Reviewer Steve Moore: Steve is a full-time writer and ex-scientist. Besides his many technical publications, he has written six sci-fi thrillers (one a novel for young adults), many short stories, and frequent comments on writing and the digital revolution in publishing. His interests also include physics, mathematics, genetics, robotics, forensics, and scientific ethics. Follow Here for his WEBSITE.
The Good. This book represents about 90% of what a novel needs in order to be a good thriller. There’s mystery and suspense too. In my first read where I put on my R&R hat and expect to be entertained, it did just that, moving along well for the most part with a deadly plot, some interesting characters, settings I’m familiar with, and some nice twists. Think of it as running the marathon: the reader starts out at a brisk pace, maybe does a few water stations along the way, but speeds up for a dazzling, breathless finish, if you stop at Chapter Thirty-Five (see below).
The mystery comes from not knowing exactly what the terrorists’ plans are, of course. The reader starts digesting information as it’s provided, but the protagonists are in the dark for a while. It doesn’t take authorities long, with major help from a civilian, to figure out there is something big afoot, to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes: a major terrorist strike (or strikes) that seem very plausible considering the state of the world today.
There’s an interesting interagency battle too. The reorganization of the U.S. security apparatus after 9/11 didn’t solve many problems and created more bureaucracy and personal fiefdoms where incompetent bureaucrats hinder more than help those who prefer to act and not bloviate and seek advancement. The author portrays that well. To quote from the text: “Every time someone has a bright idea to reform a bureaucracy, all they end up doing is creating a whole new layer of bureaucracy on top of what already exists.” The man in charge, SecHS, is portrayed as a political hack (it’s a cabinet position, and those are just political rewards). DHS was Mr. Bush’s bureaucratic answer to a problem requiring a different solution—efficiency and more cooperation.
This is the theme of the book. One civilian Jack Reagan (OK, he has a non-civilian past, but that’s all I’ll say about it—the reader will figure that out before the agencies do) is able to get a lot more done than three agencies combined—NCIS, FBI, and CIA—because he blows away the bureaucratic nonsense. His most effective partners are a few Navy SEALs and an NCIS rookie agent. Call it “thinking outside the box” if you like to be positive, or “loose cannons” if you like to be negative, but Reagan and friends get the job done. Those agencies back him up, but they would have been largely ineffective without him. The directors of those agencies know it too. (SecHS is too much of a political hack to know anything.)
Are the terrorist Mansuraev’s goals worth all the trouble? Who knows how a psychotic sociopath’s mind really works? Our kids are volunteering to join ISIS; men, women, and children strap on suicide vests, thinking their actions are a pathway to heaven; Middle Eastern countries dance a tightrope between good and evil in order to perpetuate their hegemony; our dependence on oil makes us commit illogical acts; and our foreign policies are dictated by “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” no matter the moral pulchritude of the country or group in question. Psychosis seems to be the norm now, so adding Mansuraev to the mix seems almost the new normal, a sad state of affairs.
But like Garcia Marquez’s dictator in Autumn of the Patriarch, the terrorist is a well-drawn amalgam of every psychotic fanatic. He’s the author’s best character. I looked forward to those segments in his point of view because the author allows us to peek into the mind of a madman. He has a polished veneer too, a man who adapts to the West but wants to destroy it, living out a hypocrisy many terrorists live. Mankind has always had psychotics like this. On today’s stage, though, they’re given modern tools to do immense harm.
The Bad. I identified more with the FBI and NCIS directors than with main character (MC) Jack Reagan, the civilian Good Samaritan. The directors seemed to have the big picture: counterterrorism is a bipartisan issue, a moral issue, in fact, that’s part of the centuries-old war between good and evil. No matter the political proclivities and partisan discussions about how to fight terrorism, we must fight it.
Reagan lets politics warp his thinking and chooses only those who agree with them for his plans. He says, “It’s been my experience that talking politics with people you like or respect can lead to disappointment, especially when they don’t share your views….” That borders on fanaticism too. I suppose hardcore hawks will identify with his worldview. But people like Reagan can’t rise to greatness because they put politics above effective decision-making and subsequent actions.
MC Jack Reagan, an anti-hero of sorts, is, in fact, an extreme copy of Clancy’s Jack Ryan and has a similar background. But Ryan has the better historical perspective. He was a historian; Reagan is a lawyer. I could identify with Ryan—he gets the job done better by using all the cards he’s dealt; Clancy just tells the story and doesn’t dwell on Ryan’s politics. At the same time, Ryan is more life-like. While Reagan is larger than life, he loses some of his humanity in the process of being such a political animal. The true soldier is apolitical; the fighter against terrorism fights for all decent people everywhere.
