‘Firebird’ by Jack McDevitt starts in much the same way most ‘Alex Benedict’ novels do. Alex and his assistant, Chase Kolpath, come into possession of some artefacts and prepare to sell them. Alex Benedict is no ordinary antiquities dealer, however. He has an insatiable curiosity and he’s a salesman. While investigating the estate of the renowned physicist Chris Robin, Alex stirs up the mystery surrounding the man’s disappearance. This has two predictable effects. One, the price of the modest collection of books and artefacts climbs, which is good for business. Two, Alex gets involved, which is not so good for business. Without Alex Benedict’s propensity for getting involved, however, we’d have nothing to read.
Accompanied by Chase, who again issues warnings regarding his involvement and the danger to himself and his reputation, Alex chases clues in an attempt to unravel the mystery for himself. He and Chase visit Villanueva, a planet occupied only by abandoned and arguably sentient AIs, and rescue one. This act kicks off a chain of events that both demonise and humanise Alex Benedict in the eyes of the public and perhaps the reader. The true sentience of AIs is brought into question and explored from many angles, from cult-like groups bent on proving machine intelligences are real beings and should have all the rights and privileges of humans to the other end of the spectrum, the non-believers. In the midst of this, treasure hunters flock to Villanueva to attempt their own rescues and many of them die at the hands of psychotic AIs.
Separately, the mystery of Chris Robin’s disappearance deepens. The notoriety gained by previous events hinders Alex’s effectiveness, however. Basically, many who previously respected Alex now blame him for the deaths of idiots. They refuse to help him when help is needed and an important mission all but fails. A humanist to the core, Alex is deeply affected by all of this. But he perseveres, because finding Chris Robin might help him find Gabe, his long lost uncle.
Either plot could have carried the book, yet they work better together. Jack McDevitt made each relevant to the other as different aspects of the same mystery. Also, the matter of the AIs affected Alex in a way we’ve not seen before. We see a more driven and emotional Alex Benedict in this novel.
As always, I enjoyed the interplay between Alex and his assistant, Chase. If you’ve never read an ‘Alex Benedict’ novel, the majority of them are written from Chase’s point of view. She’s the perfect foil for Alex and is usually the one to add emotion and drama to a story. It was nice to see more of that from Alex, himself, in ‘Firebird’.
While the plot of ‘Firebird’ is wrapped up neatly, there is a mystery left unsolved at the end which guarantees I will be buying the next book. I would have bought it anyway, I’m a devoted fan. But, I don’t think I’ll be alone in hoping the next entry in the ‘Alex Benedict’ series re-visits the events of the first. I really enjoy his world, characters and his ability to write far-future Science Fiction with awesome scientific concepts in a manner in I can grasp.
(Read March 2012. Review written for and originally published at SFCrowsnest.com)