Shadows of Steel, Dale Brown

Putnam, 1996, 367 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-399-14139-1

Another book, another enemy, another war.

It must not be an easy job to be a techno-thriller writer. The standard formula -to which one must adhere in order to keep readers- requires at least one non-negotiable variable: An implacable enemy who threaten America’s interests. In the eighties, such an enemy was easy to find: Every country behind the Iron Curtain was an acceptable foe and most novels featured Evil Soviets.

Of course, things weren’t as simple after the Berlin Wall came down. Writers have been forced to use drug dealers, American Terrorists, India, Russian extremists and other more-or-less convincing enemies.

Iran, however, has always been a good enemy (Clancy’s Executive Orders, Coyle’s Sword Point, etc…) and in Shadows of Steel, we go back to the tried-and-true Iranians, whose usual anti-American stance and aspirations toward becoming a regional power makes up for at least a willingness to fight.

On the other hand, these are the enlightened nineties, and only a few of Iran’s craziest military officers wish war with the United States. No matter; before long we’re bombing them again. What else do you need to know about a Dale Brown novel?

If it’s any good? Tough question. Shadows of Steel is a competent technothriller, but invites comparison with other works that will inevitably make it seem less enjoyable than it actually is.

The biggest problem with Shadows of Steel is that it’s part of Dale Brown’s long-running “Patrick McLanahan” series. It brings together characters from many novels, including Skymaster‘s Jon Masters, Day of the Cheetah‘s Wendy McLanahan and Storming Heaven‘s Kevin Martindale. In internal chronology, it takes place after Brown’s second novel Day of the Cheetah. And there lies the difficulty. Brown’s 1989 novel wasn’t very realistic, featuring several fictional high-tech devices in a future seven years removed and postulating a dastardly plot by the Soviets to steal one of America’s newest fighters. On the other hand, it’s still one of Brown’s most exciting novels: Plausibility was more than compensated by slam-bang action and the result was one heck of a good read.

You can guess the rest: Shadows of Steel is so much more down-to-earth (fewer high-tech, more jargon, more actual procedures) that compared to Day of the Cheetah, it’s downright boring. Not entirely boring, mind you: Brown is incapable of delivering anything else than a good read. But the difference between the two novels is shocking, almost as if a soft-spoken attorney reminded you of his past as a Black Panther.

Either Brown wants to be exciting, or he has to match his series’ coherence with real-world markers. There is increasingly less middle ground. Unlike Tom Clancy, whose “Jack Ryan” novels are now ludicrously diverged from reality, Brown is trying to take his wilder earlier novels and tighten them up even more closely with current events. It doesn’t work. Time for new singletons.

Two other major annoyances: Along with the previous Storming Heaven, Shadows of Steel also feels like a series of good-to-great scenes linked together by a thin thread of plot. More ominously, Shadows of Steel concludes on a note that more than feels like if the whole novel was a setup for Brown’s next book (Fatal Terrain).

Is Shadows of Steel still worth a read? As usual, the answer -despite the relative lack of excitement in the plotting- is still that military aviation fans will find here one of the most polished novels dealing with their favorite subject. Non-fans need not enlist.

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