I make no secret of the fact that I am a big Jack McDevitt fan. Having thoroughly enjoyed the author's space opera novels built upon the character of Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchens, I was more than anxious to sample a different side of McDevitt in Polaris. This ghost ship mystery in space, told from a first-person perspective, is not as weighty or serious as other McDevitt novels I have read, but it is certainly an engaging read that casual science fiction fans will likely quite enjoy. For McDevitt fans, however, Polaris is more of an afternoon matinee than McDevitt's usual prime time special. Attempts on the heroes' lives don't seem all that serious in the context of the narrative, and nothing that takes place here has the potential to revolutionize the very nature of humanity.
Sixty years ago, the Polaris carried a small party of acclaimed scientists to witness firsthand (from a safe distance, of course) a rare cosmic phenomenon, namely the collision of a white dwarf with a star. Contact with the ship was lost following the commander's indication that she was beginning the journey home. A search ship arrived in-system some weeks later and found the Polaris drifting in space, its crew missing. There was no sign of foul play whatsoever; the crew had simply vanished. Naturally, at the time, the news created a firestorm of interest as well as some concern that a hostile alien race had somehow absconded with the passengers.
Sixty years later, a number of artifacts from the ghost ship are set to go up for auction, bringing famed antiquities dealer Alex Benedict (whom McDevitt readers first met in A Talent For War) into the picture. The bulk of the novel is in fact narrated by Benedict's more than able assistant Chase Kolpath, a rather remarkable woman who nevertheless plays second fiddle to her boss. Alex has the opportunity to purchase a set number of Polaris artifacts before the bidding is opened up to the public at large. Just after he and Chase manage to secure their new purchases, the rest of the collection is tragically blown up in what appears to be an unrelated assassination attempt. After Alex sells his purchases to his best clients, those clients begin reporting unusual visits and even robbery attempts centered on their newest acquisitions. Alex becomes convinced that someone is trying to make sure that some secret of the Polaris remains undiscovered. He begins researching the history of the ghost ship and the perplexing depths of its mystery, and soon he and Chase find themselves in physical danger from unknown enemies. Safety can only be assured, Alex firmly believes, by solving once and for all the mystery of the Polaris and her crew.
Alex and Chase hop-scotch across the system in pursuit of the truth, slowly assembling the intriguing pieces of a most remarkable puzzle. There's a lot of action, some of it quite thrilling, and the reader's determination to discover the truth increases alongside that of Alex himself. That truth is much more complicated than anyone would have predicted. The ultimate ending doesn't seem to deliver quite the payoff I was expecting, but a nice, final twist makes up for a slight lack of excitement in the closing scenes.
For whatever reason, Polaris is not as absorbing of the McDevitt novels I have read in the past, nor does it strikes the author's typical vein of seriousness. The first-person narrative of Chase Kolpath somewhat stymies McDevitt's talent for building worlds and describing elaborate scenes, and there are touches of wry humor that would seem out of place in a novel such as Chindi or Omega. More significantly, there is no cosmic sense of wonder embedded in the pages of this science fiction mystery. Polaris is a good novel, but it falls significantly short of McDevitt's best work.