Echo by Jack McDevitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is another solid entry in McDevitt's Alex Benedict series. Other than the first entry, they follow the same pattern. The prologue is a flashback to events driving the eventual mystery, then Chapter One opens with Alex Benedict, antiquities dealer, getting involved in the "present day" -- thousands of years into a future in which humans have spread across the galaxy. An object Alex investigates sparks a mystery, which leads to someone trying to kill him and Chase, his assistant (and the narrator). Eventually, they make a meaningful discovery that goes well beyond the original relic.
What saves this series from repetition is that the big ideas that each book centers on -- e.g. extraterrestrial life, longevity -- are treated in an interesting way, and the overall structure of the series is well-done.
McDevitt does have a tendency to repeat himself (not limited to this series, by the way). There are two staples, in my mind, of a McDevitt novel. Someone's plane is sabotaged, and...well, the other one plays a role in this book, so I won't spoil the surprise. But it's not done in the same way that it is in most other novels. And somebody sabotages something near a plane, so there's that. It may be repetitive, but it's not predictable.
Echo is another fine entry in the series. This time the story is centered around the search for aliens, which humanity haven't found in the numbers they expected. There is a subplot in which Chase begins to question whether she really finds fulfillment being the assistant to an antiquities dealer. It's somewhat understated, but it adds another layer to the character.
Ultimately, I think what I enjoy about the series is that McDevitt isn't averse to having the characters change the universe around them -- one book, for example, involves the discovery of a faster faster-than-light drive, which plays a part in later books. It may stretch credulity to have the same characters involved in a variety of such breakthroughs, but it's worth it to move beyond chasing after antique items, which the series would otherwise devolve into.
Nothing in the series has returned to the magic of A Talent for War, the first book -- the only one told from Alex's perspective, and a breath of fresh air when I read it -- but Echo is another in a long line of solid 4-star books in the series. I started a different book soon after reading it, but quickly downloaded the next Alex Benedict book, in the knowledge that I'd enjoy it more.
Echo was a nominee for the 2010 Nebula Award for Best Novel, but that's not why I read it -- I'm reading almost everything McDevitt writes. He has been nominated for Nebulas fifteen times (in various categories). Seeker, his only win, got reviewed on this blog in 2008. (Polaris was also nominated.) I would have preferred Polaris and Echo over the eventual winners both years, but that's mostly because of my disappointment with the 2005 and 2010 winners. That's not just because I'm a McDevitt fan -- he's been nominated for Best Novel an amazing 10 out of the last 14 years, and I am happy with the alternate choice in most years. I'm still amazed that A Talent for War wasn't nominated. It was early in his career, however, and that ties into my theory that much of the award is reputation-based.
I was surprised recently to discover that McDevitt is in his mid-70s. He's certainly showing no signs of fading in his talent, and I'm hoping that the series comes to a close before I find myself reading weaker and weaker versions, and has happened with some other SF writers. Actually, I'm hoping he manages to write long enough and well enough to be nominated for 10 more Nebulas.