Book Review: Red War

“Red War” by Kyle MillsThis is the fourth novel in the Mitch Rapp saga written by Kyle Mills, who took over the franchise after the death of Vince Flynn, its creator. On the cover, Vince Flynn still gets top billing (he is now the “brand”, not the author), but Kyle Mills demonstrates here that he’s a worthy successor who is taking Rapp and the series in new directions.

In the previous novel, Enemy of the State, Rapp went totally off the radar, resigning from the CIA, recruiting a band of blackguards, many former adversaries, to mount an operation aimed at a nominal U.S. ally. This time, the circumstances are very different. Rapp is back at the CIA, working with his original team headed by Scott Coleman, who has now more or less recovered from the severe injuries he sustained in the earlier novel Order to Kill, with Claudia Gould, now sharing a house with Rapp, running logistics for their missions.

Vladimir Krupin, President/autocrat of Russia, is ailing. Having climbed to the top of the pyramid in that deeply corrupt country, he now fears his body is failing him, with bouts of incapacitating headaches, blurred vision, and disorientation coming more and more frequently. He and his physician have carefully kept the condition secret, as any hint of weakness at the top would likely invite one or more of his rivals to make a move to unseat him. Worse, under the screwed-down lid of the Russian pressure cooker, popular dissatisfaction with the dismal economy, lack of freedom, and dearth of opportunity is growing, with popular demonstrations reaching Red Square.

The CIA knows nothing of Krupin’s illness, but has been observing what seems to be increasingly erratic behaviour. In the past, Krupin has been ambitious and willing to commit outrages, but has always drawn his plans carefully and acted deliberately, but now he seemed to be doing things almost at random, sometimes against his own interests. Russian hackers launch an attack that takes down a large part of the power grid in Costa Rica. A Russian strike team launches an assault on Krupin’s retired assassin and Rapp’s former nemesis and recent ally, Grisha Azarov. Military maneuvers in the Ukraine seem to foreshadow open confrontation should that country move toward NATO membership.

Krupin, well aware of the fate of dictators who lose their grip on power, and knowing that nothing rallies support behind a leader like a bold move on the international stage, devises a grand plan to re-assert Russian greatness, right a wrong inflicted by the West, and drive a stake into the heart of NATO. Rapp and Azarov, continuing their uneasy alliance, driven by entirely different motives, undertake a desperate mission in the very belly of the bear to avert what could all too easily end in World War III.

There are a number of goofs, which I can’t discuss without risk of spoilers, so I’ll take them behind the curtain.

This is a well-crafted thriller which broadens the scope of the Rapp saga into Tom Clancy territory. Things happen, which will leave the world in a different place after they occur. It blends Rapp and Azarov’s barely restrained loose cannon operations with high-level diplomacy and intrigue, plus an interesting strategic approach to pledges of defence which the will and resources of those who made them may not be equal to the challenge when the balloon goes up and the tanks start to roll. And Grisha Azarov’s devotion to his girlfriend is truly visceral.

Mills, Kyle. Red War. New York: Atria Books, 2018. ISBN 978-1-5011-9059-9.

Here is an Author Stories interview (audio only) with the author about the novel and process of crafting a thriller.


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Book Review: The Terminal List

“The Terminal List” by Jack CarrA first-time author seeking to break into the thriller game can hardly hope for a better leg up than having his book appear in the hands of a character in a novel by a thriller grandmaster. That’s how I came across this book: it was mentioned in Brad Thor’s Spymaster, where the character reading it, when asked if it’s any good, responds, “Considering the author is a former SEAL and can even string his sentences together, it’s amazing.” I agree: this is a promising debut for an author who’s been there, done that, and knows his stuff.

Lieutenant Commander James Reece, leader of a Navy SEAL team charged with an attack on a high-value, time-sensitive target in Afghanistan, didn’t like a single thing about the mission. Unlike most raids, which were based upon intelligence collected by assets on the ground in theatre, this was handed down from on high based on “national level intel” with barely any time to prepare or surveil the target. Reece’s instincts proved correct when his team walked into a carefully prepared ambush, which then kills the entire Ranger team sent in to extract them. Only Reece and one of his team members, Boozer, survive the ambush. He was the senior man on the ground, and the responsibility for the thirty-six SEALs, twenty-eight Rangers, and four helicopter crew lost is ultimately his.

From almost the moment he awakens in the hospital at Bagram Air Base, it’s apparent to Reece that an effort is underway to pin the sole responsibility for the fiasco on him. Investigators from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) are already on the spot, and don’t want to hear a word about the dodgy way in which the mission was assigned. Boozer isn’t having any of it—his advice to Reece is “Stay strong, sir. You didn’t do anything wrong. Higher forced us on that mission. They dictated the tactics. They are the [expletive] that should be investigated. They dictated tactics from the safety of HQ. [Expletive] those guys.”

