Sea Fighter, James H. Cobb

Jove, 2000, 513 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-12982-8

Over the past year, I’ve read so many limp military thrillers (Brown’s Fatal Terrain, Rugerro’s The Common Defense, Stewart’s The Kill Box, etc…) that I had almost forgotten what it felt like to read a genuinely entertaining one. Fortunately, James H. Cobb’s Sea Fighter was there to make me believe in the genre again.

What often happens with military-series writers is that they eventually get stale, don’t renew their premises, barely allow for character growth and simply lose touch with how to write an exciting novel. Not so here: After two similar novels, Cobb shuffles the deck with skill, and Sea Strike continues the series with sustained originality.

The novel’s first few pages are deliciously jarring, as protagonist Garrett writes a “If you read this, I’m dead…” letter from a marine platform a few miles away from the African coast. Veteran readers of the series will be immediately concerned; where’s “the Duke”, the high-tech destroyer that starred in the first few books? What is Amanda doing, planning to lead a ground expedition in Africa?

The next few pages lay it out for us; the USS Cunningham is in dry-dock for repairs after the events of Sea Strike, and Amanda Garrett’s been offered a post coordinating the UN forces in a nasty little war in Africa. This sets up a devilishly clever scenario where the might of the US military is handicapped by political concerns to such a degree where a battle with an African navy becomes more of a test of cleverness than a war of firepower. Garrett is forced to out-think a dangerously intelligent antagonist and win the war through unconventional means… a intellectual contest in which the biggest winner is the reader.

From large-scale naval engagements, Garrett is forced to move to coastal tactics and gadgets. Amphibious crafts and SEAL-team tactics are in the foreground in Sea Fighter, which is a nice change of pace and a welcome renewal of Cobb’s fiction. The featured techno-gadgets here are the titular “Seafighters”, experimental armed hovercrafts that do pretty much everything including cutting and dicing. The new tactical capabilities of the “Air Cushion Gunboats” are a good excuse for new tactics and original spectacular scenes; Cobb has a lot of fun with his gadgets, and so do the readers. Now that we’ve seen the first military novel about hovercrafts, I’m waiting for one on hydrofoils.

It’s been an axiom of mine that you can reliably gauge the worth of a military technothriller by the number of Cool Scenes it features. Sea Fighter ranks highly on that scale, with an assortment of well-narrated battle scenes, clever maneuvering on both sides of the conflict and accessible political/strategic considerations. The care with which the antagonist is established as a nuanced opponent is one of the highlights of the novel and yet another facet of Cobb’s skill.

While war is a grim subject and current real-world conflict headlines are hardly amusing, military novels are a different things, and indeed the best of them can also be distinguished by a sense of compulsive fun. Sea Fighter understands this perfectly and is quick to establish the book’s main conflict as a chess game in which moves and countermoves alternate in a compulsively readable fashion.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that it’s all simplistic fluff, though; the geopolitics of Sea Strike are plausible and realistic to a degree that is far more convincing than some of its brethrens. Cobb can also rely on an impressive catalogue of historical references. Here, a raid on enemy lines isn’t presented as a cowboy manoeuvre, but a Civil War tactic adapted to modern times.

It all adds up to an intelligent and entertaining war novel. Dig deeper and you’ll see Sea Fighter as a true example of the dirty-little-wars era military novel, where reduced stakes don’t mean a reduced interest for the reader. Grab it as soon as possible if you’re a fan of the genre. Don’t forget to pick up the rest of the Cobb oeuvre while you’re at it.

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