Firebird, by Jack McDevitt, hits all the right notes in this sixth book of the series.
Chase Kolpath and Alex Benedict, antiquities dealers of a sort in the far future, come in to the belongings of a scientist that studied fringe topics and disappeared one day shortly before a terrible earthquake. That disappearance lead some to believe a conspiracy surrounds his death/disappearance. Alex decides to stir up the mysteries surrounding the scientist to enhance the value of those items before selling.
As is his MO, Alex needs to find out what really happened. On the way, Chase and Alex find a planet abandoned by humanity but with still functioning AIs, some that have been running since the humans left seven thousand years ago. Alex starts a movement to rescue some of the AIs and reintegrate them into society. As they seek out the answers to what happened to the scientist, they also discover a solution to a problem that was plaguing space travel for millenia.
This installment in the Alex Benedict series is much better than it's predecessor, Echo. Echo was dark, and kind of depressing. Alex and Chase are growing older and their attitudes and sensibilities are changing with them. That theme continues in Firebird, but it's not nearly as dark. Alex continues to be a sort of Don Quixote, frequently finding new causes célèbres that he feels necessary to represent or help promote or help solve. That usually goes well for him in the end, but lately has been causing some strife between Alex and Chase.
The planet with the AIs, some running amok, reminded me vaguely of Asimov's Robot City series. And of Stephen King's Maximum Overdrive. Some of the AIs wanted to kill them, others just wanted to be rescued from the monotony of their existence. What's an AI, programmed to serve humanity, to do when humanity has abandoned it yet left it operating for thousands of years? Keep on going, or become resentful and eventually go crazy? On a side note: this plot-line would make a great off-shoot story where these AIs band together, build their own starships, leave the planet and start a war with the humans. Someone should write that. I'd read it!
My only complaint with Firebird is that the prologue teaser didn't get a resolution or a revisit at the end. It gets mentioned in passing a couple of times during the book, mostly just a name on a list; but I would have liked to maybe see a different prologue featured that would have been easier to incorporate into the ending. The ending itself was perfectly executed... in fact, I think the entire novel was just about perfectly executed.
Reading this book, I found myself comparing Alex and Chase with the Boss character in Krisine Kathryn Rusch's Diving the Wreck and City of Ruins. I could see these series taking place in the same universe.(I'd read that too!)
Chase and Alex live in a far flung future, some nine thousand or so years hence. Humanity seems comfortable with itself. Their world seems like a nice place to live. It's definitely a great place to visit - every year in a new adventure!
My rating: 4.5 stars out of 5.
Firebird, by Jack McDevitt, was provided to me by the publisher for review and is due to be released November 1, 2011.