Dec 26 2008 1:41pm

Review: The Devil's Eye

Thousands of years in the future, a young and promising horror novelist voluntarily wipes her mind for unknown reasons—just after she hires Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath to explore the mystery of disappearances on the distant world of Salud Afar, where there’s just one star in the sky... and a deadly secret.

Jack McDevitt’s The Devil’s Eye is not about the mystery. Or rather, the story doesn’t simply begin with the mystery and end with its solution as mysteries generally do, whether inside or outside the SF/F genre, but becomes a much larger narrative that encompasses two species in conflict throughout the Alex Benedict series: the humans (natch) and the towering, insect-like, intrusively telepathic Ashiyyur. Most detectives don’t get involved in showy international, much less intra-galactical, issues; but then Alex and Chase, thanks to Alex’s penchant for digging into cultural nooks and crannies that turn out to be entire keystones of civilization, are not your typical pair of detectives.

When the mystery is solved a little over halfway through the book, the resulting political fallout terrifies everyone—as well it should, because it’s not just politics, but the lives of an entire world at stake. The fact that this world, though now democratic, has had disagreeable and deadly politics in the past (on the level of a corrupt South American dictatorship) makes things rather harder. At this point, most mystery stories generally leave it to the equivalent of Scotland Yard or their superiors to pick up the pieces after the political bomb explodes across the ether. Alex and Chase could have easily done the same, wrapping up with some sort of epilogue that conveniently skips over to a moderate resolution that begins "Years later on Salud Afar....[insert summary here]."

Instead, they—more or less voluntarily—get involved in the messy and nearly impossible efforts to save a world from a threat that has been spectacularly covered by Death from the Skies!, which drags in the rest of the Human Confederacy and the Ashiyyur Assemblage, both of whom refuse to stand down their offensive fleets as would be required to actually deal with the problem of Salud Afar. The story is in the best tradition of science fiction, especially SF in the military range, The Devil’s Eye reaches beyond what you might think a SF mystery would be after all the Sherlock Holmes in the 23rd Century anthologies.

The world of Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath is well-drawn and quite real—perhaps because save for some advances that wouldn’t be possible in even a mere two hundred years, like this dimensional drive stuff, their world is quite like our world. People are the same, everything is fairly understandable, everyone still gets addicted to the internet, though it’s rather more 3D than today, and artificial intelligences are powerful but have remained tools. It’s a scaled-down vision of what people like to think the future is—there is no Singularity, and nobody is uploading themselves into the matrix or turning into clouds of nanomachines. This disappoints some people and has others declaring McDevitt a hard SF virtuoso, but both miss the point.

Such a world—a realistic SF world, as we in the 21st century can imagine actually interacting with—filters out fancy SF distractions in favor of the one driving issue of this entire series: what happens when humans, after getting enough under their technological belt to conceivably explore the galaxy, meet another and entirely alien race. We aren’t even calling for multiple alien races here, just one—and the difficulties of diplomacy between two species that couldn’t be more different justifiably occupy more than one book, or even a couple books. It’s an ever-evolving dynamic that informs the stories, and after all, Alex is an archaeologist: someone who spelunks in cultures, rather than one who takes advantage of cultures as a diplomat would.

There is one large weakness in the book, however: Chase, for all her qualities as a no-nonsense kind of woman you really want on your side when the skimmer has decided to fall from the sky into an ocean full of swimming teeth, is a boring narrator. She has almost no personality, rarely describes anything in terms of how it relates to her, and is detached for a good quarter of the novel. If it weren’t for Alex, they wouldn’t be anywhere near Salud Afar. She doesn’t even strongly want not to be involved. She has a lover she sort-of unconvincingly cares for—maybe. She drinks and parties with less enthusiasm than Keanu Reeves. Through her lens, Alex’s personality quirks are summarized and rarely demonstrated. The book stagnates until at one point, fortunately only about eight (short) chapters in, she does decide to care. Until then, it relies on the energy from its prologue—stunningly written and, tellingly, not from her point of view—to keep interest going. I have no doubt that she’s written accurately, but even when enthusiastic she’s a bit cold.

In the end, I love the scope and range of the story and the series, and more or less don’t want to read anything narrated by a bored Chase again, but her narration comes with the package deal.

Now for the Kindle Bit

There’s little special about the Kindle edition, except for two things: a demonstration of the usefulness of the “text” guide in the metadata, and one small mistake.

