- Alex Benedict Series (Book #1)
- Published by Ace
- First published in 1989
- Hard SF/Space Opera
- 310 pages
Alex Benedict makes his living selling antiquities, but when his uncle disappears, he is drawn into a mystery of historic proportions, with answers that will shake the foundations of the Confederacy . . .
I’m pretty generous when it comes to calling things science fiction. Got a spaceship? Science fiction. Got a robot? Science fiction? Got mad professors and wacky gadgets? Sure, you can be science fiction too. But some books are more science fiction than others, and Jack McDevitt’s books are what I would think of as proper science fiction. Stories of star-spanning empires, unknown objects of alien origin, and thorough scientific investigation. Books with big concepts, ethical quandaries, and answers that are found through intellect rather than brute strength.
A Talent for War kicks off the Alex Benedict (which this month grows to nine novels long) in style. Benedict feels like an established presence in his universe without the need for a steady drip-feed of backstory. Aside from a prologue that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense without the context of a mirrored epilogue, the story is told from Benedict’s perspective, so as he investigates the central mystery, we learn things at the same rate he does.
That central mystery is the resolution of a war two centuries earlier. Everyone thinks they know who were the heroes and who were the traitors, but as the novel progresses we learn that things are never truly that clear-cut. McDevitt does a great job of never fully telling the reader anything, allowing us to make our own interpretations from the scattering of evidence left behind in conversations and diary entries. As an epigraph lover, I particularly enjoyed the conflicting accounts given at the start of each chapter. Even by the end of the novel, it still doesn’t feel as though the full truth has been revealed, but we still have enough of an answer for it to be satisfying.
McDevitt’s writing can be incredibly dense at times. Not overly verbose, but like a concrete wall at which the reader must chisel. It’s a book that demands your attention, even as you struggle to get into it. Every time I put the book down, it took a chapter or two to get back into the swing of things. For some chapters, I was absolutely lost as to what was going on, but there was never a point at which I stopped enjoying it. And every time, the next chapter would suck me right back in.
It’s hard to tie A Talent for War down to any one type of story. It’s military SF, but the war happened long before the book starts. It’s space opera, but without the theatrics. It’s a crime novel, without any real criminals. It’s a story about diving into the depths of history in search of something resembling the truth, and perhaps the best version of that story I’ve yet read.
More by Jack McDevitt
The Academy Series #3: Chindi
Deeper Dive: Second Chances
When I read Jack McDevitt’s Chindi, it was because I was drawn in by the ideas, and hadn’t realised that the slightly less-interesting book beside it on the shelf was actually the first in the series. I didn’t enjoy Chindi for a number of reasons, and if it hadn’t been for someone gifting me a copy of A Talent for War, I’d likely not have picked up another McDevitt book. But on the strength of A Talent for War, I’m planning to read at least some of the other books in the Alex Benedict series.
I read a lot od different authors, but when I find an author I enjoy, I tend to hunt down everything they’ve written. Exceptions exist for non-SF genres and books that simply don’t appeal to me. No matter how much I end up enjoying Stephen Baxter, for example, I doubt I’ll ever read Flood. But when an author I enjoy writes a book that I dislike, I tend to put it behind me and read their next offering anyway. After all, everyone has a rough day here and there.
This philosophy also means I’m forgiving of authors when trying their books for the first time. Particularly if an author has a large back catalogue, I’m usually willing to give them a second chance. If the first Isaac Asimov I’d read had been The Gods Themselves, I probably would have left it at that, which would have been a great loss to my library. With that in mind, even though I didn’t enjoy Chindi, I gave A Talent for War a try, and it turned out rather well. Similarly, I’m still planning to try authors like Neal Asher again. My entry point to his work may not have been the best place to start, so why not revisit the Polity when I get a chance?