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A novel by Jack McDevitt
(2008, ACE books)

An Alex Benedict Novel

After receiving a mysterious call to an isolated planet, Alex and Chase try to figure out what secret the woman who hired them discovered, and why she had her memory wiped.


-- First reading (hardcover)
November 19th to December 3rd, 2012


This is my first Alex Benedict novel, and I did enjoy it, though it was nothing spectacular. The author gives really good descriptions of all the places the characters go, and assesses the emotions of the people they meet. There is a mystery to solve in the first part, and retracing their client's footsteps was fun, but the most interesting part was their plot to escape captivity. I didn't think there were enough clues to solve the mystery, but Alex is apparently a genius, so that's what he's good at. The aftermath is pretty much as expected, but fortunately not as clean-cut as I thought it would be.

Spoiler review:

The book is written in the first person, from the point of view of Alex's assistant, Chase Kolpath, as is the usual way of writing mysteries. This is not a detective novel, but the main characters are determined to figure out what caused Vikki Green to voluntarily give herself a mind-wipe, when she was at the peak of her horror-writing career.

Not to mention that she left them with a small fortune immediately before getting the mind-wipe. So when they discover she had been to Salud Afar, a planet so far beyond the galactic rim that it takes weeks of super-luminal travel to get there, they decide to go see what had traumatized her so much.

There is much description of the planet and its two billion inhabitants as Alex and Chase arrive at the space station, descend to the surface and go to the places where Vikki Green had gone. Her itinerary was pretty standard, and they don't find anything special about the locales she went to see. Being a horror writer, she went to the local spooky places. This includes a haunted forest (where Chase thinks she sees ghosts or goblins of some kind), and a funny scene where Chase visits a cemetery alone in the middle of the night, where the grave of a long-dead serial killer opens up and a hand gropes around to try and get out. It is an obvious prank by the villagers, but it scares Chase half to death! She lodges a complaint with the authorities, but the townspeople feel that it brings in tourist dollars, so they won't be doing anything about it.

At this point in the story, the plot is pretty routine, as Alex talks with various people who did or didn't meet with Vikki on her previous visit. Most, if not all, of the people we meet were fans of Vikki's horror novels. At the same time, he and the readers learn about the political and social climate on the planet. Democracy has only been around for about thirty years, and heroes of the revolution are still around. The previous planet-wide dictatorship was pretty tough on the populace, but most still enjoyed the solitude, with a single star shining in the sky.

Things start to get rough as their shuttle is sabotaged out over the ocean, where shark-like creatures sometimes hunt. Chase chases them off with her disrupter gun until they are rescued. But when they've poked around too much, they are picked up by authorities and brought to a solitary house somewhere probably close to one of the planet's poles. They are left at the house for several days, awaiting their fate, which is very likely to be a lineal block to erase their memories of whatever they might have learned. They conclude this was what happened to Vikki Green, and rather than live with one suppressed memory, she decided to have her entire memory erased, including her personality!

Of course, Alex and Chase concoct a brilliant strategy to get out of the house when the authorities come back to perform the procedure (dropping rocks from the ceiling, no less), and escape, but are forced to crash the shuttle when the AI turns them around.

Alex is eventually picked up again, and Chase manages to arrange for a taxi she hired to get into the stratosphere, where she is rescued by people from the space station. From there, she uses a contact to get in an inter-stellar tour ship so she can visit the asteroid Vikki Green had visited just before she left Salud Afar. And when she visits the monument set up by the long-dead cult members who died 33 years earlier, Chase uncovers the Big Secret: the single star in Salud Afar's sky, Callistra, went nova centuries ago, and it is gone from the sky as seen from the asteroid, which is light-years away. She discovers that a giant gamma ray burst is on its way toward Salud Afar, and will hit the planet in about three years.
I always like the way this author puts the science into his science fiction novels. Here, they travel back and forth faster-than-light, until they reach points where they can, then can't see Callistra, giving them a timeline for when the star went nova and shed the gamma ray burst -because time is distance, also.

There follows a plan to alert the government leader, who apparently has no idea this was being kept secret from the general population, and the attempts to kill Alex and Chase on the part of the people who were hiding the Big Secret. The reaction on the planet is typical, with people trying to get off-world as soon as possible, riots in the streets, a program to get kids off-planet first, and so on. This is seen from a rather detached point of view, as Chase is only watching it from the space station, as her ship gets taken over by the government for its relocation program.

Fortunately, Chase has connections. Not with the Confederation or the government of Salud Afar, but with the Mutes, the only other intelligent civilization as-yet discovered in the galaxy. I like the way the Mutes are described as being completely hideous, even to the point of triggering an evolutionary revulsion in humans.

So the third part of the book (the first being the mystery, the second being their captivity and the journey to the asteroid) takes place on the planet of the Mutes, where Chase and Alex know that the aliens are just like humans -they don't want war, but they believe their government when told that humans are barbaric and uncivilized (they can't understand why humans are so unenlightened and war-like, while they can't bring themselves to solve the war with humans, or sit down to talk it out, either). The Mutes communicate telepathically, and I would be interested in reading an earlier novel where they are less well-known (it seems that Chase stole something from one of the museums in possibly the previous book -the curator of that museum is now a friend, and even visited Atlantis on Earth with them in the first chapter of this book).

Things are mostly out of their hands, handled by the bureaucrats from the Mutes and Salud Afar. They call for a cease-fire so that the Confederation navy can use its full resources to evacuate Salud Afar, instead of being on constant border watch for Mute invasions. Though they do get the cease-fire, the Confederation only sends twelve ships, not trusting the Mute intentions. Chase gets an interview, scolding both sides, but mostly the Confederation government, and that triggers something. When she and Alex get back to Salud Afar, she takes her ship to help kids get to the safe Haven planet, and misses the Big Effort. When she gets back she finds that the Mutes have dedicated their entire fleet to the evacuation effort, and to creating a shield wall of asteroids to protect the planet from the gamma ray burst. Due to that show of support, the Confederation also sends the rest of its navy.

In the meantime, the rest of the conspirators hunt down Chase and Alex, trapping them in their hotel room, but are ultimately defeated by some clever trickery.

Like the other novels by this author, this one was good, and had some really interesting plot points, as well as real science. Like the others, though, the book was steady without the real excitement of a true adventure. It had some action, but didn't rise up to the point where I really wanted to read it on into the night, for example. I will continue to read books by this author, if only for the cool space adventures and the actual science included in the science fiction. But he's not the most engaging author I read.


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