Firebird

by Jack McDevitt

Cover image

Series: Alex Benedict #6
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: November 2011
Printing: October 2012
ISBN: 1-937007-80-4
Format: Mass market
Pages: 357

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Firebird is the sixth book in the Alex Benedict series about an antique hunter in the far future (albeit a far future that looks exactly like 1960s suburbia, but with spaceships). This is a very episodic series, though, and I don't think it would be hurt much by starting in the middle. There are references to earlier investigations, but they're fleeting, and I often didn't map them to remembered plots even though I've read the whole series to this point.

The investigation in this book starts with the heir to an estate coming to Alex to sell some of the possessions of a physicist. Chase (Alex's assistant, and here, as in the last few books, the viewpoint character) doesn't even recognize the name, but Alex does: Christopher Robin disappeared forty-one years earlier, under circumstances that were never fully explained. He was also (and unusually for a physicist) interested in strange and marginal ideas: dark energy, new drive technology, parallel universes one could potentially cross into, and similar fringe concepts.

The normal pattern of this series is that Alex will hear about some mystery, be unable to restrain his curiosity, and start poking around, usually turning up things that people would rather he didn't. It takes a while for that to happen here; instead, the story starts with Alex playing up popular interest in Robin's ideas in a rather mercenary attempt to increase the value of the estate. He stumbles into more mystery mostly by accident. Eventually he can't resist the allure of a revealed link between Christopher Robin and sightings of mysterious disappearing starships and the normal pattern kicks in, but he spends rather more of the book than normal being flippant and slightly unethical.

I didn't much like the shift in tone. Alex is a lot harder to like this book, and not just for his business practices. His tone towards Chase also moves past the slightly superior smugness that's common to many books of this type (think Nero Wolfe) and well into condescending ass. Some of this may be intentional, as McDevitt uses this book to bring out a bit more of Alex and Chase's past and has some story reasons for making Alex less of a saint. But some of it feels accidental, or unnoticed, and it left a bad taste in my mouth.

As with a lot of McDevitt, the actual mystery is slow, a bit scattered, and has a fair number of blind alleys. That property makes these books feel more like real investigations, but it works better when the characters are fully engaged in the investigation and are communicating a bit better than they are here. The plot also gets entangled in a subplot about a planet full of abandoned AIs, and while that was moderately interesting, it felt like an extended digression with dubious relevance to the main plot. McDevitt occasionally has trouble with plot focus, and I think I noticed more this time because the characters weren't as fun to spend time with.

The end of Firebird was up to the usual standards of this series, albeit surprisingly traumatic. The rest of the book, though, felt markedly weaker. Alex decided to be obnoxious and play into his (previously mostly inaccurate) public perception as a money and glory hound. Chase seemed too flippant, uninterested, and a bit too much of a foil instead of a partner. And the plot felt like two different story ideas awkwardly smushed together.

I think this was the weakest of the series to date. Hopefully the next book, which looks to be more of a direct sequel to this one, will improve.

Followed by Coming Home.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-10-14

Last modified and spun 2016-07-03