Berkley, 1998, 474 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-17858-7
If you read a lot of military thrillers, you may feel as if you can know everything about this book merely by reading the cover jacket: A young naval aviator following the footsteps of his celebrated father. A mysterious accident during a combat mission. The hunt for a traitor. Ah-ha.
Reading the first few chapters, in which our protagonist comes to learn about life on-board an aircraft carrier, you may even feel that your assumptions are correct: This is going to be yet another average military thriller, with plenty of military details and vignettes, all leading up to a confrontation with the evil traitor. With a few combat scenes.
Well, the above summary is not entirely incorrect (especially the part about the final confrontation), but the twists and turns in the tale make it a little different from the usual military thriller.
For one thing, the biggest departure takes place as soon as the protagonist ends his tour of duty and goes back stateside for an assignment in naval intelligence. Yep; no more aircraft carrier life for us as we’re thrown, unusually enough, in the mechanics of intelligence analysis at home. While you’d except a fictional traitor to be exposed within days, Rules of Engagement stretches out over weeks, then months, then years. The death of the protagonist’s father is investigated, then dropped, then raised again.
Rules of Engagement is, at times, a military thriller, a procedural mystery, an adventure novel and a spy suspense. The story twists and turns, characters are introduced or dropped (I especially liked the sudden revelation of the hero’s initial love interest as a promiscuous, coke-addled schemestress. Whew!) as the story is told over years, spanning the Gulf War (carefully kept in the background, if you can believe that of a military thriller) and the evolution of a career. Even the usual right-wing slant of most military fiction seems carefully leashed here, a smart choice that will broaden the book’s appeal to all sorts of readers.
The focus on desk-bound analysis and intelligence work is certainly interesting: Apprehending a traitor takes a lot of work from several people, and it’s a treat to see this treated as a bureaucratic endeavour, with a team of investigators and the usual amount of red tape. The way this is mixed with spycraft and military protocols is quite intriguing and does a lot to distinguish this novel from countless other similar novels. Gordon Kent (actually a pseudonym for Ken and Christian Cameron, a father-and-son team whose web site can be found at www.navnow.com) knows his stuff and shows an impressive ability to ground his fiction in believable reality. It all moves more slowly than usual, but there are a lot of good details in this book.
That’s good, but is it good enough? Well, it all depends on your tolerance for drawn-out plots. At some point near the novel’s two-third mark, things are proceeding too rapidly: The villain has been identified and all that’s left is to apprehend him. But, just as the novel should slide smoothly to a perfect finish, complications arise, and an unwelcome fourth act springs from the third, transforming the cloak-and-dagger intrigue to an adventure in a dangerous foreign land. It may sound intriguing, but once it happens, it’s hard to keep going the extra mile along with the author; a shorter finish would have done much to keep the best parts of the novel intact. As it is, the pleasantness of the book is almost stretched beyond reasonable indulgence by the last hundred pages.
It’s still a pretty good book, mind you. But the lengths are barely justifiable in the context of a genre novel which should move as quickly as possible. It doesn’t help that the conclusion requires the involvement of another major character who really shouldn’t have been involved. Still, if that’s the kind of thing unlikely to bother you, there are certainly worse novels out there than this intriguing debut.