Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Devil's Eye by Jack McDevitt

Jack McDevitt has become one of my favorite writers in the past few years, with his combination of plots focused on mystery and discovery, his knack for the small but effective detail of setting or character, and his skill at including the mundane nuts-and-bolts aspects of events in a way that makes things more interesting and believable, creating a story of exciting events that still seems to take a place in a world where you can easily imagine regular people going about their lives.  The Devil's Eye is the fourth book in Jack McDevitt’s series about far-future antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his pilot and assistant, Chase Kolpath.  (Preceded by A Talent for War, Polaris, and Seeker.)  I’d personally recommend reading the Alex Benedict series in order, but each book is quite accessible on its own, including this one.

Benedict receives a strange and frightened message from Vicki Greene, a celebrated young horror author.  Benedict has never met her, but she asks for his help, and soon Benedict discovers that she is transferred a large sum of money to his bank account.  He tries to get in touch with Greene to find out what she wants, only to discover that she has undergone a voluntary mind wipe, a procedure usually used on unreformable repeat criminals that irrevocably destroys memory and personality.  Baffled by these events, Benedict feels obligated to find out why Vicki Greene turned to him for help, and just what it was that terrified her so much.

The search quickly takes Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath to the distant planet of Salud Afar, an isolated world in the galactic halo far outside the boundaries of the Confederation that unites most of humanity.  It has been only a few decades since the people of this world threw off the yoke of a brutal dictatorship that ruled the planet for centuries, and the nations of Salud Afar still struggle to escape either falling into chaos or returning to the old regime, still looked back on fondly by many citizens.  Meanwhile, tensions between humanity and the Ashiyurr, the only others sapient species humanity has ever encountered are growing, spreading fear across the isolated world.  There, under an all but empty sky, 20,000 light years from the nearest human planet, Benedict and Kolpath hope to retrace Greene’s steps and find out who or what drove her to destroy her own mind.

The Devil's Eye is an enjoyable entry to the Alex Benedict series, continuing its predecessors’ style of science fiction historical mystery.  The central mystery is intriguing and unfolds at a good pace.  Like much of McDevitt’s work, the story maintains a sense of groundedness, for lack of a better term, that is uncommon in science fiction.  The main characters are interesting but still relatively normal people with ordinary interests and concerns-I can envision them hanging out with friends or just puttering around the house on an idle weekend more readily than I can most fictional characters.  The same is true of the setting, aided by the fact that the Alex Benedict books are all narrated in first-person by Chase Kolpath.  This made me feel more immersed, and has the dual effect of both making the future portrayed seem more tangible and making Kolpath’s forays into places and events outside her normal experience seem more ominous and eerie.  In general, I like how McDevitt uses the first-person perspective, and he's good at incorporating seemingly inconsequential details into Kolpath's narration- her occasional asides about her world's entertainment and pop culture, for instance- that make the character more alive and more sympathetic.

The book is not horror, but much of it does have an eerie and sinister atmosphere.  The world of Salud Afar is an appropriately creepy environment, its night sky utterly black and empty except for a single star, the eponymous Devil’s Eye.  The planet’s society, strewn with the physical and psychological scars of a brutal police state that existed within living memory, gives the feeling of a “haunted” world, still living in fear.

The Devil’s Eye is like the first book in the Benedict series, A Talent for War, in that the mystery revolves around a specific person who the reader comes to learn about and sympathize with without ever “meeting.” I liked this personal aspect, as it gave more emotional punch to the secrets Benedict and Kolpath unravel.

The Devil's Eye is well worth reading for McDevitt fans, and for people who like science fiction with a strong mystery element.  I look forward to seeing what McDevitt does next.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

No comments: