Wings of Fire, Dale Brown

Putnam, 2002, 446 pages, C$37.99 hc, ISBN 0-399-14860-4

The problem with Dale Brown’s work is not that it’s incompetent: The problem with Dale Brown’s work is how inferior it is to what he’s capable of writing. Wings of Fire, for instance, is a frustrating mixture of the good, the bad and the silly. Brown has a few good ideas, but wastes them in a story that struggles to be interesting.

While I’ve often criticized military thrillers for being inextricably tied to American foreign policy, I had forgotten to consider the alternative: American military forces fighting a meaningless made-up conflict between two other countries we struggle to care about. Here, Libya takes on Egypt for oil interest, but Brown tips the scale by making Libya’s leader (not Qaddafi) a fundamentalist poseur and Egypt’s president a beautiful Egyptian/American ex-fighter pilot with a background in intelligence operations. Uh-huh. Not that this is the most unlikely character in the novel: Ubergeek protagonist Jon Master here faces his match thanks to a precocious nine-year old with a bunch of doctorates. If you’re laughing, just wait until she gets to teach Masters about the finer points of high-energy physics: The dialogues alone are fit to make you howl (or hurl). Or at least seriously consider whether Brown is just screwing with his readership.

As usual, most of the problems stem from Brown’s insistence in continuing a dead-end series that has gone on for too long: The accumulated weight of the series’ established continuity is now so burdensome that Brown has to cheat and selectively forget elements of his background to raise dramatic stakes. A subcutaneous gadget allowing personal private communications between protagonists of the series is conveniently forgotten, except in one scene where the president thinks nothing about chatting up protagonist Patrick MacLanahan for a while. Alas, other gadgets are not so quickly forgotten: The quasi-magical “Tin Man” armour suit is almost always on-screen, recycling a one-book idea far past the point of no return. All of Wings of Fire, of course, is supposed to take place somewhere near 2002. Readers won’t be surprised to learn that despite a mention in the book’s dedication, there is no mention, nor even an acknowledgement of the events of September 2001. We’ll have to read the next book in the series to be sure, but it’s entirely possible that Brown’s has retreated so far in his imagined universe of super-powered gadgets that even the real world won’t be able to reach him.

And that raises a paradox: Brown has seldom been better than while being profoundly unrealistic: Re-read Day of the Cheetah or Silver Tower for proof. And yet he here manages to make even the extraordinary seem commonplace: Airborne lasers vapourizing anything in sight? Bah, whatever. It doesn’t help that Brown seems to have forgotten how to write dramatic action scenes: Most of his books are now taken up by gadget demonstrations in which the character just gosh themselves to contentment by staring googly-eyed at the destruction they’ve wrought.

To raise dramatic tension in the middle of this snore-fest, Brown kills off a few character, wasting what could have been affecting moment in Patrick MacLanahan’s evolution to a few throwaway scenes lost in the desert. It struck me that even as Brown seems to be writing his novels on autopilot, I’m reading them through similar inertia. The problem is that I’ve long since stopped caring about any of the characters: killing those faceless names just doesn’t do anything, even if I find myself thinking that they deserved a better send-off than what happens to them in a book as insubstantial as Wings of Fire. The last Brown novel to kill off main characters was Fatal Terrain: It may not be a coincidence that it was also the worst Brown novel until Wings of Fire.

I’m skipping over a lot of my problems with the book just because I don’t want to bore you even further with the details. There’s the silly presidential stuff; the unrealistic depiction of middle-eastern politics; the padded narrative; the lazy approach to characterization (once, just once, I’d like to see a foreign leader whose moral alignment is not rigidly mapped to their attitude toward American hegemony. Just once.); the lack of soul-searching from our mercenary heroes; the casual use of neutron bombs; bad dialogues; and so on. What’s worth remembering is that this is an unremarkable novel, even by Brown’s increasingly indistinguishable standards. Given how tightly integrated it is to his previous Warrior Class, only self-identified Brown fans will get anything out of the book –and dissatisfaction is likely to be what they’ll take away from it.

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