cosmological events, black holes, lost spaceships, artificial intelligence. While the story itself, told as always from Chase’s point of view, focuses on the mystery, it can’t help but reveal new facets to characters I have grown to think of as friends. At times, the tension is high between Alex and Chase and we get a glimpse of how they came together in the first place. We also learn more about the AIs in this distant future, and the subject of the novel allows for intriguing discussions of philosophical questions: religion, intelligence, and what it means to be sentient.

Jack’s keen sense of humor comes through brilliantly at times, as in this brief exchange between Chase and Belle, the ship’s AI:

I thought it would be a good idea to change the subject. “What books were you talking about?” I asked.

Oh. Chan’s Write On, for one.”

“Which is what?” I asked.

It’s a book about why you cannot learn to be a professional writer by reading books on the subject.

As always in the Alex Benedict novels, the chapter is headed by a fictional quote from someone in the history of the universe in which Alex and Chase live. My favorite quote was from Chapter 35, in part because I appreciate the philosophy and in part because I thought it tied in particularly well with the overall theme of the novel:

Intelligence and compassion are the heart of what it means to be human. Help others where you can. That is clear enough. But a Creator may well want us to open our eyes, as well. If there is a judgement, God may not be particularly interested in how many hymns we sang or what prayers we memorized. I suspect He may instead look at us and say, “I gave you a brain, and you never used it. I gave you the stars, and you never looked.” –Marcia Tolbert, Centauri Days, 3111 C.E.

The conclusion of the novel is absolutely breathtaking. I found myself on the edge of my seat, the same as I might be for a suspenseful movie or a close game seven in the World Series. Everything around me disappeared and I was completely and totally part of the novel. And the epilogue, down to the very last line, was so touching it nearly brought tears to my eyes. It is, in my opinion, one of those rare books worthy of a 5-star rating.

 

7 thoughts on “Review: Firebird by Jack McDevitt (5-stars)

  1. Thanks, Jamie.

    I’ve not read all of the Benedict books, so for me, or for someone who hasn’t read any of them, how accessible or practical is it for them to start here rather than, say, Polaris?

    1. Paul, good question. I didn’t touch on that in the review and perhaps I should have. Bryan Thomas Schmidt touches on it briefly on his review on Goodreads. The answer is that the book is entirely accessible even if you have not read any of the other novels. The series is a series in the Magnum, P.I. sense, not a serial, in the LOST sense. Just like you can watch any Magnum, P.I. episode without having seen the others, so you can read any of the Alex Benedict novels without having read any of the others. Jack uses a technique where he might refer to earlier events, but only in ways that don’t have an impact on the plot. (For instance, he might say something like: “Chase was reminded of the little encounter they’d had on Salud Afar two years earlier.” What the encounter was doesn’t matter to the present book. You could read about it in detail if you wanted by reading an earlier book. But often times, Jack does this anyway–referring to previous investigations–most of which are entirely fictional; there is no book covering that particular mystery. They are there to give some verisimilitude to the story. So no, you don’t have to have read any of the other Alex Benedict novels to enjoy this one.

      Of course the advantage of reading the other books–beyond the great stories themselves–is that Chase and Alex feel like old friends when you return to the m again.

  2. I’d entirely agree that the book stands on its own, but when I was reading it (click on link for my review), I kept finding myself wanting a full timeline of this universe, not just the time when Benedict and Kolpath are around, but the history they refer to throughout the six novels.

    1. Steven, I love this universe that Jack has created. I told him the other day that if I had my choice to visit a science fictional far future, it used to be the future that Isaac Asimov imagined in Foundation. But I think what he imagines in the Alex Benedict novels has overtaken that. And so I can see–as a kind of separate installment to the novels themselves–that it would be fascinating to have more details about the 9,000 or so years of history between now and the events in the novels.

      You make a good point in your review about revealing more about Alex in the last two novels and getting more of his worldview and how he is perceived by the world. That comes across strongly in Firebird. Also, there has been some tension between Alex and Chase in the last two novels and there is one point in Firebird when I squirmed uncomfortably at an exchange between Alex and Chase regarding his pursuit of this mystery (you probably know which one I’m talking about). It was like watching two good friends bicker with each other.

Comments are closed.