Tag Archives: Dale Brown

Act of War, Dale Brown

Morrow, 2005, 384 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-075299-8

Finally! After more than half a dozen increasingly awful novels set in the the same tired universe, Dale Brown finally comes to his sense, ditches the Patrick McLanahan series and starts afresh. At a time where military thrillers readers are increasingly reluctant to “take a chance” on unfamiliar characters, it’s tempting to give grudging respect to Brown for doing what he should have done ten years ago.

But don’t be so sure that he’s stretching or being audacious. For one thing, Act of War is not a pure act of literature: Sharp-eyed readers will read the copyright page and notice that “Act of War” is a trademark of Atari Interactive, Inc. Those with a gaming background will already know about the “Act of War” Real-Time Strategy game. In other words, this is a tie-in novel, whether Dale Brown contributed to the game or vice-versa.

For another proof that the author’s not being too ambitious, consider that we’re not too far away from Brown’s pet toys of late: Starting from the “Real-World News Excerpts” that open the novel, we’re back into the “armoured exoskeleton” shtick that Brown has carried along since The Tin Man. Yup, it’s all high-tech robots from there to the end of the novel, as valiant Americans battle terrorists who dare take on the Empire. A new universe? A departure? A stroke of marketing genius? Eh, you decide.

And yet, despite Brown’s unwillingness to stray too far from what he has come to know best, there is an undeniable sense of freedom to be found in this departure. The book opens with a bang, as terrorists set off a tactical nuclear warhead to destroy a petroleum facility in Texas. Then the new characters take over, and for a while it’s fun to see where the tale goes now that McLanahan is nowhere in the way. New protagonist Jason Richter isn’t a big switch from McLanahan, mind you: Younger and more technologically sophisticated, Richter otherwise shares the same personality template with Brown’s best-known protagonist. Rebellious to a degree that seems implausible, Richter gets repeatedly chewed out for disobeying orders but, like McLanahan, always ends up vindicated for using his giant robots against the evil terrorists. Naturally, it’s no real surprise if big robots end up being the perfect solution for everything.

This naturally raises the question of finding out which part of the novel wags the other around. A clumsy mixture of the strategic and the tactical, Act of War initially sets out to re-fight the War on Terrorism on pure wish-fulfilment. As the story advances, we get the feeling that Brown thinks that Bush is a big kitten in national security matters, and that only decisive actions can truly save the American way of life. As Brown’s President seems gung-ho on declaring war on a concept (literally, despite those accursed civil-rights advocates in Congress), it seems obvious that this high-level muck is just there to justify the giant robot antics of Richter and his gang. The alternative -that this ridiculous pap is meant to be taken seriously- is almost too ridiculous to contemplate. Considering that Act of War is a video-game and that the point of video-games is blowing up stuff real good (a task uniquely suited to giant robots), one gets the sense that there’s a bigger dog wagging the novel around.

This being said, I’m trying really hard to avoid painting this as yet another video-game novelization. The prose style is all Brown, including the stiff prose and lack of technical prowess. The characters are generic and if the plotting is generally better than any of the author’s previous half-dozen novels, Act of War still suffers from jerky pacing, and a single-minded obsession about giant robots. It doesn’t help that Brown’s vision of terrorism remains hopelessly quaint: Unlike what we’ve come to expect from the real world those past years, the acts in Act of War take on a cartoonish quality as they are masterminded by an evil cabal too clichéd to feel real. Even in a “hard-hitting” post-2001 novel about terrorism, Brown infantilizes the issue and can’t face the real forces at play.

And yet, even as lousy as it is, Act of War represents a definite step up for Brown. The first few pages of the book carry a little frisson, as it looks like Brown will finally take the next step up. Free of the McLanahan shackles, the novel stretches a little bit and gets back to the wide-screen feel of the author’s first few books. There is a surprising amount of hidden agendas and ambiguous motivations to be stripped off on the way to the true “terrorist-vs-USA” plot and if the end result is another disappointment, the indifferent impression ultimately left by the novel was not a foregone conclusion. It may not be enough to make me read the next one… but it’s sufficient to stop me from discounting the thought altogether.

[February 2009: When you’re got a hammer, all problems look like nails, and ever since Brown ditched his B-52s for Giant Robots, it looks as if he wants to take on every single issue of national interest with his cool toys —including illegal immigration. So don’t expect Edge of Battle to be any better than his previous novels. In fact, it’s markedly worse: bad characters, dumb situations, reams of spurting exposition and some ill-advised plotting all combine to bring this book down. The robots aren’t the worst part, actually: nearly every attempt to use them backfires. No, it’s the attempt to combine innefectual Mexican political leadership with an evil Russian terrorist/criminal that really sinks the novel beyond its lack of entertainment value. And yet, from time to time, we get some exposition that suggests that Dale does understand some of the issues he’s dealing with. It’s just that he never follows up on his best ideas, and that the comic-book plotting of the novel never seems to be adressed to adults. We are, clearly, a long way away from the guy who wrote Hammerheads.]

