Why is it that Jack McDevitt’s second novel, A Talent For War, is one of my favorite books, but the others I’ve read by him have been merely… okay? Talent starred antiquities dealer Alex Benedict, a resident of human space in the far future, unraveling a mystery of the great war between humans and the only other sentient species we’d discovered. The other Benedict novels – there are three more – follow a similar pattern, of Benedict and his aide/pilot Chase Kolpath traveling around the galaxy to unearth clues to a historical mystery, yet none of them worked nearly as well for me as Talent did.
The Devil’s Eye is the latest Benedict novel, and it covers similar ground: On the way back from a visit to Earth, Alex receives a message from popular horror novelist Vicki Greene asking for help, with the cryptic line that “They’re all dead”. But when they get back home, they find that Greene has had her personality wiped after transferring a large sum of money to Alex’s account. Feeling honor-bound to figure out what drove her to this extreme, Alex and Chase follow up on her recent activities, travelling to the isolated world of Salud Afar, a planet rich in ghost and horror stories, in addition to having come out from under the yoke of a brutal dictatorship just a few decades earlier. And they do discover what happened to Ms. Greene, about halfway through the book, at which point it becomes a very different story, one of moral conflicts and government cover-ups and appeals for help in the face of impending tragedy.
A Talent For War was a game-changing novel for Alex’s universe, and it’s difficult to do that in every story (and to his credit, McDevitt hasn’t tried), but it also makes it a tough act to follow. More importantly, Talent was both a portrait of a flawed hero – a hero of the past war, whose nature Alex had to figure out – and a story in which Alex had to make some tough choices for himself, even though there were some clues that maybe the mystery were better left unsolved. Talent is more of a character drama than the other McDevitt novels I’ve read, in addition to being an exciting adventure, and having some compelling vignettes sprinkled through it. It works because it’s the complete package, and McDevitt pulled it off with unusual subtlety.
The Devil’s Eye feels like it’s trying to recapture the power of Talent (the intervening two Benedict novels have been essentially straight-up mysteries), and mixing things up a bit by using the mystery to get into the larger story, in which Alex and Chase have to decide whether to reveal what they’ve learned, and then whether they can do more to help. (It’s difficult to describe the second half of the story without ruining the surprises of first half.) But unfortunately the second half is not nearly as interesting as the first half, and it felt very heavy-handed. There are some good moments in it, in particular Chase ends up being the hero of the day in the way that Alex usually is, but the machinations of the characters in the second half often felt routine to me, and the outcome seemed fairly clear from the outset. The first half, with its mysteries and atmosphere and moments of adventure, is much more intriguing and exciting.
McDevitt’s strength in the latter Benedict novels is that atmosphere, which is grounded in the settings of the places the characters visit, and their histories. That’s the case here, too, as the mysterious locales of Salud Afar are a little bit corny, and a little bit spooky, which I think is the intention. It’s the SF equivalent of a haunted house, or a local legend where no one’s quite sure whether it has any basis in truth or not. For example, the isolated village where a cyborg is reputedly buried and who rises from the grave to claim new victims, or the mysterious light in the Haunted Forest. The book’s strength is all the more impressive since Benedict’s universe is pretty low-tech for a far future novel (at least, a modern one), being of about the same tech level as Asimov’s Foundation books (McDevitt’s writing reminds me of Asimov’s from time to time, actually). The sense of wonder is in the world building, not the tech.
One of the weaknesses of the Benedict novels after Talent is that they’re narrated by Chase, whose voice never really rings true to me, and who I think is a much less interesting character than Alex. And Alex isn’t even a Sherlock Holmes type who’s best revealed through an everyman narrative; he’s rich and smart, but not truly exceptional, and being inside his head in Talent was much more interesting than seeing him from Chase’s point of view.
(Unsurprisingly, I said many of the same things in my review of the previous Benedict novel, Seeker.)
The book overall rates for me as “pretty good”, but at this point I don’t think McDevitt’s going to recapture the excellence of Talent. The Devil’s Eye has its moments, and the series is entertaining enough that I’ll keep reading them – mainly for the setting and the mystery (I think space opera mystery is an underexplored genre, and I wish more writers were working this territory). But his writing seems more geared for the mainstream than for the high tech SF fan, which isn’t bad, but I often think it could be more than it is.