Choosers of the Slain, James H. Cobb

Berkley, 1996, 338 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-16053-X

The publishing industry seems to work in booms and busts. One year, fat fantasy trilogies are the rage; others, procedural murder mysteries are what gets bought. These cycles usually dramatically affect the midlist catalogue, causing good times and bad times. Die-hard fans of one particular sub-genre may pine for “golden years” when their chosen genre was all the rage.

Among techno-thriller fans, this period is roughly between 1988 and 1992 (ironically enough; the last years of the Cold War), where big complex novels of imaginary wars underwent their apogee in terms of publishing attention. During that time, Tom Clancy wrote The Cardinal of the Kremlin and Clear and Present Danger, Dale Brown Day of the Cheetah, Larry Bond Vortex, with other authors like Harold Coyle, Payne Harrison and Joe Weber producing their best novels.

Now, Clancy feels bloated, Brown has lost its freshness, Harrison has turned UFO-nutso and Bond, Coyle and Weber have moved on to historical novels or -gack- plain thrillers. It’s easy to say that the technothriller boom of the early has come and gone. But that’s a simplistic view of things, because no publishing sub-genre ever dies; it may go underground, sustain less authors, but if you look hard enough, nothing ever prevents you from finding a steady trickle of good technothrillers in the late nineties.

James H. Cobb’s first novel, Choosers of the Slain, is a perfect example of the kind of totally enjoyable technothriller to come by in the “lean” years of the technothriller. It’s short, snappy, to the point, completely fluent in the conventions of the genre and genuinely thrilling. As with most memorable techno-thrillers, the setting has been chosen with maximum impact in order to provide chills to the reader: Antarctica.

This isn’t the first time that the Southern latitudes have been mined by technothrillers authors. Payne Harrison’s superlative Thunder of Erebus used the setting to maximum effect, producing a novel as exciting as it was memorable. More recently (ah-ha, another good late-nineties technothriller!), Judith and Steven Garfield-Reeves’ 1998 Icefire used Antarctica’s ice shelf as a pivotal plot device for a globe-spanning techno-thriller.

But Cobb brings new things to Antarctica, the most striking of them being a female military protagonist, USS Cunningham Commander Amanda Garrett. It is she who will have to hold sentry for the US Government, as a blockade is imposed on Argentina for the invasion of British bases on the south continent. While Argentineans prepare intimidation manoeuvres and, later on, all-out attacks on her stealth destroyer, Garrett also finds herself attracted to another member of the crew… already proving herself to be a notch above her automaton cardboard counterparts in most other technothrillers. Neither superwoman nor feminist poster heroine, Garrett is entirely believable, and it’s to Cobb’s credit that he’s able to sustain her presence without resorting to easy clichés. Support human characters; buy the book!

Most importantly, Choosers of the Slain has everything you’d like in a technothriller: Great title, believable premise, sympathetic supporting protagonists, very cool gadgets, historical depth, optimized length (neither too short nor too g’darn long), spectacular combat scenes and limpid writing. It has its flaws (the romantic subplot grates somewhat, though it must be noted that this isn’t the immediate down-and-dirty affair you’d expect, but a rather restrained, even mature, series of quiet scenes), but usually it’s simply a lot of fun.

Cobb proves that the legacy of the technothriller’s heydays is still alive and well. Choosers of the Slain is the first book in a series and bodes well for the other volumes. (The equally enjoyable Sea Strike is available in paperback, with another announced later in 2000) In the meantime, techno-thrillers fans will be able to get their escapist fix and discover a new hot author to replace the fallen ones.

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