Plan of Attack, Dale Brown

Morrow, 2004, 345 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-009411-7

Long-time readers of these reviews may ask why I keep reading Dale Brown’s novels if I obviously hate them so much. Part of the answer lies in my admiration of Brown’s early novels: If he was able to do it once, why not again? But the real answer is elsewhere: For years, I just kept purchasing Brown’s books whenever I found them at used book sales, piling them up unread and always thinking that I’d end up reading them all sooner or later. My mistake was in assuming that they would get better. Now I have to tough it out until the very end.

And Plan of Attack, if I’m to judge from Brown’s web site, is a temporary end of sorts: The last Patrick McLanahan novel before Brown’s newer series. You would think that this would be good news: after all, haven’t I spent the last mumble-mumble reviews of Brown’s books complaining about how the McLanahan universe is now completely irrelevant to the new geopolitical reality? Wouldn’t it be great to see Brown properly dispose of McLanahan and his cohorts? The only problem is that I’m not convinced Brown is done with McLanahan yet. Then there’s the fact that even just one last lap may be too much to bear again.

Picking up where Brown’s last half-dozen snooze-fests have left off, Plan of Attack begins with Yet Another Stupid Move by McLanahan, one that results in another international incident in McLanahan’s long career. This time around, though, this very career takes a hit as McLanahan is busted down a grade and shuffled to another area of the Air Force. Still, you can hardly count him out, especially when he discovers evidence of an audacious plan by Russia’s president to bomb America’s strategic nuclear arsenal…

Said Russian president is insane, of course, and so is the novel. While Plan of Attack is generally more interesting than Brown’s previous three novels put together, it’s the kind of interest caused by train-wrecks or forensic reports: it’s horrible, but fun to piece together why such a bad thing happened.

The main problem, of course, is that Brown’s fictional universe has long lost any relevance to the current geopolitics. McLanahan has now battled enemies in eleven novels stretching all the way back to the last days of the Cold War: Any attempt to reconcile it with real-world event is doomed to failure. (And so is any attempt to point out that the plot is pure paranoid nonsense.) Yet Brown piles on the incoherences by weaving 9/11 in the narrative, though without it having any impact on the characters or the environment in which they work: Brown’s “American Holocaust of 2004” [P.340] ends up casually dwarfing 9/11 and that’s that. A better, more confident writer may have used this premise as the basis for an alternate history novel set in a different Reagan era, but one gets the sense that Brown isn’t interested in pushing the envelope, just in delivering a pat novel that does exactly the same thing as any of his previous novels.

Unfortunately, those would be the exact same things that made his previous novels such painfully uninteresting piece of work. The overdose of jargon and minutia; the wretched dialogue (“’This is unbelievable!’ President Anatoliy Gryzlov shouted. ‘I cannot believe the sheer audacity of these Americans!’” [P.330]); the reliance on fantasy technology like the “Tin Man” suits; the indifferent characterization; the flat prose; the lack of interest in following the story where it truly leads (you will never read a less involving nuclear war novel); the way the high tech equipment makes it easy for the protagonists to kick ass without any personal danger or involvement. Whatever was promising in previous instalments is constantly neutralized and defanged: if you were expecting a political showdown between President Thorn and Martindale, you can forget it as one of them (you’ll guess who) simply steps aside off-stage to let the Republican take charge. Lazy plotting doesn’t stop there: When two powerful commanders league up to stop McLanahan, they are neatly taken out of the plot by a convenient plane crash.

I like to be lenient on military thrillers and enjoy them for that they try to be, but there’s a limit to being complacent: After a steady string of failures, enough is enough: it’s safe to assume that Brown’s not aiming particularly high any more.

If there’s any consolation to the fact that I’ve got yet another Brown book in my stack of stuff to read, it’s that Act of War promises a brand-new hero and a focus on the war on terrorism. As long as Brown keeps recycling McLanahan, he’s at a dead end. It’s high time for him to do the honourable thing and let McLanahan retire. Or else Brown himself can start thinking about doing something else and leaving the novel-writing business to professionals.

[March 2009: After two off-McLanahan novels that were substandard even by the low standards of his late career, Brown returns to his favourite series in 2007’s Strike Force, but brings back links to nearly all of his unconnected novels so far, ignoring huge chunks of his backstory for the sake of bringing all of his novels in one continuity. The increasingly self-satisfied solipsistic nature of his writing gets worse, and the result is a novel so awful that I’m thinking that enough is enough: for the near future, I’m done with Brown. Anyone in the market for a full run of his hardcovers?]

