In Retro Review: Polaris

I loved this book and must read more of McDevitt's adventures with Alex Benedict.

Polaris by Jack McDevitt

Published by Ace, November 2004. Paperback edition of 385 pages published at $7.99 in November of 2005.

The cover: The painting for this cover shows a ship being buffeted by a electrical blast that runs horizontally through the image. The ship is not the Polaris but a vessel that appears at the end of this book. To go into specific detail about what’s occurring and who’s onboard would spoil a major sequence, suffice to say this is a ship having a hard time in space. At the top and the bottom of the piece, almost out of the reader’s eyes, are symbols. What those symbols say are key components to the mystery of this novel. The art is by John Harris and the design is by Rita Frangie. This illustration is typical of most spaceship centric images of the late Sixties and early Seventies. I like it. Overall grade: A-

The premise: From the back cover, “Sixty years ago, the space yacht Polaris was found deserted, the fate of its pilot and passengers a mystery. Now, to mark the anniversary of the disappearance, there is to be an auction of what was left behind on the ship. Using his insider knowledge, Alex Benedict, one of the preeminent antiquities dealers in the Galaxy, secures some of the artifacts. But then an explosion destroys most of the collection, convincing Alex that drastic measures are being taken to hide what happened aboard the Polaris. Which is what that’s exactly what he has to find out — especially if it means rising his life…” I’m on fire to read this. Science fiction, archeology, and a mystery in one novel? Oh, I’m ready! Overall grade: A+

The characters: Alex Benedict is the CEO of Rainbow, an archeological business that finds and sells artifacts to the highest bidder. He’s a bit of a curmudgeon, but is able to schmooze practically anyone. Rarely does he come up against an obstacle that he can’t solve by thinking outside of the box. Money is nice for him, but it’s the discovery and keeping a piece or two that he lives for. His workforce consists of Chase Kolpath, who is also the narrator of this novel. She was once involved with him, but they’ve both grown beyond that time and are still able to work well together. Where Alex is the brains of what to do and where to go, Chase is the one with the knowledge of tech, which enables them to acquire their artifacts and save their skins more than once. She’s able to read her boss without dialogue and she allows the reader to see what would most likely be missed in a given situation. Winetta Yashevik is the archeological liaison with Survey, the branch of their world that deals with deep space finds. She went to school with Chase and is disappointed that Alex is a free agent, rather than working with Survey. “Windy” helps the pair as much as she can without breaking any laws. Jess Taliaferro is the Operations Chief Organizer that set up the Polaris mission. He’s a mysterious figure for disappearing after the crew and becomes a key character in the book. Madeleine English is the doomed pilot of Polaris whose final transmission are the last words heard from the ship sixty years earlier. There are several other key characters, most being passengers on the Polaris, but I’m not discussing them to avoid spoilers. This is the second Alex Benedict novel I’ve read; I enjoyed the first one so much, I picked this up. Chronologically this is the second Benedict novel but anyone could start here and not be lost in any of the characters’ pasts. Alex and Chase are a sensational team and I enjoyed them even when they’re just having a discussion. Overall grade: A+

The settings: The year is 1418, the number of years since the World Foundation of Associated States was formed. This is in Earth’s far future on a distant, colonized world with air. Before venturing to this world, and the main setting of the novel, the book opens with the Polaris venturing to witness the once in a lifetime occurrence of the destruction of a star system from a collapsing star. The Polaris comes across as a starship suited for this purpose; though comfortable for its inhabitants, it’s still claustrophobic. The description of ship becomes invaluable as the mystery appears for the leads. The world that Rainbow is based on (and heaven help me, I can’t remember its name for anything — even after skimming the book desperately), is an Earth-like world, though it does not suffer from the pollution or overpopulation currently occurring. Alex and Chase go to their own homes, those of their buyers, Survey’s museum, a seaside settlement that’s lost its lusture, and a small, private university. Each of these locations are similar to locations on Earth, with just a bit of technology or wildlife to make it obviously alien. My favorite setting is the one that introduces the protagonists; I could have stayed in that location forever. Overall grade: A 

The action: There are some sudden, shocking moments in this book, but the majority of it is a procedural mystery as Alex and Chase try to solve a mystery that gradually explodes to shape the future of mankind. I’m not a fan of modern day mysteries, preferring those from the 1940s or older. This novel captures that tone with how the characters interact, making their dialogue riveting, and when something does happen to threaten the leads it’s as shocking as a gun going off in the dark. I was always glued to the page. Overall grade: A+

The conclusion: This may be the book’s failing for some. The resolution for some characters might come off as cliché. I liked the ending due to Alex’s final line in the book. His statement for Chase, and for me, allowed me to justify the ending. It worked for me, but might not for others. Overall grade: A

The final line: I loved this book and must read more of McDevitt’s adventures with Alex. Science fiction, mystery, and archeology combine flawlessly. It’s no wonder this was nominated for a Nebula Award. This is worth finding. Overall grade: A

Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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