Target Lock, James Cobb

Jove, 2002, 490 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-13413-9

Describing the plot of this book is impossible to do with a straight face. It’s about, after all, a female American naval officer who falls in love with a pirate. If this was a movie, you would expect musical numbers, lush cinematography, situational comedy, and maybe even a “yarr, my darling!” or two.

Yet this is the fourth entry in the “Amanda Garrett” series of military techno-thrillers. The natural audience for this book is not going to be the same than for Romance novels: Imagine steely-eyed conservatives, military personnel and chickenhawk nerds like me hoping for a follow-up to the excellent Sea Fighter and finding themselves with… a pirate romance.

Judging from the Amazon comments, some were baffled, many were pissed and only a few were amused. Predictably, I find myself solidly in the “amused” camp. Through I have a lot of respect for the first three novels in the series (even calling them some of the best military thrillers of the mid-nineties), my attachment to them isn’t quite that strong: if Cobb decided to mess with the formula with Target Lock, the best thing to do is sit back with a bucket of popcorn and watch the show.

Certainly, the macro-level premise of Target Lock is interesting. After the dirty little coastal war in Sea Fighter, US government grows concerned about piracy in Indonesia and wisely sends Amanda Garrett back to the sea. Tasked with solving the problem and helped along by a US Navy task force, Garrett eventually realizes that a modern-day “pirate king” is to blame for the attacks.

Up until “pirate king”, this was a wonderful premise: the piracy problem is indeed a growing issues in southeastern Asia, and it presents an interesting challenge even for someone with the latest technology at her fingertips. Heck, even with “Pirate King”, it’s a promising setup: a strong antagonist has to be involved (and vanquished) at some point for a dramatic conclusion.

But it’s all in the way things are presented. And this is where the “pirate romance” bit takes a toll: It’s one thing to speak of a novel that’s not as exciting, not as tightly focused as the previous books in the series. It’s quite another to compound that with incongruous scenes in which the formerly unflappable heroine of the series suddenly takes on the mantle of James Bond and self-consciously seduces a wealthy powerful man who just could be the Pirate King. Readers thus jostled out of the book’s spell can then start making wisecracks, dismissing the book’s complex problems with an easy “Yarr, my darling!”

This being said, I can’t help but wonder what role gender politics can play in such sarcasm. The Amanda Garrett series was distinctive partly for its portrayal of a female heroine in a modern naval setting. It has also been true that the attempts at romance between Garrett and other characters were tepid and not entirely believable. But what role does the madonna/whore archetype play in dismissing romantic entanglements for the series’ heroine? I wonder. I may think that this whole seduction business is a weak subplot clumsily inserted in a novel that didn’t need it, but I can’t account for my own invisible biases, and that worries me.

Not that this is the biggest problem with the book. The crystal-clear action sequences that made the previous books so memorable are here muted and infrequent. The final “attack in paradise” is suitably apocalyptic (and the Chris Moore cover of the book’s UK edition is lovely), but there isn’t much here to gnaw upon. Even my favourite character of the series, the wonderful Christine Rinaldo, doesn’t get much to do this time around. The result is a weak novel, even if you don’t add the pirate romance aspect, or the hints that another admiral may be romantically interested in Garrett.

It amounts to a disappointing novel by anyone’s standards, especially given the strong impression left by the first three books of the series. As of this writing, five years later, this is still the final chapter in the Garrett series, and Cobb has limped along on unrelated books that skirt the edge of self-publishing. His big return, planned for fall 2007? A Robert Ludlum “collaboration”. Uh-huh. He can do much better.

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