Air Battle Force, Dale Brown

Morrow, 2003, 426 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-009409-5

Let us resolve, from the onset, that people in the military are, as a group of people, worthy of our admiration. After all, they’re doing dangerous jobs that would make most of us readers cower in helpless fear. Let us also maintain that military hardware is often a thing of beauty, marrying human ingeniousness with fearsome power. (Like power tools, except cooler). Furthermore, let us state blandly that military fiction, when properly written, can combine the best of several traditions, marrying slam-bang adventure with clever commentary on the nature of power and competition between nations.

This being stated, let’s now turn our attention to why Dale Brown’s Air Battle Force is not just a career low for Brown (which takes some doing after stinkers like Fatal Terrain or Wings of Fire) but is also one of the most inept piece of military fiction I’ve had the misfortune to read so far.

Most of the book’s problem stem from Brown’s now-ridiculous obsession in continuing a series that should have been put of of its misery a long time ago. Having locked himself far away in his imagined universe, Brown now finds himself unable to engage meaningfully with the issues of the day: Explicitly set in 2003, Air Battle Force declines to even recognize the events of 9/11 (save in the acknowledgements) despite mentioning here and there that the American government has spent years and millions of dollars chasing down the Taliban. Beyond the cartoonish dullness this gives to Brown’s “Air Battle Force” military unit, this refusal to acknowledge contemporary geopolitics betrays an author that may be unable to engage with current reality.

His skills as a storyteller certainly aren’t improving. While he doesn’t repeat some of Wing of Fire‘s stupidest moments (no nine-year-old PhD. in Air Battle Force), Brown here struggles to even define an exciting story. In boldly examining the US Air Force’s future in unmanned vehicles, Brown has also taken his heroes out of the action. Protagonist Patrick MacLanahan only get in danger once in the prologue, and that’s following Yet Another Dumb Command Move. Otherwise, Brown’s series is becoming a series of fancy technological demonstrations in which the back-room boys look on as their unmanned weapons remotely kick whatever anti-American ass there is to kick.

This doesn’t help Air Battle Force‘s pacing one tiny bit. For a 426-page novel, not a lot happens: Despite the interesting rumblings of an upcoming presidential campaign between Thorn and Martindale, Brown loses himself (and his readers) in dull back-water geopolitics that can be skipped one chapter at a time. Brown has never been an elegant stylist, but even his low standards are slipping with passages in which character viewpoints switch from one paragraph to the next. Brown has struggled with plot even since Storming Heaven, but Air Battle Force marks an even bigger failure than usual. By the end of the novel, all that remains is the impression of having read an extended prologue to the next novel. Brown shows no sign of actually being willing (let alone able) to fix what’s wrong with his fiction. Even by the undemanding standards of military fiction readers, Brown has reached the bottom of the barrel and seems intent of clawing his way even further down. His characters are as bland as ever and he can’t even write a decent action scene with whatever new toys he has. Add that to his inability to adapt his fiction to the new shape of the real world and one question remains: Why would anyone want to read anything by Dale Brown ever again?

I have long considered Brown’s post-Hammerheads output as being inferior to what he’s capable of writing (which truly dates us), but now has come the time to consider (reluctantly) that this may be as good as it gets; that Brown will never again be able to write the kind of stuff he did so well earlier in his career. It speaks volume that in sinking lower and lower, Brown has never acquired the kind of inspiring right-wing craziness that now makes Clancy so much fun to read: He has simply become a rambling, boring writer coasting on the laurels of better books long past gone (and possibly a percentage of Dan Brown’s new fans.) I’ve got two more books by Brown on my shelf, bought well before he went in his current death spiral: I can’t wait until I’m done with them.

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.

Warrior Class, Dale Brown

Berkley, 2001, 473 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-18446-3

As long as Dale Brown will continue to write more novels in his increasingly unworkable series, his fiction will continue to suffer. Warrior Class, like Brown’s last few books, is no exception to this trend: at best, it’s a grab-bag of ideas made weaker by the necessities of serial fiction. At worst, it showcases why Brown has lost the place he enjoyed at the top of the techno-thriller writers’ pantheon.

Plot-wise, it’s another re-thread of the usual: Once more in this comfortably post-Cold War Browniverse, US interests and world peace are indissociably threatened when a Russian gangster seizes an advanced warplane to ensure his own plans for private economic supremacy. It’s up to Patrick McLanahan, again, to fight the good fight using his high-tech toys and a complete disregard for the protocols of military engagement.

