After reading top quality Fantasy books by the likes of Sharon Lee, Tanya Huff and Melanie Rawn, I occasionally wonder why I choose to mainly write science fiction. And then a book like this one pops up – and I know why this genre is my spiritual home…
The luxury space yacht Polaris carried an elite group of the wealthy and curious thousands of light years from Earth to witness a spectacular stellar phenomenon. It never returned. The search party sent to investigate found the Polaris empty and adrift in space, the face of its pilot and passengers a mystery. Sixty years later, Alex Benedict is determined to find the truth about Polaris – no matter how far he must travel across the stars, no matter the risk.
I’ve read a couple of McDevitt’s books and thoroughly enjoyed them, see my review of Slow Lightning here. So when I got the opportunity to scoop another offering off the shelves, I didn’t hesitate. Would I enjoy it as much? Oh yes. As ever, McDevitt takes his time to set the scene. There is a fairly long prologue where we are in third person pov, which swings around from passenger to passenger as they witness the death of a star. And even when the first person narrator, Chase Kolpath, takes up the story, you needn’t start bracing yourself for full-on action any time soon. Alex Benedict, Chase’s boss, is primarily a dealt in ancient artefacts and his increasing interest in the disappearance of the Polaris is a gradual affair. In the meantime, we get plenty of slices of Chase’s everyday life and her attitude and approach to her job and her boss.
She is a confident, outgoing woman who thoroughly enjoys her adventurous life – most of the time. I find her an engaging protagonist who manages to be involved in all the main events without coming across as an adrenaline junkie. It was also a refreshing change that there is no romantic relationship between Alex and Chase, so we don’t have to wade through any burning looks or longings in amongst the sleuthing. This adventure is where Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone meets Sherlock Holmes… McDevitt gives us plenty of routine, everyday details about Alex and Chase, which isn’t as mundane as it sounds, given that it’s set in the far future – and yet as the narrator is the junior partner and Alex tends to be the one who comes up with the brilliant insights, there is more than a touch of Sherlock thrown into the mix.
For a while in the middle, I began to wonder if the story would ever truly take off as they visited yet another character on the edge of this mystery about vanished passengers. As they were all celebrities in a variety of fields, Chase and Alex had plenty of dead ends to run down and red herrings to lay to rest. But I needn’t have worried – once they became close enough to the solution for the perpetrators to feel threatened, and they are suddenly under attack, the whole atmosphere changes and becomes charged with tension. I stayed up far later than I should to discover what happens next.
A slow-burn mystery like this has to have a really solid, satisfactory ending – and McDevitt absolutely achieves this. I didn’t see the denouement coming and yet it made perfect sense – I even backtracked, looking for the relevant clues that I’d originally missed, which for me is always the sign of a cracking conclusion.
And the icing on the cake, is that entwined in the mystery is a major moral question that we will be shortly having to face in reality – not in such an extreme way, but nevertheless we should be considering how we tackle such an issue, given that Earth’s population is growing at an increasing rate. Which is why I particularly love science fiction – the very best story encapsulates pure escapism, alongside a highly pertinent ongoing social issue that our increasing technological capabilities will sharpen into a moral or social dilemma. Great stuff!