If that weren’t bad enough, the base doctor tells him that his persistent headaches may be due to a brain tumour found on a CT scan, and that two members of his team had been found, in autopsy, to have rare and malignant brain tumours, previously undiagnosed. Then, on return to his base in California, in short succession his team member Boozer dies in an apparent suicide which, to Reece’s educated eyes, looks highly suspicious, and his wife and daughter are killed in a gang home invasion which makes no sense whatsoever. The doctor who diagnosed the tumour in Reece and his team members is killed in a “green-on-blue” attack by an Afghan working on the base at Bagram.

The ambush, the targeted investigation, the tumours, Boozer, his family, and the doctor: can it all be a coincidence, or is there some connection he’s missing? Reece decides he needs another pair of eyes looking at all of this and gets in touch with Katie Buranek, an investigative reporter he met while in Afghanistan. Katie had previously published an investigation of the 2012 attack in Behghazi, Libya, which had brought the full power of intimidation by the federal government down on her head, and she was as versed in and careful about operational and communications security as Reece himself. (The advice in the novel about secure communications is, to my knowledge, absolutely correct.)

From the little that they know, Reece and Buranek, joined by allies Reece met in his eventful career and willing to take risks on his behalf, start to dig into the tangled web of connections between the individual events and trace them upward to those ultimately responsible, discovering deep corruption in the perfumed princes of the Pentagon, politicians (including a presidential contender and her crooked husband), defence contractors, and Reece’s own erstwhile chain of command.

Finally, it’s time to settle the score. With a tumour in his brain which he expects to kill him, Reece has nothing to lose and many innocent victims to avenge. He’s makin’ a list; he’s checkin’ it twice; he’s choosing the best way to to shoot them or slice. Reece must initially be subtle in his actions so as not to alert other targets to what’s happening, but then, after he’s declared a domestic terrorist, has to go after extremely hard and ruthless targets with every resource he can summon.

This is the most satisfying revenge fiction I’ve read since Vince Flynn’s first novel, Term Limits. The stories are very different, however. In Flynn’s novel, it’s a group of people making those who are bankrupting and destroying their country pay the price, but here it’s personal.

Due to the security clearances the author held while in the Navy, the manuscript was submitted to the U.S. Department of Defense Office of Prepublication and Security Review, which redacted several passages, mostly names and locations of facilities and military organisations. Amusingly, if you highlight some of the redactions, which appear in solid black in the Kindle edition, the highlighted passage appears with the word breaks preserved but all letters changed to “x”. Any amateur sleuths want to try to figure out what the redacted words are in the following text?

He’d spent his early career as an infantry officer in the Ranger Battalions before being selected for the Army’s Special xxxxxxx xxxx at Fort Bragg. He was currently in charge of the Joint Special Operations Command, xxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxx xxx xxx xxxx xxxx xx xxxx xx xxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxxxx xx xxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xx xxxx xxxxx xxx xxxxx.

A sequel, True Believer, is scheduled for publication in April, 2019.

Carr, Jack. The Terminal List. New York: Atria Books, 2018. ISBN 978-1-5011-8081-1.

Here is a Stratfor interview (audio only) with the author about his career and the book.


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Book Review: Spymaster

“Spymaster“ by Brad ThorThis is the eighteenth novel in the author’s Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne. Scot Harvath, an operative for the shadowy Carlton Group, which undertakes tasks civil service commandos can’t do or their bosses need to deny, is on the trail of a Norwegian cell of a mysterious group calling itself the “People’s Revolutionary Front” (PRF), which has been perpetrating attacks against key NATO personnel across Western Europe, each followed by a propaganda blast, echoed across the Internet, denouncing NATO as an imperialist force backed by globalist corporations bent on war and the profits which flow from it. An operation intended to gather intelligence on the PRF and track it back to its masters goes horribly wrong, and Harvath and his colleague, a NATO intelligence officer from Poland named Monika Jasinski, come away with nothing but the bodies of their team.

Meanwhile, back in Jasinski’s home country, more trouble is brewing for NATO. A U.S. military shipment is stolen by thieves at a truck stop outside Warsaw and spirited off to parts unknown. The cargo is so sensitive its disclosure would be another body blow to NATO, threatening to destabilise its relationship to member countries in Europe and drive a wedge between the U.S. and its NATO allies. Harvath, Jasinski, and his Carlton Group team, including the diminutive Nicholas, once a datavore super-villain called the Troll but now working for the good guys, start to follow leads to trace the stolen material and unmask whoever is pulling the strings of the PRF.

