Review: Thunderbird by Jack McDevitt

Okay, by now I’m confident you know all about the long awaited return to that epic story set a long time ago. But before all of the hype and excitement dissolves, let’s review the work. And no, we’re not talking about that fantasy world far far away. We’re talking good ol’ science fiction with realistic men and women.

Back in 1996, Harper paperbacks imprint HarperPrism released the novel Ancient Shores. Feel free to run out and pick up a copy or just read my recent Amazing Stories review (yes, I’ve reviewed a few of McDevitt’s works here). The original story centered on the discovery of a 10,000+ year old sailing ship found buried deep in the North Dakota earth. This mysterious find lead to the equally strange discovery of a teleportation station deep in the mountainous rock formation in the middle of a Sioux reservation near Devils Lake.

Thunderbird cover Illustration by Tony Mauro Design by Rita Frangie
Thunderbird cover
Illustration by Tony Mauro
Design by Rita Frangie

It’s been almost two decades between installments, but like everything else from Jack McDevitt, it’s been well worth the wait. Released earlier this month from Penguin Random House imprint Ace Books, Thunderbird by Jack McDevitt takes us back to the mountain portal and further across the universe.

This time around, readers not only revisit some of the ethical and political challenges of facing strange new worlds, they are thrown into the reality of a human condition that is both determined and fearful to learn what and who else is out there.

Though the story picks up where Ancient Shores left off, readers are provided with just enough backstory and timely reminders of earlier actions to keep the journey moving smoothly. Again, reading the first book is not necessary, but it is highly recommended simply because it is additional material by one of the genres most thought provoking minds.

Characters do not have to be complex to be compelling, and Thunderbird is a fine example of this fact. Many of the characters created by McDevitt are real people. This is not to mean they are actual people he chose to model his fictional characters after (though this is possible and in some cases probable with most authors). Most of the characters in McDevitt’s worlds are plausible in their simplicity with rare (and usually intentional) instances of predictability and over-the-top portrayals.

April Cannon is the off-world mission coordinator and one of a handful of returning characters from Ancient Shores. Her strength and determination seems to be driven by her acceptance that she is in this pivotal position because she just happened to be in the right place at the right time. She holds no false bravados, yet she makes the most of every situation and becomes a key player who readers will warm up to.

Not as pivotal but maybe more important to the reader experience, Brad Hollister is the host of the KLYM radio call-in show Grand Forks Live. With artful dialog between him and his timid wife, the character of Brad often represents the outsider with the same mixture of curiosity and trepidation about other worlds that readers will be able to better relate to. And when his limited journalistic skills puts him in a position to join the exploration missions, readers get to experience the realistic excitement and fears that archetypical characters usually covet.

As for complexity, the portal is perhaps as compelling as any of the characters. As the primary representative of an unknown creator with enough technological advancements to change the human condition, for better or worse, the bubble-domed Roundhouse along with all of the destination portals definitely becomes a living breathing characters with unlimited possibilities. “If these walls could talk” has more meaning here than the cliché usually claims.

Thunderbird is one of those reads that will make you stop and think. From the countless secondary characters who give us insightful perspectives of alien possibilities to the more structured roles who provide the driven elements of the story, readers will have a lot to ponder. And that is when McDevitt is at his best.

The award winning author has written a slew of other notable works that should also be considered. Along with Ancient Shores, the seven Priscilla Hutchens novels, the seven Alex Benedict novels, and a few short story collections, readers might also like The Hercules Text, Eternity Road, Moonfall (the book that introduced me to McDevitt’s work), Infinity Beach, and Time Travelers Never Die to name a few (okay, its more than a few, but not so much when you just can’t get enough).

Thunderbird by Jack McDevitt is a delightful book indicative of the author’s unique ability to put realistic characters in fantastic settings. And when the destinations of these settings become unlimited, the characters become just as unrestrained.

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