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This SF mystery's smooth and exciting surface makes it difficult to appreciate how exceptionally good it is at combining action and ideas. After a string of well-developed space operas, McDevitt returns to the lead characters of his second novel, A Talent for War (1988): antiquarian entrepreneur Alex Benedict (think Indiana Jones with an eye for profit) and his beautiful assistant, Chase Kolpath (think smart, sexy Dr. Watson). Decades earlier, in a future version of the Marie Celeste incident, the spaceship Polaris was discovered drifting and empty, its captain and passengers apparently vanished in an instant. Now, Alex and Chase realize that someone is tracking down relics of the Polaris and is willing to kill anyone who gets in the way. Alex is first of all a businessman, but he becomes stubbornly fascinated with the impossible puzzle. While Chase saves Alex's neck from increasingly ingenious attacks, he untangles a complex plot. The real problem turns out to be not how the mass disappearance was done but the tangled motives behind it. McDevitt does a fine job of creating different worlds for Alex and Chase to explore as they hunt clues. Through Chase's wry narration, the novel also succeeds in presenting characters who may be concealing important facets of themselves. That's appropriate in an SF mystery novel, but especially in one that turns out to have a surprisingly serious human core.
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A mystery surrounds the starship Polaris, whose crew vanished while observing a stellar collision. Some 60 years later, two freelance archaeologists discover a good many artifacts that belonged to the vanished crew, the appearance of which attracts much attention--frivolous, festive, larcenous, and even outright homicidal. The archaeologists set out to track down whoever is out to get them and to recover the stolen artifacts, if possible, and at least protect the surviving ones. They lead a merry chase, involving both interstellar voyages and 14-hour train trips (McDevitt sees railroads in any civilized future) and revealing a good many carefully guarded secrets about both VIPs and ordinary citizens. The traveling affords readers a panoramic view of humanity 2,000 years hence, and that at book's end only part of the mystery has been revealed bodes strongly of a sequel, which would be no bad thing at all, at all. Another highly intelligent, absorbing portrayal of the far future from a leading creator of such tales. Roland Green
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