Berkley, 2001, 473 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-18446-3
As long as Dale Brown will continue to write more novels in his increasingly unworkable series, his fiction will continue to suffer. Warrior Class, like Brown’s last few books, is no exception to this trend: at best, it’s a grab-bag of ideas made weaker by the necessities of serial fiction. At worst, it showcases why Brown has lost the place he enjoyed at the top of the techno-thriller writers’ pantheon.
Plot-wise, it’s another re-thread of the usual: Once more in this comfortably post-Cold War Browniverse, US interests and world peace are indissociably threatened when a Russian gangster seizes an advanced warplane to ensure his own plans for private economic supremacy. It’s up to Patrick McLanahan, again, to fight the good fight using his high-tech toys and a complete disregard for the protocols of military engagement.
But in what feels like a breath of fresh air, there are consequences to this type of cow-boy mentality. As the novel slowly opens, we’re introduced to a new US President: Thomas Nathaniel Thorn is Kevin Martindale’s successor and as befits his name, he proves to be quite a thorn in the heel of the US military. A third-party governor from eeevil liberal Vermont, Thorn is not much for official ceremonies but truly enjoys Transcendental Meditation. What more, he’s ready to sharply reduce the size of the armed forces and reveal confidential information to the public. Surprisingly enough, Brown resist the temptation to paint him as a foolish villain (though this may come later in the series).
Meanwhile, Patrick McLanahan is sitting pretty in Nevada as the operational chief of the top-secret high-tech “Dreamland” facility. When tensions erupt in Eastern Europe, he’s fast up on a plane trying to do what he does best: breaking direct orders. When things turn sour, only a presidential gambit saves him from certain death. Unsurprisingly, he finds himself nudged toward the civilian life as soon as he lands. This, of course, just won’t do…
From the above, you may suppose that this is a significant entry in the McLanahan saga, and you would be half-right: On some aspects, Warrior Class shows some promise and excitement. McLanahan has often defied orders without consequences, so it’s only too fitting to see him suffer from the fallout once in a while. His trajectory out of active service surely won’t be allowed to stand for more than a volume or two , but it’s a development that could be interesting. (Indeed, by the end of the novel it’s only too obvious that Brown is indulging into one of the favorite fantasies of many right-wing writers: A private armed force that can pretty much kill whoever it wants without any kind of paperwork.)
But there are problems, and many of these spring from the uneasy interaction between reality and Brown’s universe. It’s bad enough that an author’s note at the beginning of the book has to explain what fictional constraints were introduced in previous books, only to be followed with three pages of “real-world news excerpts”. A significant problem is, of course, that Brown gets to keep what he likes and ditch what’s inconvenient; there’s a mention of what happened in Day of the Cheetah even despite the fact that Brown’s 1988 novel was clearly a story that took place in a world where the USSR made it intact to 1997!
But even overlooking the problems in trying to stick to a series well beyond its best-by date, Warrior Class has problems of its own. As with most of the latest Brown novels, it spends too much time with “the enemy” even as the emotional strength of the novel is with the American characters: Little of what’s discussed by the antagonist is relevant to the rest of the novel. McLanahan himself doesn’t make an appearance in the first fifth of the novel, a delay that highlights the narrative’s padded nature more than anything else. A number of subplots go nowhere and do nothing, bringing along a few supporting characters: You really have to work hard at extracting the good from the bad in this bloated excuse for a military novel.
It doesn’t get any better later on, as fancy gadgets work alongside realistic military hardware. Brown has never been at his best portraying realism: Chains of Command tried to stick as closely as possible to reality, and it was a singularly dull novel. On the other hand, Brown’s earlier deftness with fancy hardware has lately metastasized into an unwieldy habit of reusing the same gadgets over and over again. Here, the silly “Tin Man” suits make a return appearance and the result is more ridiculous than exciting.
As callous at it may sound, Brown’s next, Wings of Fire, should be worth a read if only to find out how he’ll handle 9/11’s major reality reset. How will he square Bush, al Quaeda and the rest with increasingly fanciful tales of big bombers and super-powered suits? Of course, he could choose to ignore it completely and go even deeper in his dead-end universe… which wouldn’t be surprising.