Somewhere in my regular reading about speculative fiction, I read an interesting summary of the Alex Benedict series by Jack McDevitt, of which A Talent for War is the first book. Sadly, I can't remember what that summary was or where I found it, but I was able to get the book, published in 1989, via Paperback Swap, so I'll have to provide one of my own to give you a flavor: Alex Benedict is a mildly unscrupulous archaeologist in the far future, researching human civilization's past as he tries to answer the biggest historical mysteries of his time. When I got this book, I really didn't care so much about the speculative fiction aspects of the book so much as the premise just sounded fascinating.
It turns out that A Talent for War is engrossing, explaining why it is the first in what is now a six-book series, but the speculative fiction is just window dressing and has very little to do with the actual goings-on of the novel. Set some thousands of years in our future, the backdrop is a civilization that spans solar systems and dozens of planets, up to the point of having met an enemy that is daunting not so much for its implacability but for its strangeness. Of course, this means that civilization has a method of transporting people and goods across the galaxy, but like most space opera, its working is very vague and imprecise, leading to the disaster that starts the novel.
Alex Benedict's uncle, Gabriel, has disappeared along with the liner Capella, and Alex has been named his sole heir. The first portions of the book concern Alex's ability to deal with the memory of the man who raised him and how they separated, but it turns out he and Gabe shared a passion for archaeology so old wounds are healed over nicely as Alex tries to figure out what Gabe was doing on the Capella. What follows is a mystery wrapped in science fiction clothing: Alex does the same kind of work that a modern archaeologist would do today: he researches source material before making a move toward his target. OF course, given the mystery surrounding Gabe's work and death, Alex doesn't know what his actual target is for most of the novel.
Like most space opera, A Talent for War could be set on Earth, using "domestic" exotic locales and names as settings for the places that Alex must visit as he investigates the mystery. In fact, if you can momentarily forget that he is travelling from planet to planet and think of the Ashiyyur as just another nationality, A Talent for War feels very much like an adventure movie a la Indiana Jones or the more recent Adventures of Tintin. I make this point, however, not to denigrate the novel—to hold it up as somehow unworthy of reading by speculative fiction fans—but instead to make it more accessible to readers not necessarily interested in speculative fiction at all. The twists and turns and false leads that Alex takes as he tries to solve the puzzle are worthy of the best adventure stories, with the sole caveat that the action may be sparse for some (but when it happens, it happens hard!). And my own reflection on its lack of speculative fiction depth did not come until after I had finished reading the novel, so engrossed I was in finishing it and determined to get to the end to see it all worked out.
Alex Benedict is a fine protagonist and narrator, even though his narration does dampen the most dangerous scenes a little since he must survive them in order to be telling us his tale. We learn the highlights of his life and career, with enough hints and allusions to other episodes to make him a strong lead for a series as well. But along with the character, author McDevitt also establishes a thoughtful and rich historical background for his storytelling. Because Alex must delve so deeply into his own history in order to solve the mystery at hand, McDevitt had to carefully contrast that history—and not just in a linear straightforward fashion, as if it were a hand-drawn timeline. Since the novel is a puzzle, that timeline has to also include false leads and hazy facts—legends and stories about historical events that may have no truth in them at all or, worse, conceal only a few true details. The result is a rich setting with depth not often encountered in any genre; the closest I can think of is the monumental world-building that some epic fantasies go through. That depth and Alex's voice make A Talent for War a compelling read, and as I tried to indicate above, one that even non-genre fans will enjoy. The trouble may well be in trying to find a copy of it to read. You'll likely hear more about this series, as I intend to find more of them to read; that would be an indication of how much I enjoyed reading A Talent for War.