It’s been a while since I posted. Yes. I know. I feel guilty. So, you can stop giving me the ‘kicked puppy face’. I’m trying to get back on my game, but writing has fallen behind the last few weeks. Some silly nonsense about research papers and accounting mathematics.
Anyway, since there’s not much to write about on MY writing, I thought I’d try something new. (new to my blog, at least) Book reviews. Not the most original idea ever, but it has promise. And I promise only to review the really good stuff. Even better, I’m going to review books from an author’s perspective. IE, I’m going to tell you what I thought of the book as a writer, not just as a reader.
The book I read yesterday is a real stunner, so I’m going to start this new “Review” theme with it. With that in mind, enter “Firebird” by Jack McDevitt.
Oh. Yeah. Just bask in the glow off that cover for a minute. Remember what I’ve said about a good cover? This thing is the perfect example. One look, one hooked science-fiction reader. I was a gone goose. Mr. McDevitt’s cover artist, John Harris deserves a commendation on this one. Just saying.
Okay, one admission here; this thing technically cost me 27 cents at the library book sale. (actually, $2.27, cause I felt bad about only paying 27 cents, so I dropped 2 bucks in their change jar) However, I’d have paid the cover price for it (based on the cover and blurb), if I’d stumbled onto it in a bookstore, so I’d say it all evens out.
Now, I’d never heard of McDevitt before. The back of the book says he’s “the logical successor of Asimov and Clarke”. Since I’ve never read anything by Asimov OR Clarke, that didn’t mean much. However, I consider myself a connoisseur of sci-fi so I figured that I’d give him a chance to prove himself. (the fact that I LOVE interplanetary swashbuckling had NOTHING to do with buying it, NOTHING AT ALL)
“Firebird” was awesome. That’s all there is to it. Yeah, I’m biased by a love of sci-fi interplanetary adventures, but this was still amazing. I’ve read everything from Jules Verne to 1920’s pulp sci-fi to 50’s hard sci-fi to whatever-got-printed-yesterday. Mr. McDevitt, if all his books were as good as “Firebird” blows past all those and gets a place right beside Verne on my “favorite authors” shelf.
Now that I’m done with my “raving reader” impression, here’s what I thought of it as an author. It was… intense. It kept me on the edge of my seat through the whole book. Usually it takes me two days or so to finish a book this length, mostly because I can set it down to do other things. I read “Firebird” between the hours of 1:30 and 5:30 yesterday. For those of us who can’t count, that’s four hours. It takes a heck of a writer to hold my attention like that.
Without giving away too much of the story, “Firebird” is a space-mystery. It has an interesting style; it’s first person (mostly) but the story teller isn’t the main character. The story teller is the main character’s assistant. The only other book I’ve read with this story mechanic is Sherlock Holmes. Fascinatingly, McDevitt actually uses the same tricks as Doyle did, using the first-person situation of the story-teller to keep the us (readers) mystified without making us feel like he’s intentionally keeping us in the dark.
The main character, Alex Benedict, is an archeologist-turned-antiquities dealer. His career, while seeming at first to be fairly selfish (you know, the type who tries to kill Indiana Jones for the ancient crucifix?) but we quickly realize it’s not. Sure, he’s not averse to making a buck here and there, but as we find out as the book progresses, he’s a pretty good guy. He even starts a huge (secondary plot) movement to save AIs (artificial intelligences) abandoned on an ancient planet. It sounds ‘touchy-feely’ but his rationale is “They MIGHT actually be sentient. How would YOU like to be abandoned because you MIGHT NOT be a real person?” Pretty logical, actually.
Now, these two sides of this guy make for a pretty interesting story. Frankly, it’s not one I’d want to handle myself, as a writer, because it would be easy to do wrong. McDevitt pulls it off pretty well, though. Alex Benedict isn’t quite amoral enough to abandon possible sentients, but at the same time, he’s not so perfect he wouldn’t artificially drive up prices on antique. After all, if some billionaire is dumb enough to pay for the stuff, does it matter if their value is the product of Benedict’s press campaign?
As a writer, though, I found Benedict’s whole side plot about rescuing the AIs to be a hair tedious. It was interesting, sure, but it distracted from the real story. As it’s own book, it could have been made very cool, but it was like the two plots were fighting for dominance. They really should have been tied together at the end of the book, but they weren’t. However, the plots weren’t nearly enough to keep me from loving the book. They were just the mosquito in the room.
The other point was that it felt a little slow in places. Which is bizarre, since I was holding my breath the whole time. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or not. Through the whole book, you can feel Benedict’s frustration at not being able to move ahead as quickly as he’d like (he’s held back by politicians, skeptical scientists, and a journal he needs, but can’t find). The slowness in places DID make you understand his annoyance, so I won’t pass any judgements.
For the good stuff… McDevitt built a whole universe in “Firebird”. The book is (apparently) part of a series of books about Alex Benedict. They’re not a connected story, but more like Sherlock Holmes, or Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” novels (my mom loves those). Anyway, McDevitt packs bits of 7,000 thousand years of recorded history into “Firebird”, while dropping hints the whole way about everything that ISN’T recorded. I love novels with huge histories and lots of potential exploration, so I LOVED this. Even for someone who isn’t a raving fan of novel history, it would probably still be pretty cool; McDevitt managed to slip the history into the book just right. Benedict IS an ex-archeologist and is now an antiquities dealer (and finder), so being able to FEEL his excitement over his universe’s history is great.
The mystery he and Chase solve is very well executed. Hint; it’s about vanishing spaceships throughout history. It got blended with history, Benedict’s career, current (for the book) events, and even future events. There’s a healthy amount of crime solving, along with some good fights, and even a space rescue or two. The anticipation is murderous, right up to the big reveal, and that reveal is awesome. You can feel the stunned atmosphere when they figure it out. I was impressed; holding that level of suspense through a whole book is TOUGH.
If you want a fast-paced, action-packed, kick-the-door-down space adventure, this isn’t the book for you. If you want a steady-gripping, fascinating adventure with a mystery and sense of discovery, head for the nearest copy. All in all, “Firebird” was well worth the read (obviously), worth the $2.27 paid (it’s easily worth the cover price of the $8 paperback) and I’ll be picking up more of McDevitt’s books as soon as possible. If not sooner. Preferably sooner.