There is little hard information, but Harvath has, based on previous exploits, a very strong hunch about what is unfolding. Russia, having successfully detached the Crimea from the Ukraine and annexed it, has now set its sights on the Baltic states: Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, which were part of the Soviet Union until its break-up in 1991. NATO, and its explicit guarantee of mutual defence for any member attacked, is the major obstacle to such a conquest, and the PRF’s terror and propaganda campaigns look like the perfect instruments to subvert support for NATO among member governments and their populations without an obvious connection to Moscow.

Further evidence suggests that the Russians may be taking direct, albeit covert, moves to prepare the battlefield for seizure of the Baltics. Harvath must follow the lead to an isolated location of surpassing strategic importance. Meanwhile back in Washington, Harvath’s boss, Lydia Ryan, who took over when Reed Carlton was felled by Alzheimer’s disease, is playing a high stakes game with a Polish intelligence asset to try to recover the stolen shipment and protect its secrets, a matter of great concern to the occupant of the Oval Office.

As the threads are followed back to their source, the only way to avert an unacceptable risk is an outrageously provocative mission into the belly of the beast. Scot Harvath, once the consummate loose cannon, “better to ask for forgiveness than permission” guy, must now face the reality that he’s getting too old and patched-up for this “stuff”, that running a team of people like his younger self can be as challenging as breaking things and killing people on his own, and that the importance of following orders to the letter looks a lot different when you’re sitting on the other side of the desk and World War III is among the possible outcomes if things go pear shaped.

This novel successfully mixes the genres of thriller and high-stakes international espionage and intrigue. Nothing is ever quite what you think it is, and you’re never sure what you may discover on the next page, especially in the final chapter.

Thor, Brad. Spymaster. New York: Atria Books, 2018. ISBN 978-1-4767-8941-5.


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Two Movies on One Screen: TAU

Scott Adams has frequently written on the phenomenon of “two movies on one screen”: where people observe the same objective events and interpret them in two (or more) entirely different ways.  I recently encountered an example of this which was based on a movie.

On 2018-06-29, Netflix released a production entitled TAU.  Here is the official trailer for the movie.

This, taken at face value (what I call Movie 1), is a thriller in which a young woman is abducted and imprisoned in a house run by an artificial intelligence which she must defeat in order to escape with her life.  This is so clearly evident from the trailer that I don’t consider it a spoiler.

I watched this movie last Saturday, and my immediate reaction was, “Meh: the special effects were reasonably well done (albeit dark to save money on rendering backgrounds), but it was pretty much what I expected.”  By no means awful, but nothing memorable.  I had seen what was on the screen and watched Movie 1.

It was only after sleeping on it that I woke up with the startling realisation that at the same time, a different part of my brain had been watching Movie 2, and after digesting it and cross-correlating it and a bunch of other stuff, twigged to the fact that this may be one of the most clever and profound film treatments of artificial intelligence ever.  And here’s the thing: I’m not at all sure that the authors of the scenario and screenplay or filmmakers were even aware of Movie 2.  There is no evidence of it in any of the promotional material for the film.  If they were, it is a superb example of burying the subplot for a subset of the audience primed to appreciate it to discover.

I shall not spoil the plot nor disclose the content of Movie 2.  None of the reviews I’ve read so far have twigged to Movie 2, but that may be because I’ve missed those that did.  Instead, I’ll invite you to view the film (why are we still saying that?) yourself and draw your own conclusions.  If, after viewing it, you don’t see Movie 2, here is a cryptic hint.

Here is my synopsis of Movie 2, replete with plot spoilers and a perspective on the movie you can’t un-hear.

If you don’t have access to Netflix, I can’t help you.  I deplore the balkanisation of intellectual property we presently endure and long for the day when you’ll be able to view anything, anywhere, by transparently paying a fee to the creator.  But we have not yet landed on that happy shore, so we must endure “This content is not available in your market” and  content locked into a silo which costs far more to subscribe to than the content is worth.


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Book Review: Influx

“Influx” by Daniel SuarezDoesn’t it sometimes seem that, sometime in the 1960s, the broad march of technology just stopped? Certainly, there has been breathtaking progress in some fields, particularly computation and data communication, but what about clean, abundant fusion power too cheap to meter, opening up the solar system to settlement, prevention and/or effective treatment of all kinds of cancer, anti-aging therapy, artificial general intelligence, anthropomorphic robotics, and the many other wonders we expected to be commonplace by the year 2000?

