Bantam, 1999, 555 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58003-5
Dale Brown’s last few novels have been a rough patch of reading. After a spate of steadily disappointing aerial thrillers ending with the dismal Fatal Terrain, he made a well-intentioned, but ultimately unsuccessful foray into more land-bound action with the techno-fantasy The Tin Man. While his early novels remain models of the techno-thriller genre, Brown has since been unable to re-capture that earlier spark. The bad news with Battle Born is that he still has a way to go. The good news is that his latest book is a step in the right direction.
For starters, perennial Brown protagonist Patrick McLanahan is back in the air. While I’m not too fond of series fiction and even less of Brown’s obstinate refusal to start completely afresh, there’s little doubt after the silliness of The Tin Man that McLanahan (and maybe even Brown) are at their best when they’re flying. As Battle Born opens with an exciting training sequence featuring B-1B bombers, we sense that, somehow, we’re back in a comfortable environment.
Fortunately, there is some evolution in this series. Time is catching up with McLanahan: His career has progressed to what may now be called a supervisory position. After a training accident, the Nevada National Guard Bombing unit has to be re-certified for active duty and the officer responsible for re-grading the unit is McLanahan. Of course, he may have plans of his own concerning the fate of the unit…
You see, technology also marches on. Dreamland, the gee-whiz research and development shop explored in previous Brown novels, is back in business and fiddling around with B-1B bombers rather than creaky old B-52s. More than just rejuvenating the jargon, this also gives a face-lift to the series: While B-52s are still expected to keep on flying for several more decades, Brown (himself an ex-B-52 crewmember) had definitely milked the plane for all it was worth during his previous novels. The new emphasis on the B-1B is a chance to explore a few more capabilities and update the limits of airborne military intervention. Series fans won’t be overly surprised to learn that Dreamland has now adapted the “Megafortress” concept to embrace the B-1B.
Battle Born is never better than when it follows the National Reserve crewmembers trying to regain their certification. In these scenes, Brown is writing from the heart and it shows: There’s a real spirit to the scenes between the fliers, and so the book’s best sequence comes during a highly unorthodox training exercise in which procedures are repeatedly broken –with consequences. Whew; it’s good to have the old Dale Brown back, even if only for a few pages. Once the Guard fliers are brought in the Dreamland fold under McLanahan’s supervision, well, it’s a clear signal that the series just got a boost of energy. (Unfortunately, it also includes a bit more silliness in the form of subcutaneous always-on transmitter/communicators.)
Given all of this, it’s a real shame that Brown had to go and include a full-scale war in the same novel.
Hey, it’s not as if wars aren’t a good and cool thing to read about in a techno-thriller. Unfortunately, the way through which Brown shows how a United Korea goes to war with China with nuclear weapons (!) just doesn’t ring true, nor does it make the most out of the tension offered by the situation. For every good scene in which the American Vice-President is stuck in the middle of an impossible situation, or in which departing Chinese soldiers are stopped from smuggling weapons out of the newly-united Korea, the novel bogs down in foreign minutia handled without much energy or interest. You can almost hear the gears and pulleys moving in Brown’s head as he makes up a war as a way to prove his new Dreamland crew. Sadly, it comes it too late and too predictably. Despite the wholly unnecessary final sacrifice of the novel’s best new character, Battle Born deflates as it suddenly sprints toward a finish. A shorter, snappier novel would have been more interesting.
(Add to that the difficulty of setting up a convincing international crisis in a series where nuclear weapons have been detonated a few times after Nagasaki. Whoever cares for series fiction as little as I do may start giggling as the characters remind each other of the fact that China atom-blasted an American base in a previous novel and… nothing much happened. The big problem with series thrillers is that their imagined geopolitics stop matching those of the real world, or require so much back-tracking that they become ridiculous.)
Still, Battle Born still feels a lot better than Brown’s novels since Storming Heavens. As characters repeat to each other, “Battle Born” is Nevada’s state motto. But it’s also appropriate for a novel that carries along a faint whiff of rebirth. If I had my choice, Brown should drop the McLanahan series entirely. But I’m just a lone reader in an ocean of commercial imperatives: If Brown is going to continue with the same characters, Battle Born shows the way to go. Now let’s see what happens in Warrior Class.