Point of Impact, John Nichol

Hodder & Stoughton, 1996, 310 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-340-67181-5

The relationship between authors and their novels is often surprising. After all, it’s their job to feel, to imagine and to describe what the ordinary readership hasn’t got a chance to live. Despite this, most thriller writers have never been chased across countries by international conspiracies. Most Science-Fiction authors have never gone into space. Romance writers are usually comfortably married, and it’s a fair bet to state that their romantic experiences were far less extreme than those of their protagonists.

Military thrillers (to isolate a particularly interesting segment of the publishing spectrum) often buck this trend by being written by active, or retired military personnel. (Even then, it’s quite an irony to see that the best known of them, Tom Clancy, has never been in the military.) The list is impressive (Dale Brown, Harold Coyle, Ralph Peters, Joe Weber, even the late General Sir John Hackett) and now include ex-RAF pilot John Nichol.

Fact is, you may have already seen Nichol on TV: During the Gulf War, we was shot down over Iraq and held forty-nine days as a POW. But his career neither began nor ended there: He flew over Bosnia, the South Atlantic and other bases around the world during his fifteen-year career. In short, he knows what he’s talking about when dealing with military planes. After two co-written nonfiction books (Tornado Down and Team Tornado, with John Peters), Nichol flies solo with his debut novel, Point of Impact.

This novel opens with an airplane crash, a scene we’ll see often during the following three hundred pages. The niggling problem of unreliable machines thus being introduced, we encounter our hero (all-around good guy Drew Miller), his sidekick and his love interest, in addition to the usual crowd of interlinking supporting characters. (Would you believe that the love interest’s father is the Vice Air Marshall? Shocking!)

Before anyone can catch their breath, the protagonist crashes a few time, sleeps with the love interest and gets to kill a few people. While savvy readers of genre have already seen all of this before, it’s always a relief to see the ingredients being mixed in such a competent manner. As could be expected, the technical details seem plausible enough, and the atmosphere of the flying brotherhood of pilots is sharply drawn.

This isn’t an overly ambitious work, and it works pretty well most of the time. The romance angle is inconsistently convincing, and the novel does take a while to get going (not to mention that the solution of the “mystery” is fairly evident to readers well-read in computer sciences…) but the ensemble is a pretty enjoyable read up to the end, where…

[Strong, but vague and ominous, spoilers in next paragraph]

Point of Impact takes a depressing tragic turn. Just as all the chips have been turned, just as the hero is proven right, the heavy hand of Fate Itself slaps down Drew Miller and the reader at the same time. Nichol won’t be accused of a gratuitous happy-ending. It can be argued that it was the only way to wrap up the novel decently, but even then, this conclusion is unsatisfying, with unnecessary suspense about the identity of a survivor (Note to authors: Do it only if you have to.) and a suddenly passive love interest. Then again, an unhappy ending is just the kind of thing that give (unwarranted) credibility to an author. But after the meanly efficient Bosnia passage, it’s not as if Nichol could be accused of being an “easy” author.

This caveat aside, Point of Impact is a slightly superior military thriller. The British perspective is different enough to interest even the slightly-jaded American genre fan, and the novel makes great summer reading once it takes off.

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