Decades later, Jon Grady was toiling in his obscure laboratory to make one of those dreams—gravity control— a reality. His lab is invaded by notorious Luddite terrorists who plan to blow up his apparatus and team. The fuse burns down into the charge, and all flashes white, then black. When he awakes, he finds himself, in good condition, in a luxurious office suite in a skyscraper, where he is introduced to the director of the Federal Bureau of Technology Control (BTC). The BTC, which appears in no federal organisation chart or budget, is charged with detecting potentially emerging disruptive technologies, controlling and/or stopping them (including deploying Luddite terrorists, where necessary), co-opting their developers into working in deep secrecy with the BTC, and releasing the technologies only when human nature and social and political institutions were “ready” for them—as determined by the BTC.

But of course those technologies exist within the BTC, and it uses them: unlimited energy, genetically engineered beings, clones, artificial intelligence, and mind control weapons. Grady is offered a devil’s bargain: join the BTC and work for them, or suffer the worst they can do to those who resist and see his life’s work erased. Grady turns them down.

At first, his fate doesn’t seem that bad but then, as the creative and individualistic are wont to do, he resists and discovers the consequences when half a century’s suppressed technologies are arrayed against a intransigent human mind. How is he to recover his freedom and attack the BTC? Perhaps there are others, equally talented and defiant, in the same predicament? And, perhaps, the BTC, with such great power at its command, is not so monolithic and immune from rivalry, ambition, and power struggles as it would like others to believe. And what about other government agencies, fiercely protective of their own turf and budgets, and jealous of any rivals?

Thus begins a technological thriller very different from the author’s earlier Dæmon and Freedom™, but compelling. How does a band of individuals take on an adversary which can literally rain destruction from the sky? What is the truth beneath the public face of the BTC? What does a superhuman operative do upon discovering everything has been a lie? And how can one be sure it never happens again?

With this novel Daniel Suarez reinforces his reputation as an emerging grand master of the techno-thriller. This book won the 2015 Prometheus Award for best libertarian novel.

Suarez, Daniel. Influx. New York: Signet, [2014] 2015. ISBN 978-0-451-46944-1.


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Book Review: Enemy of the State

“Enemy of the State” by Kyle MillsThis is the third novel in the Mitch Rapp saga written by Kyle Mills, who took over the franchise after the death of Vince Flynn, its creator. It is the sixteenth novel in the Mitch Rapp series (Flynn’s first novel, Term Limits, is set in the same world and shares characters with the Mitch Rapp series, but Rapp does not appear in it, so it isn’t considered a Rapp novel), Mills continues to develop the Rapp story in new directions, while maintaining the action-packed and detail-rich style which made the series so successful.

When a covert operation tracking the flow of funds to ISIS discovers that a (minor) member of the Saudi royal family is acting as a bagman, the secret deal between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia struck in the days after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S.—the U.S. would hide the ample evidence of Saudi involvement in the plot in return for the Saudis dealing with terrorists and funders of terrorism within the Kingdom—is called into question. The president of the U.S., who might be described in modern jargon as “having an anger management problem” decides the time has come to get to the bottom of what the Saudis are up to: is it a few rogue ne’er-do-wells, or is the leadership up to their old tricks of funding and promoting radical Islamic infiltration and terrorism in the West? And if they are, he wants to make them hurt, so they don’t even think about trying it again.

When it comes to putting the hurt on miscreants, the president’s go-to-guy is Mitch Rapp, the CIA’s barely controlled loose cannon, who has a way of getting the job done even if his superiors don’t know, and don’t want to know, the details. When the president calls Rapp into his office and says, “I think you need to have a talk … and at the end of that talk I think he needs to be dead” there is little doubt about what will happen after Rapp walks out of the office.

But there is a problem. Saudi Arabia is, nominally at least, an important U.S ally. It keeps the oil flowing and prices down, not only benefitting the world economy, but putting a lid on the revenue of troublemakers such as Russia and Iran. Saudi Arabia is a major customer of U.S. foreign military sales. Saudi Arabia is also a principal target of Islamic revolutionaries, and however bad it is today, one doesn’t want to contemplate a post-Saudi regime raising the black flag of ISIS, crying havoc, and letting slip the goats of war. Wet work involving the royal family must not just be deniable but totally firewalled from any involvement by the U.S. government. In accepting the mission Rapp understands that if things blow up, he will not only be on his own but in all likelihood have the U.S. government actively hunting him down.

Rapp hands in his resignation to the CIA, ending a relationship which has existed over all of the previous novels. He meets with his regular mission team and informs them he “need[s] to go somewhere you … can’t follow”: involving them would create too many visible ties back to the CIA. If he’s going to go rogue, he decides he must truly do so, and sets off assembling a rogues’ gallery, composed mostly of former adversaries we’ve met in previous books. When he recruits his friend Claudia, who previously managed logistics for an assassin Rapp confronted in the past, she says, “So, a criminal enterprise. And only one of the people at this table knows how to be a criminal.”

