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Book Review: Echo by Jack McDevitt

Genre: Science Fiction, Adventure
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Ace Hardcover
Publication Date: November 2, 2010
ISBN-10: 9780441019243
ISBN-13: 978-0441019243
Author Website: Jack McDevitt

Echo is the fifth Alex Benedict novel from Nebula-award winning author Jack McDevitt. Echo is currently a nominee for the 2010 Nebula Award for best novel, and it easy to see why. McDevitt’s tale of treasure-hunting Alex Benedict and his female assistant Chase Kolpath is both adventurous and thought-provoking.

Chase Kolpath is the excellent assistant to Alex Benedict and our narrator on this journey. While trolling the eBay analogue of the far future, Chase discovers a potentially interesting stone. Once owned by the deceased Sunset Tuttle, well-known whack-job and alien seeker, the strange stone has markings on it that no one can identify. While they bear some similarity to a few of the languages that cropped up after Earth flung its children into the starry host, it is incomprehensible to anthropologists (or at least those who will talk to the vilified Alex and Chase). Never one to let a mystery die, Alex must discover the stone’s true source and its connection to the World’s End touring company. The answer might just reveal whether mankind is truly alone in the universe…

What an excellent novel. The reader gets to enjoy the excitement of the Chase (pun intended) as Rainbow Enterprises sniffs out the stone’s source. Though much of it is archive-diving and conversation, what would seemingly be a dull series of dialogues becomes fascinating under McDevitt’s direction. When the stone is stolen, Alex and Chase track it to Tuttle’s friend Rachel, and her stonewalling creates an antagonism that is tinged with sympathy for the opposite party on both sides, eschewing the standard good/evil dichotomy.

No character is black or white in morality, and the character development McDevitt does early in the novel has a great effect on the reader in the end reveal. As I read I felt that some the character description and backstory on Tuttle’s friend Rachel and others who worked at World’s End, but when the mystery of the stone is solved, these backstories make it harder to simply label the villains as bad, and readers expecting a comeuppance will be disappointed. For all its galaxy spanning locale, Echo is about deeply personal stories, about decisions that have far-reaching consequences, and about the dogged tracking of the truth, no matter how hard a truth it may reveal.

McDevitt creates complex characters yet at the same time, readers who have never read an Alex Benedict novel before will not be lost in a series of prior references. There are some, but they have really nothing to do with story at hand, and so are easily ignored. Perhaps the character of Alex might not be fleshed out a lot in this novel due to his previous character development, but Chase is well-developed, even to the point of her romantic entanglements.

In a lot of ways, Echo is a Sherlock Holmes story set in space. Alex is Sherlock, enigmatic, brilliant, and absolutely determined to unravel the mystery. Chase is Watson, Alex’s chronicler, companion, and sounding board. Together the two of them are a brain trust that cannot be stopped. Like a Sherlock Holmes tale, there is the grand confrontation of the villain by the secretive Alex at the end of Echo and the breakneck adventure that is driven by conversation. With such a close connection, I actually feel that Echo is a novel that might appeal to readers of steampunk or Victorian mystery, if they want to step into the broader realm of science fiction.

Echo will appeal to readers who like Harry Harrison, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Iain Banks, Isaac Asimov, or Poul Anderson. Like Anderson’s Van Rijn stories or Harrison’s tale of The Stainless Steel Rat, Echo has interesting world visits and take-no-prisoners type characters – but with a softer, more compassionate side. Like Asimov’s Galactic Empire series or Rusch’s Diving into the Wreck, the story is made of epic adventure in a space-faring culture. And like Banks, McDevitt likes to ponder the imponderables of our existence, to play with the Fermi Paradox while also exploring mankind’s intellectual and emotional facets. Part of the joy of reading Echo is imagining yourself in the situations that these characters (both major and minor), wondering how you would react and if it would be the same as those in Echo.

I do recommend reading Echo. While full of adventure, the story is thematically deep. It appeals to readers on a variety of levels, and the reasons for its Nebula nomination are clear once you’ve read it. If you are looking for a science fiction novel that combines space-faring, mystery, intensely human stories and thought-provoking questions on the nature of the universe, you need look no farther than Echo by Jack McDevitt.