The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O – Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland

Harvard linguist Melisande Stokes is approached by government operative Tristan Lyons with a request to translate a large number of ancient documents, once she has signed a non-disclosure agreement. As she works through them she notices a large number of references to magic. It turns out that magic actually existed until 1851, when the continued progress of technology led to its disappearance. Things take a mysterious turn when they try to build a chamber within which magic can work in the present day, and a surviving witch contacts Melisande via Facebook. In short order, the shadowy “Department of Diachronic Operations” is born, using magic to travel back in time and change history. As the bureaucrats get involved, events immediately veer off in unexpected and undesired directions.

The backbone of the narrative is Melisande’s “Diachronicle” (trust a linguist to pun on a top-secret technical term) where she describes her adventures with D.O.D.O. Large chunks, however, are diary entries and letters by other characters, as well as transcripts from messaging apps, wiki entries and so on. The contrasting styles, and frequent clues as to relative technical ability given by the “author” of specific passages, makes D.O.D.O and its denizens come alive, as if the reader is a fly on the wall during secret operations, meetings, and time travel.

The premise is clever, and more than a bit silly. However, the treatment of the entire situation by the government bureaucracy is most certainly not. And that is one of the important themes of this book. The intersecting shenanigans of bureaucrats, academics and operatives working together make for hilarious passages of dry humour, while at the same time the reader is appalled at the lack of common sense of bureaucrats who spend too little time in the real world. Even the use “official-ese” can change perceptions, and perception is a very important part of this story, on several levels.

Farside – Patrick Chiles

In the sequel to Perigee, Polaris Spacelines has started to establish tour service around the Moon. On one such flight, an incident occurs, leaving the spacecraft missing. The situation soon escalates dramatically.

Unlike the more neatly contained story of Perigee, Farside takes a more dramatic and ambitious turn. The prose and characterisations also feel more confident and engaging, as the novel escalates from a relatively low key science fiction accident story to a competent geopolitical thriller.

Also compared to Perigee, the technical accuracy has much improved. I will permit myself a tiny nitpick: “Taxi into position and hold” is outdated air traffic radio phraseology and no longer used.

Perigee – Patrick Chiles

Polaris Airlines runs the first fleet of suborbital passenger transports, brainchild of industrialist and owner Walt Hammond. Flight 501 is a private charter from Denver to Singapore. Due to a malfunction it becomes stranded in orbit.

This is good clean fun if you like aerospace and a thrilling story. The characters ring true, especially the pilots, engineers and operations staff at the airline. I did sometimes have a hard time telling minor characters apart, since Mr. Chiles’s world is almost exclusively populated by “ordinary white people” straight from Central Casting.

It falls over a bit on the technical details, which is unfortunate since in a technothriller like this the technical details are essential. The explanations are often lacking in the clarity needed for mainstream prose. There are also inconsistencies in the text which should have been caught in editing. For example, one paragraph will mention thin cirrus clouds and afternoon sun, then the next will speak of an aircraft “breaking out of the overcast.”

Temple – Matthew Reilly

temple-cover-2William Race is a professor of linguistics in New York. Without warning, he is drafted to translate an ancient manuscript detailing events during the Spanish conquest of the Incan Empire. Specifically, he must assist a team of military and civilian operatives in determining the location of a mythical Incan idol. This idol holds the key to building a superweapon. The adventure soon takes our characters into the depths of the unexplored Amazonian rainforest, searching for an abandoned temple.

Full disclosure: I only got about a third of the way through this book. It reads like a Hollywood action-adventure movie. The action scenes are exciting but strain suspension of disbelief in the extreme. Hollywood physics are definitely in evidence. Additionally, Mr. Reilly is not very rigorous in his research on his props, such as aircraft and weapons, not to mention the material of the superweapon itself.  The characters are cardboard cutouts and I didn’t find myself engaging in their story. The one redeeming quality of the book was the somewhat interesting parallel story set in the 16th Century.

1½Rosbochs

I am Pilgrim – Terry Hayes

IAmPilgrimScott Murdoch is the most secret of secret agents for the US government, until he exits the “business” and writes the ultimate book about investigative techniques; under a pseudonym of course. Then, while trying to lead a “normal” life, he is consulting the New York police on a murder investigation when his past life comes back to grab him. There is a massive threat to the United States and he is the man to deal with it.

