Knight Hawk, Pat O’Connell

Leisure, 1997, 358 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-8439-4253-3

If you’re looking for a quick trash techno-thriller, hop on board, because Knight Hawk is all guns and few brains, a guilty pleasure that’ll leave your mind half-satisfied.

This is a novel that doesn’t dawdle, even at its very beginning. By page 50, a “statuesque and shapely dark-haired woman” called Kim Kenada (Brief AKIRA flashback: “Tetsuo!” “Kenada!”, etc…) has commandeered a top-of-the-line F-15 armed with two nuclear weapons and taken off, leaving behind burning trucks, a few crashed planes and a trail of bodies. As the entire US Air Force scrambles after her, it’s obvious that she’s got scores to settle… and enough nuclear explosives to reduce, say, New York or Washington to glowing cinders.

But who is that woman and what does she want? Knight Hawk‘s only deviation from its tight pacing occurs as we flashback and see Kenada’s younger years, and the cold calculating way in which she murders her cheating husband. (See? Nothing to worry about; merely one run-of-the-mill psychotic terrorist!) Otherwise, the novel seems paced in real-time, taking place between 19:05 and 23:00 on one clear January night. Impressive conceit, and it actually does work quite well.

How well? That would be judged by the number of fun scenes O’Connell manages to cram in a few hundred pages. It’s obvious from the get-go that Knight Hawk is an action novel through-and-through. The dogfights quickly accumulate as Kenada manages (from a plane she’s never flown before!) to shoot down dozens of expert fighter pilots. (What can we say? According to the novel, she learnt it all on her IBM PC.) One gets the impression that most of O’Connell’s research was performed using Microprose’s “F-15 Strike Eagle III” flight simulator. On the “ridiculously easy” setting.

The centrepiece of the book is undoubtedly a massive dogfight above and between Manhattan’s skyscrapers, as dozens of jets cause untold damage to the New York skyline while trying to catch that one PC-trained rookie terrorist. Missiles fly, jets explode, windows shatter from sonic booms, Central Park gets hit a few times and it all culminates both with a fly-between the World Trade Center and a nuclear detonation above the city. Whew! I’d pay good money for a movie version of this novel, only for this crazy sequence alone. It’s exhilarating in its go-for-broke willingness to ignore most of what we’d consider to be normal physics. Most of all, it’s tremendous fun. The rest of the novel is downhill from there despite a nifty climax above Washington DC landmarks.

I would be less than forthright if I didn’t point out the superbly over-the-top quality of the ending, which manages to run all the way through the very last paragraph before revealing the grand bogeyman behind this whole fiendish plot—our good old friend Saddam! If by that time you’re not shrieking with laughter, well, I’m sorry, there is nothing I can do for you. Knight Hawk just isn’t the kind of novel you’re likely to enjoy.

On the other hand, it is true that not many people are likely to enjoy Knight Hawk, if only because it’s such a terrible novel. Evil protagonist Kenada is significantly more appealing than any of the other cardboard characters only because she actually has a personality of sorts, as clichéd as it may be. The rest are essentially names and pay grades, with scant place in the plot but in shouting orders and exclamations of astonishment. One pilot manages to accidentally destroy sections of the Staten Island Bridge, an oil tanker and at least two other aircrafts (including his own), and the best the novel can do is the equivalent of an embarrassed grin—and damn the dead civilians. The quality of the writing isn’t much better than adequate, and is frequently dull when not describing action scenes.

And so it comes to pass that even though Knight Hawk contains more honest mayhem than any five randomly-selected techno-thrillers, it’s still a very disappointing book. A better writer could have done miracles with those insane action scenes or even the bare outlines of the plot. As it currently stands, though, Knight Hawk‘s only literary merit is in the compressed pacing. It’ll be of interest to military fiction-fans with an unquenchable penchant for Cool Scenes, but few others. Too bad; there’s a lot of wasted potential there.

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