Rainbow Six, Tom Clancy

Putnam, 1998, 740 pages, C$38.99 hc, ISBN 0-399-14390-4

Tom Clancy has long been one of my first favourite authors, as far back as I can remember being able to form the concept of “a favourite author”. I recall plunking down a fair amount of change for a (then) complete paperback collection of his novels. (Since then, of course, I’ve discovered other authors even “better” than Clancy, but that’s neither here or now.)

As might be expected, however, It always seems like the best books are from before you discover the author. Having read Clancy’s first five books in rapid succession, they still form kind of a superior unified work in my mind. As such, each new Clancy book is an anxiously anticipated half-disappointment compared to the classics.

To that problem, we can add the very worrying trend of seeing the “Tom Clancy” trademark on a variety of inferior products. Since early 1996, Clancy’s name has been associated with inferior ghostwritten adventure novels, a very bad submarine game “novelisation”, many worthy nonfiction books and an array of computer games. We might ask; where are the novels?

Clancy’s latest “true” book, Rainbow Six, almost straddles the line between novel and marketing product. It certainly didn’t sound good when I heard that a computer game called Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six was being coded at the same time by Clancy’s gaming company, aimed for simultaneous release.

But Clancy fans can now buy in peace: Rainbow Six is Clancy’s first “real” novel since 1996. The difference is apparent: It’s a fat hardcover book, with the wealth of details, action and overwritten subplots that we’ve come to expect from the techno-thriller master.

It’s almost a shame that Rainbow Six‘s biggest weakness is its premise: An international team of highly trained covert operatives is formed to battle terrorists. (Sounds like a G.I.Joe cartoon, yet?) At the same time, a band of fanatic environmentalist scientists is developing a virus designed to kill off the entire human race! Egawd! Will the Rainbow team defuse the threat? Duuuuh!

Well, the good news are that once you’re in the novel, it doesn’t really matter any more. We’re back in the world-famous Clancy prose, which is part clunky, part limpid. As ever, the lack of stylistic touches possesses an undeniable rough elegance. Rainbow Six is also a return to Clancy’s earlier novels in that there are several well-executed action scenes throughout the novel, in opposition to several other recent works (The Sum of All Fears, Executive Orders) where most of the bang was held back until the end. Indeed, Rainbow Six does have something like an anticlimax, or at least a lacklustre finale.

Be warned, however, that since readers demand big fat Clancy novels, Clancy has obliged and the result, as usual, could have been edited down by as much as twenty-five percent.

This is not, by the way, a good novel to enter the Clancyverse. Numerous explicit references are made to the events of earlier novels, and newer readers will be frustrated. It can still be read by itself, but shouldn’t. (Clancy’s flagship character, Jack Ryan, is present, but in the background and then only referenced by title rather than name.)

Rainbow Six does for Special-Forces teams (SWAT, SAS, Delta, SEAL, etc…) what The Hunt for Red October did for submarine crew: It offers a privileged (and, we presume, reasonably exact) glimpse in the lives of some very very special soldiers. After reading Rainbow Six, it’s hard not to trust their real-world expertise at intervening in tense situations.

Given this, it’s a bit of a shame that Clancy had to resort to such dubious video-game premise to fuel his novel. (Not to mention that the virus thing has been done before… in Clancy’s previous novel!) It seems to me like smaller stakes (like the good action set-pieces in the first half of the novel) would have been amply sufficient… especially given the rather disappointing way the whole plot is defused.

Clancy fans will love it. Not many non-fans will be converted. The computer game is said to be adequately good. Clancy delivered the goods: Even with every fault it has, Rainbow Six is a good read.

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