There is a lot to like about this novel. First and foremost, it is a page-turner in the early Tom Clancy class. Despite the significant heft of the book, the narrative runs off with the reader. The first third is full of flashbacks, and even flashbacks within flashbacks, fleshing out our hero’s backstory and legend (both literally and figuratively). Murdoch tells his own story while the antagonist, a modern day, more intelligent, creepier Bin Laden, moves in parallel to enact his sinister strike on the soft underbelly of the United States.
I was on tenterhooks until the end, but the novel falls over in its overuse of action and spy movie tropes. Writing about computers straining and operators pounding on keyboards is silly in a screenplay and laughable in a novel. Action set pieces, while quite good, are always a flirting with Mission Impossible.

And yet, there is something deeper which this novel does well. Murdoch’s background as a loner and his shadow life as an agent resonate with the hidden world where protecting the innocent means setting aside conventional rules of morality. While these themes are by no means original, the manner in which they are written is at least thought provoking. Our hero is no white knight by any means. His motives are admirable, but he himself readily admits that his methods are not pretty. Perhaps I am reaching, but this may be the author’s attempt to explain why the world can only be safe if there are brutal men willing to do violence on behalf of the citizenry.

The author’s seeming desire to tie things up in a neat little bow at the end also bugged me. Things are just a bit too tidy, at odds with the theme of the book which is that no one ever leaves the secret agent world.

4Rosbochs

Trial Run (Fault Lines I) – Thomas Locke

TrialRunA research team based based in Switzerland has discovered a way to disconnect the mind from the body and project it to other places and times, even into the future. They call it an “ascent”, and it allows access to secret information hidden away in vaults, as well as knowledge of future events. Clandestine elements of the US government have gotten their hands on this research, and are working to subvert it for their own purposes. Meanwhile, a graduate student named Trent Major is seemingly visited by his future self in vivid dreams. The future self gives him information allowing him to perform research breakthroughs.

Mr. Locke has written a tightly plotted thriller, in style reminding me more than a little of Michael Crichton. It does unfortunately leave the reader in the dark about the nature of the ascent for what seems a frustratingly long time. Once revealed, the ascent process, which is central to the plot, is always frustratingly close to pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo. The parameters of the process are never clearly defined and it is difficult to establish what is or is not possible in terms of plot.

Many characters are introduced at the start, but I found it difficult to keep track of them until about halfway through the book. Certainly there is some confusion as to which characters are actually the protagonists. Some of these characters are secretive in their profession and this trait seems to spill over into their descriptions. Others are cookie-cutter caricatures of their professional personas. I had a hard time feeling empathy for any of the characters, with the possible exception of Shane and Trent. Character development and description is rather forced. And how many times do we need to be reminded that Charlie Hazard is a combat veteran and security specialist?

A final nitpick is that objects are frequently prefixed with “the” on the first description. For example, “the trio of electric carts” suddenly appears but it has never been discussed before.

While it has imperfections, and was somewhat confusing at the start, the story certainly sped up in the second half, even into page-turner territory.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Revell in exchange for my honest review.

 

3Rosbochs

 

Rainbows End – Vernor Vinge

RainbowsEndElderly Robert Gu wakes as if from a long, dreamy haze, cured of his Alzheimers. He was a renowned poet and academic, but now must learn to explore a new world. It is the current connected world run wild. Almost everyone “wears”, meaning wears smart clothes and contact lenses. Through these means and ever present connectivity, overlays and information hemmed in only by imagination allow people to connect and interact in ways that were impossible previously. Robert Gu is initially confused, but soon haltingly learns to embrace things. Soon, though, he is unwittingly caught up in a world-spanning conspiracy.

The world-building in this novel is fabulous. Mr. Vinge has cleverly extrapolated on current trends to bring us the nightmare of any Internet luddite, and the wet dream of those who live online. The consequences portrayed are a mixed bag, some expected and some not. They are all interesting, however. The device of having an elderly person “travel forward in time”, as it were, allows us to experience the new world through fresh eyes.

While I loved the bits where Robert Gu must come to terms with the new reality, the overall story itself felt messy and weak. There were some interesting ramifications but I kept thinking that this novel would have been better as a novella with the technothriller bits weeded out.

3Rosbochs

 

Tiger by the Tail (Paladin of Shadows VI) – John Ringo & Ryan Sear

PaladinofShadows6TigerbytheTailMike Harmon and his band of Georgian (the country not the state) mountain soldiers are back. This time they are on a training mission in Southeast Asia. One thing leads to another, with the action moving from Indonesia, to Hong Kong, to Phuket and finally to Myanmar.

