The Last Jihad, Joel C. Rosenberg

Forge, 2003, 335 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34643-5

Regular readers of these reviews have already figured out my centre-left politics. Not that it’s any surprise: I’m a French-Canadian, after all. What they may not know is that I was a moderate right-winger for a good part of my teenage years, seduced by techno-thrillers and alternate-universe military fiction in which the US invaded whoever it wanted. All good fun… until the real world caught up with the fiction and delivered a disturbing techno-thriller starring a sub-par president.

In many ways, though, this initial love of military thriller hasn’t completely left me. My bookshelves have all of Clancy’s novels in hardcover, along with quasi-complete runs of Stephen Coonts, Dale Brown, Larry Bond, Harold Coyle and others. I’m always interested in new military thrillers, even if the past ten years have been somewhat disappointing in that sub-genre.

The Last Jihad first popped up in the supercharged atmosphere of early 2003, appearing in hardcover as bombs were raining on Baghdad. A quick paperback edition followed scarcely six “Mission Accomplished!” months later, stamped with the “New York Times Bestseller” label and laudatory quotes by such right-wing luminaries as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Oliver North.

The reason for the excitement was simple: The Last Jihad begins with an attack on the President of the United States, an attack that is eventually tracked back to Iraq. I’m not spoiling much (the book has sequels, after all) if I say that it ends with a nuclear flash over Baghdad. As a ripped-from-the-headline marketing coup, the gang at Forge books (the thriller imprint of SF/Fantasy publisher Tor) knew that they had a winner on their hands and milked it as they should. It helped that Rosenberg is supremely well-connected in right-wing talk radio and religious circles.

The left-wing’s reaction was predictable. A number of scathing reviews followed, including the much-quoted Washington Post review which -after a few mild compliments- stated that “[Rosenberg’s] writing, however, is harder to forgive, for it is an act of terrorism on the reader’s brain.” Ouch!

But, hey, I report; I decide: The surprise is that the first half of The Last Jihad isn’t bad at all when put alongside other books of the genre. The attack on the president is vividly described, and the crisis management that follows the attack feels appropriate, especially in the shadow of 2001-09-11. While the writing is a bit clumsy and the characters are taken straight from the right wing’s pantheon of heroes (the tough president; the successful businessman; the shadowy operative that kills; the woman that shoots), it moves at a rapid clip and has the advantage of a comforting earnestness. The technical details are convincing despite a few gaffes (“Canadian president Jean Luc”?? [P.74]). Rosenberg even indulges in a fake-out death that makes no sense but made me laugh for its unabashed manipulation. Even the incidental jabs at Carter and Clinton (coupled with a hilarious passage about the success of Bush’s presidency) are amusing in the avowed ideological context of the novel. (Playing with rigged dice is fine if you know how they’re rigged.)

Unfortunately, things turn sour in the second half of the book, and not for the reasons you may think: Simply put, the novel runs out of steam and plausibility. As our super-businessman protagonist magically turns into a top-notch special operative, he gets trapped into a firefight that seems to go on for a hundred pages. Romance also rears its head —never a good sign in a thriller. Pages of uninteresting minutiae overwhelm the book’s momentum, eventually leading to the jaw-dropping sadism of the finale. (Pop quiz: You have identified a ballistic missile launch site in the middle of a city. Do you destroy the launch site with a precision guided missile, or do you nuke the entire city?) Some religious content makes its way into the narrative. Everyone who tries to stop the final US jihad against Iraq is arrested, shut up or converted. The Drudge Report makes an amusing cameo on page 252-253.

By that time, though, my amusement with the novel had noticeably paled. Even with only three years’ worth of hindsight in Iraq’s true military capabilities, The Last Jihad is hilariously paranoid. While my soft spot for thrillers carried me through the first half of the book with ease, the story’s own limpness couldn’t do much to sustain this early initial impression. All told, I’m not likely to keep reading the latter books in the series. (Apparently, neither are Forge’s editors given how the third book, now featuring explicitly religious content, was published by a speciality Christian publisher.)

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