Assembling this band of dodgy, dangerous, and devious characters at the headquarters of an arms dealer in that paradise which is Juba, South Sudan, Rapp plots an operation to penetrate the security surrounding the Saudi princeling and find out how high the Saudi involvement in funding ISIS goes. What they learn is disturbing in the extreme.

After an operation gone pear-shaped, and with the CIA, FBI, Saudis, and Sudanese factions all chasing him, Rapp and his misfit mob have to improvise and figure out how to break the link between the Saudis and ISIS in way which will allow him to deny everything and get back to whatever is left of his life.

This is a thriller which is full of action, suspense, and characters fans of the series will have met before acting in ways which may be surprising. After a shaky outing in the previous installment, Order to Kill, Kyle Mills has regained his stride and, while preserving the essentials of Mitch Rapp, is breaking new ground. It will be interesting to see if the next novel, Red War, expected in September 2018, continues to involve any of the new team. While you can read this as a stand-alone thriller, you’ll enjoy it more if you’ve read the earlier books in which the members of Rapp’s team were principal characters.

Mills, Kyle. Enemy of the State. New York: Atria Books, 2017. ISBN 978-1-4767-8351-2.


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Book Review: Origin

“Origin” by Dan BrownEver since the breakthrough success of Angels & Demons, his first mystery/thriller novel featuring Harvard professor and master of symbology Robert Langdon, Dan Brown has found a formula which turns arcane and esoteric knowledge, exotic and picturesque settings, villains with grandiose ambitions, and plucky female characters into bestsellers, two of which, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, have been adapted into Hollywood movies.

This is the fifth novel in the Robert Langdon series. After reading the fourth, Inferno, it struck me that Brown’s novels have become so formulaic they could probably be generated by an algorithm. Since artificial intelligence figures in the present work, in lieu of a review, which would be difficult to write without spoilers, here are the parameters to the Marinchip Turbo Digital™ Thriller Wizard to generate the story.

Villain: Edmond Kirsch, billionaire computer scientist and former student of Robert Langdon. Made his fortune from breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and robotics.

Megalomaniac scheme: “end the age of religion and usher in an age of science”.

Buzzword technologies: artificial general intelligence, quantum computing.

Big Questions: “Where did we come from?”, “Where are we going?”.

Religious adversary: The Palmarian Catholic Church.

Plucky female companion: Ambra Vidal, curator of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Spain) and fiancée of the crown prince of Spain.

Hero or villain? Details would be a spoiler but, as always, there is one.

Contemporary culture tie-in: social media, an InfoWars-like site called ConspiracyNet.com.

MacGuffins: the 47-character password from Kirsch’s favourite poem (but which?), the mysterious “Winston”, “The Regent”.

Exotic and picturesque locales: The Guggenheim Museum BilbaoCasa Milà and the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Valle de los Caídos near Madrid.

Enigmatic symbol: a typographical mark one must treat carefully in HTML

When Edmond Kirsch is assassinated moments before playing his presentation which will answer the Big Questions, Langdon and Vidal launch into a quest to discover the password required to release the presentation to the world. The murder of two religious leaders to whom Kirsch revealed his discoveries in advance of their public disclosure stokes the media frenzy surrounding Kirsch and his presentation, and spawns conspiracy theories about dark plots to suppress Kirsch’s revelations which may involve religious figures and the Spanish monarchy.

After perils, adventures, conflict, and clues hidden in plain sight, Startling Revelations leave Langdon Stunned and Shaken but Cautiously Hopeful for the Future.

When the next Dan Brown novel comes along, see how well it fits the template. This novel will appeal to people who like this kind of thing: if you enjoyed the last four, this one won’t disappoint. If you’re looking for plausible speculation on the science behind the big questions or the technological future of humanity, it probably will. Now that I know how to crank them out, I doubt I’ll buy the next one when it appears.
Brown, Dan. Origin. New York: Doubleday, 2017. ISBN 978-0-385-51423-1.

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Book Review: Use of Force

“Use of Force” by Brad ThorThis is the seventeenth novel in the author’s Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne. As this book begins, Scot Harvath, operative for the Carlton Group, a private outfit that does “the jobs the CIA won’t do” is under cover at the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. He and his team are tracking a terrorist thought to be conducting advance surveillance for attacks within the U.S. Only as the operation unfolds does he realise he’s walked into the middle of a mass casualty attack already in progress. He manages to disable his target, but another suicide bomber detonates in a crowded area, with many dead and injured.

Meanwhile, following the capsizing of a boat smuggling “migrants” into Sicily, the body of a much-wanted and long-sought terrorist chemist, known to be researching chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, is fished out of the Mediterranean. Why would he, after flying under the radar for years in the Near East and Maghreb, be heading to Europe? The CIA reports, “Over the last several months, we’ve been picking up chatter about an impending series of attacks, culminating in something very big, somewhere in Europe” … “We think that whatever he was planning, it’s ready to go operational.”

