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.