The Devil's Eye

by Jack McDevitt

Cover image

Series: Alex Benedict #4
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: November 2008
Printing: November 2009
ISBN: 0-441-01785-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 374

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I have a tendency, in reading series, to read all of the books written to date and then to forget about the series and not realize that more books have come out. While I had been off reading the rest of McDevitt's long-running Academy series, I missed that he'd returned to the Alex Benedict series about a far-future commercial archeologist. This is the fourth book of that series, following Seeker, but like the others you can read it in isolation if you want. There are references to previous events, but none of them are vital.

This time, the story opens with a recorded message to Alex from a popular horror novelist, asking desperately for his help but leaving only cryptic hints on any details. Then, when Alex and Chase return home, they discover that she's given them a substantial amount of money, with no further explanation, and then has undergone a voluntary mind wipe. They're left with a puzzle that was clearly a matter of life or death, but for which they have very few clues.

Readers of previous books in this series, or for that matter other Jack McDevitt novels, know mostly what to expect: very conventional but non-military science fiction set in the far future with a surprising lack of significant social change. This is, like most McDevitt, essentially a puzzle story. Unlike previous Alex Benedict novels, it's more of a detective story than an archeological puzzle. Chase and Alex are investigating what's effectively a murder, and the first half plus of the book follows that pattern (albeit more quietly than most detective novels). This makes for fewer moral quandries and more fights and escapes than in previous books, and I don't think that's a change for the better. McDevitt isn't horrible at writing that sort of detective plot, but I prefer his SF or archeological puzzles more. The sense of deep history the archeology conveys is the best part of this series, and I wanted much more of it than the beginning of The Devil's Eye offers.

That said, stick with the story, since there's a lovely twist that transforms it into a much different, and much better, book. McDevitt doesn't stick with the detective plot all the way through; there is (as is foreshadowed at the start of the book) something much bigger going on, and that larger problem adds in the moral quandries and SFnal challenges that I was missing. It's a great ending, tense and dramatic and focused on some of the logistical challenges of large-scale SF that so many SF writers seem to forget. And I do like SF novels containing aliens in which humans are neither vastly inferior nor clearly superior, and where what humans consider civilized can look far different to aliens. The finale was sadly somewhat too predictable because of the obvious implications of otherwise-pointless scenes early in the book, but the path on the way there was still quite enjoyable.

Compared to the previous books of the series, I think The Devil's Eye was about average. It loses some of the sweep of history, but the pacing is tighter and more engaging than some of the earlier books. I don't think it's as good as Seeker, but it's about on par with the first couple of books, albeit with different strengths and weaknesses. I think McDevitt is slowly getting better at writing Chase as a believable female character, which is good to see. The world is still very strange in its obstinate familiarity, featuring a lack of technological change and a familiarity of social structure that seems quite unbelievable given how far into the future this series is theoretically set, but that's a general property of McDevitt books. Long-time readers are probably used to it by now.

If you wanted more Alex Benedict, this is more Alex Benedict: a bit slow at first, but with a satisfying ending. I don't think it will win any new converts to McDevitt's writing, but it's worth reading if you've enjoyed his other work.

Followed by Echo.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-09-11

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21