With no leads other than knowledge from a few survivors of the sinking that the boat sailed from Libya and the name of the migrant smuggler who arranged their passage, Harvath sets off under cover to that country to try to find who arranged the chemist’s passage and his intended destination in Europe. Accompanied by his pick-up team from Burning Man (given the urgency, there wasn’t time to recruit one more familiar with the region), Harvath begins, in his unsubtle way, to locate the smuggler and find out what he knows. Unfortunately, as is so often the case in such operations, there is somebody else with the team who doesn’t figure in its official roster—a fellow named Murphy.

Libya is chaotic and dangerous enough under any circumstances, but when you whack the hornets’ nest, things can get very exciting in short order, and not in a good way. Harvath and his team find themselves in a mad chase and shoot-out, and having to summon assets which aren’t supposed to be there, in order to survive.

Meanwhile, another savage terrorist attack in Europe has confirmed the urgency of the threat and that more are likely to come. And back in the imperial capital, intrigue within the CIA seems aimed at targeting Harvath’s boss and the head of the operation. Is it connected somehow? It’s time to deploy the diminutive super-hacker Nicholas and one of the CIA’s most secret and dangerous computer security exploits in a honeypot operation to track down the source of the compromise.

If it weren’t bad enough being chased by Libyan militias while trying to unravel an ISIS terror plot, Harvath soon finds himself in the lair of the Calabrian Mafia, and being thwarted at every turn by civil servants insisting he play by the rules when confronting those who make their own rules. Finally, multiple clues begin to limn the outline of the final attack, and it is dire indeed. Harvath must make an improbable and uneasy alliance to confront it.

The pacing of the book is somewhat odd. There is a tremendous amount of shoot-’em-up action in the middle, but as the conclusion approaches and the ultimate threat must be dealt with, it’s as if the author felt himself running out of typewriter ribbon (anybody remember what that was?) and having to wind things up in just a few pages. Were I his editor, I’d have suggested trimming some of the detail in the middle and making the finale more suspenseful. But then, what do I know? Brad Thor has sold nearly fifteen million books, and I haven’t. This is a perfectly workable thriller which will keep you turning the pages, but I didn’t find it as compelling as some of his earlier novels. The attention to detail and accuracy are, as one has come to expect, superb. You don’t need to have read any of the earlier books in the series to enjoy this one; what few details you need to know are artfully mentioned in passing.

The next installment in the Scot Harvath saga, Spymaster, will be published in July, 2018.

Thor, Brad. Use of Force. New York: Atria Books, 2017. ISBN 978-1-4767-8939-2.


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Book Review: The Red Cliffs of Zerhoun

“The Red Cliffs of Zerhoun” by Matthew BrackenWe first met Dan Kilmer in Castigo Cay, where the retired U.S. Marine sniper (I tread cautiously on the terminology: some members of the Corps say there’s no such thing as a “former Marine” and, perhaps, neither is there a “former sniper”) had to rescue his girlfriend from villains in the Caribbean. The novel is set in a world where the U.S. is deteriorating into chaos and the malevolent forces suppressed by civilisation have begun to assert their power on the high seas.

As this novel begins, things have progressed, and not for the better. The United States has fractured into warring provinces as described in the author’s “Enemies” trilogy. Japan and China are in wreckage after the global economic crash. Much of Europe is embroiled in civil wars between the indigenous population and inbred medieval barbarian invaders imported by well-meaning politicians or allowed to land upon their shores or surge across their borders by the millions. The reaction to this varies widely depending upon the culture and history of the countries invaded. Only those wise enough to have said “no” in time have been spared.

But even they are not immune to predation. The plague of Islamic pirates on the high seas and slave raiders plundering the coasts of Europe was brought to an end only by the navies of Christendom putting down the corsairs’ primitive fleets. But with Europe having collapsed economically, drawn down its defence capability to almost nothing, and daring not even to speak the word “Christendom” for fear of offending its savage invaders, the pirates are again in ascendence, this time flying the black flag of jihad instead of the Jolly Roger.

When seventy young girls are kidnapped into sex slavery from a girls’ school in Ireland by Islamic pirates and offered for auction to the highest bidder among their co-religionists, a group of those kind of hard men who say things like “This will not stand”, including a retired British SAS colonel and a former Provisional IRA combatant (are either ever “retired” or “former”?) join forces, not to deploy a military-grade fully-automatic hashtag, but to get the girls back by whatever means are required.

