Book review: The Devil’s Eye, by Jack McDevitt

12 11 2016

Jack McDevitt’s SF/archaeological mystery stories featuring Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath form one of my favourite SF series, but I’ve been reading them in a fairly haphazard fashion. (They’re sufficiently self-contained that it doesn’t really hurt to read them out-of-sequence, which I always think is a bonus for a series.) I reviewed Echo a few months ago; The Devil’s Eye is Echo‘s immediate precursor, but there’s no significant overlap.

thedevilseye

As The Devil’s Eye opens, Alex and Chase are concluding a holiday on Earth. When they return to Belle-Marie for the journey back to Rimway, Alex learns that he’s been contacted by Vicki Greene, a celebrated horror writer who—in some undisclosed fashion—requires Alex’s help, urgently, on a mysterious matter of life and death. But the message is four days old, and when Alex and Chase return to Rimway, they learn that Greene (a) is unreachable, probably permanently, (b) has recently returned from the isolated, edge-of-the-galaxy world of Salud Afar, and (c) has deposited, without any instructions, a large quantity of money in Alex’s business account. So, with no idea of what they’re getting into (and little enough idea of what they’re looking for), Alex and Chase head to Salud Afar for themselves.

It’s often difficult to predict the general direction of a McDevitt novel, even from halfway in (Firebird is an excellent example of this), and The Devil’s Eye is no exception, though by the book’s end the story can be seen, in hindsight, to have been well-enough signposted by clues hidden in plain sight. That said, there’s also quite a lot of artful, propulsive misdirection. I often feel, after reading one of his books, that I should feel cheated by some of his storyline léger de main, but this doesn’t happen, somehow: there’s ample compensation provided by what I might call ‘generosity of plot’. The stories are ultimately very well told, and it would seem churlish to not get swept along by McDevitt’s storytelling genius. The best way I think that I can express this is to say that his books manage more effectively to speak to the heart than to the head, which is unusual in a solid-SF context: while there are other writers whose universes are more interesting (and here I’d nominate Banks, Bujold, Egan, Le Guin, Niven, and Reynolds as examples), there are very few (perhaps, of those I’ve listed, only Bujold) whose worlds are somehow so appealing. I’m tempted to say that McDevitt’s books (of which The Devil’s Eye is a pretty satisfying example) are comfort-food SF, but that seems a disrespectful and a potentially misleading description. They’re retro, a bit too socially-simplified, and they sometimes (not always) lean towards the ‘cosy catastrophe’, but they are also extremely well-written and well-constructed (and, no, those two don’t always go together).

The pacing can seem odd: in The Devil’s Eye, there are portions of the Salud Afar sequence that meander, and the Vicki Greene mystery, set up as the point of the entire novel, is sorted so far from the book’s end that you’re wondering what McDevitt can possibly fill the last hundred pages with … and then, gradually, gently, he lets you know that you’ve been watching the wrong magician pull the wrong rabbit out of the wrong hat. His novels have a tendency to do that.

The Devil’s Eye is a good example of what has netted McDevitt sixteen Nebula nominations to date. It’s not my favourite of his novels, not even my favourite of the Alex / Chase series, but it showcases his abilities nicely, and it provides an excellent introduction to his storytelling, for those who haven’t encountered him before.

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