When you open a book for the first time on the Kindle, the first page you see is the one referred to by the “text” guide, also known as “Start Reading.”

Unlike many Kindle books, the table of contents is pushed to the beginning (location 1 is always the cover if present), and the “text”guide falls first onto the title page. This way the reader also gets to see the acknowledgement, dedication, etc., without skipping over into Chapter One and without having to page through the table of contents. An excellent use of this often over-looked guide, with one error in this case: they forgot to put the rather important prologue in the table of contents.

Samantha Brandt
1. Talia
McDevitt has swiftly become one of my favorite sci fi authors. He's quite good at the apocalyptic-type scenarios (which have sprung up a number of times in his various books, but I suppose that's par for the course in sci fi, to some degree. Works for me) In general I think I prefer his Priscilla Hutchins books more, though.. and she's a much better character than Chase Kopath (although I wasn't particularly bothered by her narration myself).
Arachne Jericho
2. arachnejericho
I think it takes a lot of good work to bring about a reasonable close to apocalyptic death from the skies, and McDevitt does work there for me. Usually it's interspecies war or things that man stumbled into which he ought not to have messed with in the first place, but what happens to Salud Afar is raw cosmic uncaring Nature in space in her finest fury.

Kind of like the far future equivalent to category 5 hurricanes today.

I'll definitely have to check out his Hutchins books. The man can write, and write large, and a better narrator than Chase would be awesome. Thanks for the recommendation!
Sandi Kallas
3. Sandikal
I've only read one of McDevitt's books with Chase Kolpath as a narrator--"Polaris". The story was very exciting and interesting, but I just hated Chase Kolpath and have vowed to never read another one of these books. I think McDevitt would have done much better to have Alex Benedict as the narrator.
Arachne Jericho
4. arachnejericho
Sandikal, I agree---Alex would likely be much more interesting as the narrator.

Usually the reason why authors write from the "non-star" position in a detective team duo is to keep information from the reader (because the star is so bright he or she is incandescent and would reveal all long before the story ends). And if the star is very self-centered (as in the case of Holmes, Wolfe, etc), they often don't make good narrators because they don't connect well to other people. (In fact, I think that's a large part of the problem with Chase.)

But neither is the case with the Benedict series.

The mystery isn't the most important part of the story; the fallout and conditions surrounding the mystery are, to the extent that I almost don't consider this series "SF mystery", because a lot of the story's excitement occurs after the mystery is solved.

Also, in the Chase-Alex relationship, Alex is much more sympathetic to others. In a way, it's an inverse of the Holmes-Watson relationship---Chase is the one who can often be cold and very stilted with other people, but isn't the deductive brains of the outfit; whereas Alex is both warm *and* the brains.

The dynamic can thus be very, very weird and off-putting.
Sandi Kallas
5. Sandikal
What really bugged me about Chase in "Polaris" was how she was constantly talking about how good she looked and comparing herself to other women. In my experience, even the most beautiful women tend to think they are less beautiful than they are. I liked her best when she was doing things like flying sabotaged spacecraft.
Arachne Jericho
6. arachnejericho

Yup, Chase is at her best in immediate-life-and-death situations; action sequences are very much her forte. She comes to life.

Anything that starts to touch upon the human connection, bit less so.
Blue Tyson
7. BlueTyson
Yeah, I can definitely recommend the Hutchins/Academy books too, AJ. If you like others, you should definitely like those I would think.
8. Rascal
For those who are put-off by Chase's narration, you may want to check out the first Alex Benedict novel, A Talent for War (1989), in which Alex serves as narrator and Chase is merely a somewhat minor supporting character.

In my case, I started with Seeker (the 3rd Alex Benedict novel), then went back and read A Talent for War and Polaris. Personally, I found the switch to Alex as a narrator very jarring at first. However, unlike some, I generally find Mr. McDevitt's books a little slow in the beginning such that I often have to stay with it until I become caught up in the story, which (almost) always is worth the effort. Therefore, my initial difficulties with Alex as narrator wasn't a major issue.

In retrospect, I can't say I found Alex a more interesting narrator than Chase -- each have the positive and negative aspects. However, it was very difficult to reconcile the portrayals of Alex in Talent with Alex as portrayed in the subsequently written but previously read Seeker.

Thanks for reading.
Arachne Jericho
9. arachnejericho

Thank you for the thoughtful comment and the recommendation!

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