Due to exigent circumstances, Dan Kilmer’s 18 metre steel-hulled schooner, moored in a small port in western Ireland to peddle diesel fuel he’s smuggled in from a cache in Greenland, becomes one of those means. Kilmer thinks the rescue plan to be folly, but agrees to transport the assault team to their rendezvous point in return for payment for him and his crew in gold.

It’s said that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. In this case, the plan doesn’t even get close to that point. Improvisation, leaders emerging in the midst of crisis, and people rising to the occasion dominate the story. There are heroes, but not superheroes—instead people who do what is required in the circumstances in which they find themselves. It is an inspiring story.

This book has an average review rating of 4.9 on Amazon, but you’re probably hearing of it here for the first time. Why? Because it presents an accurate view of the centuries-old history of Islamic slave raiding and trading, and the reality that the only way this predation upon civilisation can be suppressed is by civilised people putting it down in with violence commensurate to its assault upon what we hold most precious.

The author’s command of weapons and tactics is encyclopedic, and the novel is consequently not just thrilling but authentic. And, dare I say, inspiring.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Bracken, Matthew. The Red Cliffs of Zerhoun. Orange Park, FL: Steelcutter Publishing, 2017. ISBN 978-0-9728310-5-5.


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Book Review: The Hidden Truth

“The Hidden Truth” by Hans G. SchantzThis is a masterpiece of alternative history techno-thriller science fiction. It is rich in detail, full of interesting characters who interact and develop as the story unfolds, sound in the technical details which intersect with our world, insightful about science, technology, economics, government and the agenda of the “progressive” movement, and plausible in its presentation of the vast, ruthless, and shadowy conspiracy which lies under the surface of its world. And, above all, it is charming—these are characters you’d like to meet, even some of the villains because you want understand what motivates them.

The protagonist and narrator is a high school junior (senior later in the tale), son of an electrical engineer who owns his own electrical contracting business, married to a chemist, daughter of one of the most wealthy and influential families in their region of Tennessee, against the wishes of her parents. (We never learn the narrator’s name until the last page of the novel, so I suppose it would be a spoiler if I mentioned it here, so I won’t, even if it makes this review somewhat awkward.) Our young narrator wants to become a scientist, and his father not only encourages him in his pursuit, but guides him toward learning on his own by reading the original works of great scientists who actually made fundamental discoveries rather than “suffering through the cleaned-up and dumbed-down version you get from your teachers and textbooks.” His world is not ours: Al Gore, who won the 2000 U.S. presidential election, was killed in the 2001-09-11 attacks on the White House and Capitol, and President Lieberman pushed through the “Preserving our Planet’s Future Act”, popularly known as the “Gore Tax”, in his memory, and its tax on carbon emissions is predictably shackling the economy.

Pursuing his study of electromagnetism from original sources, he picks up a copy at the local library of a book published in 1909. The library was originally the collection of a respected institute of technology until destroyed by innovative educationalists and their pointy-headed progressive ideas. But the books remained, and in one of them, he reads an enigmatic passage about Oliver Heaviside having developed a theory of electromagnetic waves bouncing off one another in free space, which was to be published in a forthcoming book. This didn’t make any sense: electromagnetic waves add linearly, and while they can be reflected and refracted by various media, in free space they superpose without interaction. He asks his father about the puzzling passage, and they look up the scanned text on-line and find the passage he read missing. Was his memory playing tricks?

So, back to the library where, indeed, the version of the book there contains the mention of bouncing waves. And yet the publication date and edition number of the print and on-line books were identical. As Isaac Asimov observed, many great discoveries aren’t heralded by an exclamation of “Eureka!” but rather “That’s odd.” This was odd….

Soon, other discrepancies appear, and along with his best friend and computer and Internet wizard Amit Patel, he embarks on a project to scan original print editions of foundational works on electromagnetism from the library and compare them with on-line versions of these public domain works. There appears to be a pattern: mentions of Heaviside’s bouncing waves appear to have been scrubbed out of the readily-available editions of these books (print and on-line), and remain only in dusty volumes in forgotten provincial libraries.

As their investigations continue, it’s increasingly clear they have swatted a hornets’ nest. Fake feds start to follow their trail, with bogus stories of “cyber-terrorism”. And tragically, they learn that those who dig too deeply into these curiosities have a way of meeting tragic ends. Indeed, many of the early researchers into electromagnetism died young: Maxwell at age 48, Hertz at 36, FitzGerald at 39. Was there a vast conspiracy suppressing some knowledge about electromagnetism? And if so, what was the hidden truth, and why was it so important to them they were willing to kill to keep it hidden? It sure looked like it, and Amit started calling them “EVIL”: the Electromagnetic Villains International League.