In this sixth book, Ringo is cooperating with Ryan Sear. While the action is pretty good, compared to the previous books, especially I-IV, it feels a bit color by numbers, a bit like a Bond movie. The sex scenes, while still explicit and edgy, seem more written for shock effect than with reference to actual S&M practices. And apart from one quite brief action scene, there is far too little doubt about the outcome. The Keldara have become supermen, and this is a bit dull.

The perhaps unfortunate thing about a novel with a large chunk set in Hong Kong is that I could pick it apart for accuracy. I understand artistic license and I understand that there will be inaccuracies but in this book it was a bit much. For example a Hong Kong scene is set in Shekou docks, but this is over the border in Mainland China. A simple check on Google Maps would have established that. It detracts from the enjoyment of the novel when the research is so sloppy.

2½Rosbochs

Nimitz Class – Patrick Robinson

Patrick Robinson’s debut is a passable technothriller about a Nimitz class carrier getting destroyed. While it has many Clancy-like traits, it fails when it moves out of the military and into the political and administrative arenas. Cool submarine stuff though.

A Deeper Blue (Paladin of Shadows V) – John Ringo

Book five sees the usual gang take on smugglers and terrorists trying to bring off a nerve gas attack in Florida. But there’s a twist. Events in Unto the Breach have left Mike in deep depression. As he works on that, he isn’t afraid to step on toes in order to get things done.

This one is quite a ride, and my vague familiarity of the territory (the Keys, mainland Florida and the Bahamas) made it all flow smoothly. The culture shock between “by the book” US law officialdow and “get it done” Keldara is played for lots of laughs. Reading between the lines, though, there is an astute critique of current US anti terrorism efforts and the debate surrounding them.

Unto the Breach (Paladin of Shadows IV) – John Ringo

The fourth book of the series has Mike and the Mountain Tigers has them recovering a WMD from nearby Chechnya.

This is arguably the best in the series. It starts a bit slow, but the last 150 pages or so are one long battle with more excitement and fast moving twists than you can shake a Keldara axe at. At the end, some secrets are revealed. And Mike is broken psychologically. Very nice.

Choosers of the Slain (Paladin of Shadows III) – John Ringo

In the third book of the series, things really start to heat up. Ringo takes us on a scenic tour of the white slavery movement in Eastern Europe as a senator “hires” Mike and his Mountain Tigers retainers to find a girl caught up in prostitution and slavery. The subject matter is quite awful but such is reality.

Ringo is really hitting his stride here with great action scenes and development of the characters. This book also inserts some interesting interactions with senior officials of various states. As with the earlier books, I couldn’t put it down.

3½Rosbochs

Kildar (Paladin of Shadows II) – John Ringo

Mike from Ghost is back. While driving through Georgia (the country not the state), our hero is snowed in while in a remote mountain valley. On a whim, he buys the local caravanserai, which also comes with a large farm and most of the valley. He thus inherits the local retainers, a group known as the Keldara. These brew the best beer he has ever tasted, and (of course) turn out to be an ancient warrior tribe. He proceeds to set up a militia to combat Chechen incursions. He is also saddled with a harem of rescued former sex slaves. Storywise, this is more of a set-up book for further novels than anything else.

While Ringo could have continued to write episodic novels about covert operations ad infinitum, he wisely decided to take the character somewhere completely different, both literally and figuratively. Having established that  Ghost is a filthy rich badass former SEAL who likes rough sex and killing bad guys, Ringo decided to make him every man’s wet dream.

It all beggars belief more than a little, but Ringo is unapologetic. There’s also a strong underlying message of the American Way being superior, especially compared to “ragheads from central Asia”. Ringo has written a modern equivalent of John Norman’s Gor Books. There is even a reference in the book. I enjoyed reading it and, like the first, it is a real page turner. It won’t win any literary awards, but that is hardly the objective. Ringo knows exactly which buttons to press with the average male. Sometimes it borders on the insultingly blatant, but that’s fine. This book is actually a guilty pleasure of mine, and I often re-read it when I have nothing else to read. It always entertains.

