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Polaris by Jack McDevitt
Review by Ernest Lilley
Ace Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0441012027
Date: 30 November, 2004 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Alex Benedict is a shrewd dealer in antiquities, and Chase Kolpath is his right hand man, though she's a woman, a fact which the author keeps in the background. Chase is also a FTL pilot and a resourceful spaceperson, but the fact that she looks pretty good in an evening gown and stiletto heels manages to leak out in the course of things. They're invited to a private sale of Polaris artifacts because someone wants to meet Chase, and what they wind up with is more valuable than they can imagine. But not more so than someone else can evidentially, because mysterious break-ins, visits, and buyouts follow the few artifacts. Clearly, a mystery is afoot. More than one in fact.

I love a good mystery, and though a number of people have tried to concoct one within an SF story, success in the endeavor is rare. Asimov did a number of murder mysteries with his Dr. Wendell Urth stories, and one of my all time favorites is the scientific whodunit at the heart of Inherit the Stars by James Hogan. McDevitt has managed to combine both in one engaging story.

Chase plays Watson to Bendedict's Holmes as they cast about for the motive of the person or persons who is skulking around the artifacts. The mystery of the disappearing crew has a classic air to it as well. Though the most popular candidate for the agency behind the disappearance is super-advanced aliens, it wouldn't be the first locked room mystery to turn out to have human cleverness behind it...but you'll have to read the book to see what the answer turns out to be, if indeed it's uncovered at all.

The science side of the SF is pretty good, starting with an astronomical event that Poul Anderson would have been proud to write about and continuing on with the practical implications of FTL drives, population growth, and the occasional application of physics to cheat death in space. The character side is done fairly well, but everyone lacks intensity. I'd say that if the book has a fault, it is that of moderation, which it needs less of.

Alex and Chase are a good team and I'd be happy to have more adventures with them. I said Alex played Holmes, but the truth is closer to Nero Wolfe, with Chase a very likeable and attractive Archie Goodwin...though in heels of course. The only thing lacking here is some character quirkiness to make Alex really engaging. He's a bit distant, plays thing close to his vest and likes antiques...but he needs something more to make him a truly memorable character. Polaris is a fine first outing for the duo though, and here's hoping that we'll get to know both better in future adventures.

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