The game gets deadly, and deadly serious. The narrator and Amit find some powerful and some ambiguous allies, learn about how to deal with the cops and other authority figures, and imbibe a great deal of wisdom about individuality, initiative, and liberty. There’s even an attempt to recruit our hero to the dark side of collectivism where its ultimate anti-human agenda is laid bare. Throughout there are delightful tips of the hat to libertarian ideas, thinkers, and authors, including some as obscure as a reference to the Books on Benefit bookshop in Providence, Rhode Island.

The author is an inventor, entrepreneur, and scientist. He writes, “I appreciate fiction that shows how ordinary people with extraordinary courage and determination can accomplish remarkable achievements.” Mission accomplished. As the book ends, the central mystery remains unresolved. The narrator vows to get to the bottom of it and avenge those destroyed by the keepers of the secret. In a remarkable afterword and about the author section, there is a wonderful reading list for those interested in the technical topics discussed in the book and fiction with similarly intriguing and inspiring themes. When it comes to the technical content of the book, the author knows of what he writes: he has literally written the book on the design of ultrawideband antennas and is co-inventor of Near Field Electromagnetic Ranging (NFER), which you can think of as “indoor GPS”.

For a self-published work, there are only a few copy editing errors (“discrete” where “discreet” was intended, and “Capital” for “Capitol”). The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. A sequel is now available: A Rambling Wreck which takes our hero and the story to—where else?—Georgia Tech. I shall certainly read that book. Meanwhile, go read the present volume; if your tastes are anything like mine, you’re going to love it.

Schantz, Hans G. The Hidden Truth. Huntsville, AL: ÆtherCzar, 2016. ISBN 978-1-5327-1293-7.


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Book Review: Order to Kill

“Order to Kill” by Kyle MillsThis is the second novel in the Mitch Rapp saga written by Kyle Mills, who took over the franchise after the death of Vince Flynn, its creator. In the first novel by Mills, The Survivor, he picked up the story of the last Vince Flynn installment, The Last Manright where it left off and seemed to effortlessly assume the voice of Vince Flynn and his sense for the character of Mitch Rapp. This was a most promising beginning, which augured well for further Mitch Rapp adventures.

In this, the fifteenth novel in the Mitch Rapp series (Flynn’s first novel, Term Limits, is set in the same world and shares characters with the Mitch Rapp series, but Rapp does not appear in it, so it isn’t considered a Rapp novel), Mills steps out of the shadow of Vince Flynn’s legacy and takes Rapp and the story line into new territory. The result is…mixed.

In keeping with current events and the adversary du jour, the troublemakers this time are the Russkies, with President Maxim Vladimirovich Krupin at the top of the tottering pyramid. And tottering it is, as the fall in oil prices has undermined Russia’s resource-based economy and destabilised the enterprises run by the oligarchs who keep him in power. He may be on top, but he is as much a tool of those in the shadows as master of his nation.

But perhaps there is a grand coup, or one might even say in the new, nominally pious Russia, a Hail Mary pass, which might simultaneously rescue the Russian economy and restore Russia to its rightful place on the world stage.

The problem is those pesky Saudis. Sitting atop a large fraction of the Earth’s oil, they can turn the valve on and off and set the price per barrel wherever they wish and, recently, have chosen to push the price down to simultaneously appease their customers in Europe and Asia, but also to drive the competition from hydraulic fracturing (which has a higher cost of production than simply pumping oil out from beneath the desert) out of the market. Suppose the Saudis could be taken out? But Russia could never do it directly. There would need to be a cut-out, and perfect deniability.

Well, the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS, or ISIL, or whatever they’re calling this week in the Court Language of the Legacy Empire) is sworn to extend its Caliphate to the holiest places of Islam and depose the illegitimate usurpers who rule them, so what better puppet to take down the Saudi petro-hegemony? Mitch Rapp finds himself in the middle of this conspiracy, opting to endure grave physical injury to insinuate himself into its midst.

But it’s the nature of the plot where everything falls apart, in one of those details which Vince Flynn and his brain trust would never have flubbed. This isn’t a quibble, but a torpedo below the water line. We must, perforce, step behind the curtain.

All right, we’re back from the spoilers. Whether you’ve read them or not, this is a well-crafted thriller which works as such as long as you don’t trip over the central absurdity in the plot. Rapp not only suffers grievous injury, but encounters an adversary who is not only his equal but better. He confronts his age, and its limitations. It happens to us all.

The gaping plot hole could have been easily fixed—not in the final manuscript but in the outline. Let’s hope that future Mitch Rapp adventures will be subjected to the editorial scrutiny which makes them not just page-turners but ones where, as you’re turning the pages, you don’t laugh out loud at easily-avoided blunders.

Mills, Kyle. Order to Kill. New York: Pocket Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4767-8349-9.


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