Firebird is the sixth book in Jack McDevitt's "Alex Benedict" series. As such, its protagonists and setting should be quite familiar to anyone who has read earlier Benedict books; and if you haven't, then let me tell you that that isn't a good book to start with. The first Benedict book A Talent for War is also (in my opinion) still the best. These are science fiction puzzlers - whodunits with an archaeological twist. Historical detective work that happens to take place nine or so thousand years in the future.
If you're a Benedict reader already and just want to check in on the latest installment, then keep reading. If you're not, while there aren't really spoilers in here, you'd be better served going to the beginning.
Okay. If I had to pick a word to describe this book, as a reader of the series, it would be 'familiar.' I'd actually also pick 'different,' though, because the book slightly is. As most of the books are, it's told from the first-person viewpoint of Alex's partner/employee/pilot Chase Kolpath. The familiar part first: she and Alex are approached early on by a woman who would like to sell some items she inherited which belonged to her sister's ex-husband. He was a physicist, albeit a rather fringe one, and died a couple of decades previously under slightly mysterious circumstances.
Alex, being the canny businessman that he is, decides to look into his disappearance a bit, because every bit of publicity will help the eventual price of the artifacts his client would like to sell. And, as usual, he and Chase get pulled into a mystery.
The problem is that they get pulled into two, really. One is the main plot element of the book, and no, I'm not going to spoil it. The other is something they get dragged through on the way, and although it's only tenuously connected, Chase and Alex get involved in it very publicly. Benedict, in fact, becomes the 'public face' of it, and as a result, several bad things happen. Okay. So far so good. Why is this an issue?
It's an issue because it becomes apparent that the only real reason this secondary plotline exists is so that the controversy Alex stirs up show up to ensure he has difficulties later on, when dealing with the primary plotline. That's about it. And worst of all, the reasons he gets involved in the secondary issue are...out of character. Alex is a bit of a gallant, as readers of the series know - he's not a hero, and he's extremely pragmatic. The only things that really motivate him other than profit (profit here defined broadly) are either damsels in distress, or very clear public causes where, if he succeeds, there is no doubt that he'll be lauded. In fact, during the course of this book, he is publicly lauded for actions in a previous book - just to make that point.
But here, he gets pulled into an entire storyline just to set up a bit of a confrontation later - and the reason given for his getting involved appers to be essentially pure altruism or moral discomfort. But it's not a situation in which a single human life is at risk. So the book feels very different from its predecessors, and not really in a good way.
See, Firebird is a perfectly good yarn. It's got an interesting (main) premise - one which is even spiced up by connections to the series' origin and prior stories. But for all that, it feels a bit like it's going through the motions. Alex's actions, Chase's misgivings, the moments of I-told-you-so danger, the jousting with public opinion - these have all happened, like clockwork, in the prior novels. And they're not really as gripping, this time around, because they're so familiar, and come in such a familiar order. Chase goes to look around the site of a historical event; she tries to get information out of folks about something that happened decades before. It's made clear to us that the target was onto something interesting/big/important, and we watch as Chase and Alex try to figure out what it is.
If you like the bit-by-bit reveal of a story, or if you like watching patient detective work even in the absence of a real adversary other than time and lack of clues, then this will appeal. If you like McDevitt's vision of humanity as a galactic civilization (albeit to me, I must admit, a slightly boringly familiar humanity for being nine thousand years ahead!) then this will appeal.
I dunno. I enjoyed the read. But given the choice, I'd buy it in paperback next time.
Firebird (Alex Benedict #6)
Ace Hardcover Edition, November 1, 2011 384 pp.
ISBN-10: 0441020739/ISBN-13: 978-0441020737