Fortunes of War, Stephen Coonts

St. Martin’s, 1998, 376 pages, C$33.99 hc, ISBN 0-312-18583-9

Regular readers of these reviews know that I have said a lot of nasty things about the current works of those who used to write great techno-thrillers in the early nineties. Tom Clancy has killed his editors. Payne Harrison suffered brain damage and turned UFO-nut. Larry Bond took too much Prozac and now writes simplistic crap. Dale Brown re-writes the same boring book again and again. Harold Coyle got lost in the Civil War and never came back.

Compared to all of his classmates, at least Coonts is making an effort. Granted, The Intruders had problems, and I can’t discuss the formulaic-sounding latest Cuba, Hong-Kong and America trilogy without reading them first, but at the very least he doesn’t actively try to repeat himself. Fortunes of War, despite some shortcomings, is a step in the right direction. One that should be attempted by a few of the afore-mentioned authors.

The first great thing about it is how it does not take place in the author’s flagship universe. Whereas Clancy continues to play in Jack Ryan’s increasingly divergent parallel Earth and Dale Brown re-uses the same characters over and over again, Coonts temporarily abandons his Jake Grafton alter-ego here and branches off in a new world: In the first few pages of the novel, the Japanese emperor is murdered by hard-liners, and preparations are made by the new government to invade oil-rich Siberia. Oh, and both sides have nuclear weapons…

Shortly after Japanese troops take over Siberian cities, American pilot Bob Cassidy is dispatched to the area with a squadron of F-22s. The United States want to stop the Japanese intervention, but political pressures force them to send only pilots who will fight for the Russian air force. Of course, things are more complex once the Americans have to face a new Japanese fighter jet, and Cassidy has to fight against a friend on the other side…

Have I mentioned the coup that drives a rabid dictator to the top of the Russian government? There is a lot of material in here, and it’s Fortunes of War‘s chiefmost problem that it attempts to cover a lot of ground in relatively few pages. Describing a war takes time unless you severely constrain your scope (see Coyle’s Team Yankee), and while Coonts focuses on a few characters, the picture still seems fragmentary.

It doesn’t help that several pages are spent on the wrong things. Most of Cassidy’s fellow pilots are discussed more intricately during their recruitment than after. A lot of time is spent in preparation rather than the actual war itself. There are only a few glances at the ground war. At the same time, the novel flies from the pilots to the politicians. While the beginning is laborious, the ending is rushed. In short, there seems to be a lack of focus.

There’s also, in the middle of this realistic scenario, a bit too much of war-stories dramatics. The “elite corps of competent misfits that has to fight battles on their own” motif is, by now, so over-used that even careful rationalization can’t completely excuse it. The friendship between pilots on opposite sides is interesting, but seems artificial. The Russian dictator is straight out of Central Casting.

Still, the novel is a good read, and not an entirely unsatisfying one. There are good action set-pieces, and a few interesting characters. More of them die than you might expect. Maybe best of all, this novel doesn’t slavishly imitate Coonts’ earlier works, which have concentrated more on the Vietnam War (Flight of the Intruder), limited theater engagements (Final Flight) or more espionage-driven plots (The Minotaur). It’s his first try at a brand-new war; give him some slack. At least he’s working harder at it than his colleagues.

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