In Reagan’s defense, though, he has moments of clarity. Speaking of the NCIS and FBI directors, he says they are “honorable men…who obviously valued achievement over politics.” In other words, Reagan is conflicted in his own mindset. Let’s give him a pass, then, and assume “achievement over politics” is his motivation too, and not his politics. He also has the ability to command and use others’ skills to get the job done. He’s not a Jack Ryan, but he’s a winner, and those working with him want to be winners too. Whether that kind of loose cannon in the counterterrorism fight is as effective as someone more accepting of different political opinions remains to be seen in real life, but it’s a moot point—we don’t have either Ryans or Reagans it seems, only a bureaucracy with a lot of inertia.
I found some technical lapses in the writing here and there. The story opens with a terrorist attack in a small park. The reader has a pretty good idea how that plays out via multiple points of view, so later s/he doesn’t need Reagan to repeat it in dialogue to the NCIS agents. Even though SecHS is a political hack, I also echo his protest about NCIS involving civilian Reagan in their investigation. This would never happen in real life—being “read in” to a classified program or task force isn’t a trivial process (later on, after the climax, NCIS admits it will take at least a week for Reagan, which is still fast).
Involving Reagan was a weak plot mechanism for keeping him connected to the terrorist case. National security issues would never be discussed at a wedding reception either. Reagan does so, but he isn’t the real culprit in that case—his friends are, because they’re the ones with the clearances! Finally, Holmes might have needed Watson, but Reagan doesn’t. The NCIS rookie Amanda Watson is the gratuitous Hollywood-like romantic interest for macho-man Reagan. That’s OK in films; it doesn’t always work in books. Even Lee Child is guilty of this, so I guess it’s not that big of a deal. (More on this romance later.)
A few more technical notes: there are some lapses in point-of-view that are confusing, and some awkward changes to omniscient. The dialogue sparkles—the author does an excellent job with it—but it’s often run together. This might be a formatting problem, but it’s quite a distraction. The few editing errors that remain weren’t enough to bother me.
And the Ugly. There’s one major flaw in this novel: a cliffhanger of sorts. Maybe other readers won’t mind it so much—it seems to be a generic disease affecting the book industry today. The cliffhanger here could have been minimized, but the protracted lead-up to it is tedious. This author has a story to tell and gets it done for the most part, following Clancy’s dictum: “I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I try to keep it simple: Tell the damned story.” The book should have ended somewhere in Chapter Thirty-Five. Instead the author subjects us to several chapters describing sex games between Watson and Reagan that only serve as a silly interlude to the cliffhanger.
Maybe this author just received some bad advice from an editor or fellow author? This mechanism is used too much by authors, especially indies, who think a cliffhanger will motivate readers to buy the next book in the series. Maybe they’ve watched too many Amazon or Netflix serializations, often just versions of the old soap opera concept. I don’t mind a bit of teaser: the antagonist gets away—does s/he come back to play? The protagonist’s revenge isn’t consummated—will that happen later? You get the idea.
Take a look at every successful book series. Some characters and settings might be common to each book, but there’s always a finished story in each one—if not, you can’t claim it’s a novel because then the series only reduces to a serialization with very long chapters. The next book in a true book series has a different complete story, the next adventure for those characters. James Patterson’s Alex Cross series is a good example, but there are many.
Sure, the author can refer to adventures in previous books. Sure, with subtle hints from the author, readers can be left wondering what the next adventure will be and yearn for it. It’s a matter of degree. The Goldilocks principle should apply—just the right taste of things to come, assuming you’re already planning a series. Maybe even if a series isn’t planned. We should be past Christie’s technique of wrapping the whole case up at the end. But after Chapter Thirty-Five, I was asking, “Where is this author going?” That material is toward the end of the book—an overly extended denouement. At the end, I knew the answer: nowhere, for now.
So, if you read this book, which is otherwise a very entertaining read, stop somewhere in Chapter Thirty-Five. I liked most everything up to that point (most items mentioned in the section “The Bad” were noticed in my second reading where I had my critic/analyst/editor hat on). If you like everything up to that point, stop there and wait for the next book. Otherwise, you might be as disappointed as I was. Or not.