4½Rosbochs

Ghost (Paladin of Shadows I) – John Ringo

Our hero, Mike Harmon AKA “Ghost”, is an ex-SEAL trying to get by. Through somewhat random circumstances, he ends up foiling a terrorist plot to kidnap and torture American college girls. Now rich with reward money, he moves to the Keys. And ends up foiling a plot to place a nuke on American soil. After that, he ends up in Russia, where he… You get the picture. The book is episodic, with three quite distinct parts. Constant are the visceral, brutal, violent action scenes as well as the explicit and kinky sex.

I came in expecting special forces action. And yes, there is a lot of that. Quite good too. What I didn’t expect was all the erotica. Which is also good if you’re into that sort of thing.

A fun read, but not for the liberal. The hero’s views are quite, ahem, “Republican” when it comes to terrorism and how to deal with it. There is in fact, and somewhat unexpectedly, quite a bit of deep thought between the lines.

The Ten Thousand – Harold Coyle

Even though the premise is a bit unrealistic, I really enjoyed this. A German Chancellor who is something of an anti-nuclear weapon fanatic forbids an American division transporting nuclear arms to go through Germany. Said division has to fight their way to the sea. The military stuff is well done, and the characters are truly three dimensional. The title and story are based on Xenophon’s account of the “Ten Thousand” and their march back to Greece in 401-399 BC.

America – Stephen Coonts

Unusually for Coonts, there is almost no flying. This is a vaguely passable technothriller in Tom Clancy style. Still not as polished as it could be, and Coonts fails to make the last half as gripping as the first. Also, I had a hard time believing the motivations and actions of the bad guys. Having said all that, I didn’t want to put it down until the end.

The Intruders – Steven Coonts

Coonts used to fly A-6 Intruders of carriers. This makes him, per definition, a cool guy. Pity that he forgot to throw in a plot in this novel. If you like planes, you will probably enjoy it anyway. Coonts’ hero Jake Grafton meets his wife in this novel. There, I gave half the “plot” away.

 

The Teeth of the Tiger – Tom Clancy

Oh how the mighty have fallen! Some of my favorite novels are The Hunt for Red October and Executive Orders., products of a true master. By the time he wrote this novel, though, Mr. Clancy seemed to have lost it his touch. Red Rabbit was at best passable and The Teeth of the Tiger continued the decline. Full of platitudes (“if possible, the service in Vienna was even better than in Munich”) and repetitions, it makes one believe the rumors that he does not write anymore, and the novels are group efforts by his staff. Supposedly, Clancy supervises and approves. It’s very sad to see what was once a great author who has declined so much.

Having said that, The Teeth of the Tiger is still a somewhat entertaining novel, arguably worth a read for the Clancy fan. The story is about a US agency so deep undercover that it is not even part of the government (insert worrying comments about vigilantism here) and terrorism against America. Unfortunately it is predictable to the point of annoyance on the part of this reader., I really wanted to like this book, and was having a pretty good time. Unfortunately the ending, while in fact coming to some sort of conclusion, does leave a lot of stuff just hanging there.

Red Rabbit – Tom Clancy

A somewhat enjoyable story of a young Jack Ryan, also featuring the Foleys during their time in Moscow. Not nearly as “big” a story as most of Clancy’s novels. It seems a bit “Clancy by numbers”; in other words what you’d expect him to write with regards to subject matter and type of story, but without any of the great qualities of his earlier works. Despite its flaws, I nonetheless liked this tale of a defection from the Soviet Union. Still, Clancy has shown many times that he can do better than this.

 

The Bear and the Dragon – Tom Clancy

A return to form for Clancy after the lackluster Rainbow Six, this novel nevertheless struck me as pretty formulaic. It was very cool, though, to see military cooperation between Russia and the United States. I enjoyed this one a lot. Watch for Pavel Petrovich Gogol, a very cool guy.

Rainbow Six – Tom Clancy

A step away from Jack Ryan, although he still lurks in the background. Unfortunately, this novel marks a decided slump in the quality of Clancy’s writing. There is nothing wrong with the story, although I found the motivation of the bad guys a bit too James Bond’ish. I just did not feel a compelling need to finish the book. It was a bit dull, especially compared to earlier Clancy are. You won’t miss anything by skipping directly to The Bear and the Dragon.

Some say that he does not write anymore, but only oversees a staff. I don’t know about that. My opinion is that this novel was written mainly as a selling vehicle for the computer games series released around the same time by Clancy’s games company Red Storm. The Rainbow Six games are very much about the counter-terrorism unit depicted in the novel.