But in what feels like a breath of fresh air, there are consequences to this type of cow-boy mentality. As the novel slowly opens, we’re introduced to a new US President: Thomas Nathaniel Thorn is Kevin Martindale’s successor and as befits his name, he proves to be quite a thorn in the heel of the US military. A third-party governor from eeevil liberal Vermont, Thorn is not much for official ceremonies but truly enjoys Transcendental Meditation. What more, he’s ready to sharply reduce the size of the armed forces and reveal confidential information to the public. Surprisingly enough, Brown resist the temptation to paint him as a foolish villain (though this may come later in the series).

Meanwhile, Patrick McLanahan is sitting pretty in Nevada as the operational chief of the top-secret high-tech “Dreamland” facility. When tensions erupt in Eastern Europe, he’s fast up on a plane trying to do what he does best: breaking direct orders. When things turn sour, only a presidential gambit saves him from certain death. Unsurprisingly, he finds himself nudged toward the civilian life as soon as he lands. This, of course, just won’t do…

From the above, you may suppose that this is a significant entry in the McLanahan saga, and you would be half-right: On some aspects, Warrior Class shows some promise and excitement. McLanahan has often defied orders without consequences, so it’s only too fitting to see him suffer from the fallout once in a while. His trajectory out of active service surely won’t be allowed to stand for more than a volume or two , but it’s a development that could be interesting. (Indeed, by the end of the novel it’s only too obvious that Brown is indulging into one of the favorite fantasies of many right-wing writers: A private armed force that can pretty much kill whoever it wants without any kind of paperwork.)

But there are problems, and many of these spring from the uneasy interaction between reality and Brown’s universe. It’s bad enough that an author’s note at the beginning of the book has to explain what fictional constraints were introduced in previous books, only to be followed with three pages of “real-world news excerpts”. A significant problem is, of course, that Brown gets to keep what he likes and ditch what’s inconvenient; there’s a mention of what happened in Day of the Cheetah even despite the fact that Brown’s 1988 novel was clearly a story that took place in a world where the USSR made it intact to 1997!

But even overlooking the problems in trying to stick to a series well beyond its best-by date, Warrior Class has problems of its own. As with most of the latest Brown novels, it spends too much time with “the enemy” even as the emotional strength of the novel is with the American characters: Little of what’s discussed by the antagonist is relevant to the rest of the novel. McLanahan himself doesn’t make an appearance in the first fifth of the novel, a delay that highlights the narrative’s padded nature more than anything else. A number of subplots go nowhere and do nothing, bringing along a few supporting characters: You really have to work hard at extracting the good from the bad in this bloated excuse for a military novel.

It doesn’t get any better later on, as fancy gadgets work alongside realistic military hardware. Brown has never been at his best portraying realism: Chains of Command tried to stick as closely as possible to reality, and it was a singularly dull novel. On the other hand, Brown’s earlier deftness with fancy hardware has lately metastasized into an unwieldy habit of reusing the same gadgets over and over again. Here, the silly “Tin Man” suits make a return appearance and the result is more ridiculous than exciting.

As callous at it may sound, Brown’s next, Wings of Fire, should be worth a read if only to find out how he’ll handle 9/11’s major reality reset. How will he square Bush, al Quaeda and the rest with increasingly fanciful tales of big bombers and super-powered suits? Of course, he could choose to ignore it completely and go even deeper in his dead-end universe… which wouldn’t be surprising.

Battle Born, Dale Brown

Bantam, 1999, 555 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58003-5

Dale Brown’s last few novels have been a rough patch of reading. After a spate of steadily disappointing aerial thrillers ending with the dismal Fatal Terrain, he made a well-intentioned, but ultimately unsuccessful foray into more land-bound action with the techno-fantasy The Tin Man. While his early novels remain models of the techno-thriller genre, Brown has since been unable to re-capture that earlier spark. The bad news with Battle Born is that he still has a way to go. The good news is that his latest book is a step in the right direction.

For starters, perennial Brown protagonist Patrick McLanahan is back in the air. While I’m not too fond of series fiction and even less of Brown’s obstinate refusal to start completely afresh, there’s little doubt after the silliness of The Tin Man that McLanahan (and maybe even Brown) are at their best when they’re flying. As Battle Born opens with an exciting training sequence featuring B-1B bombers, we sense that, somehow, we’re back in a comfortable environment.

Fortunately, there is some evolution in this series. Time is catching up with McLanahan: His career has progressed to what may now be called a supervisory position. After a training accident, the Nevada National Guard Bombing unit has to be re-certified for active duty and the officer responsible for re-grading the unit is McLanahan. Of course, he may have plans of his own concerning the fate of the unit…

You see, technology also marches on. Dreamland, the gee-whiz research and development shop explored in previous Brown novels, is back in business and fiddling around with B-1B bombers rather than creaky old B-52s. More than just rejuvenating the jargon, this also gives a face-lift to the series: While B-52s are still expected to keep on flying for several more decades, Brown (himself an ex-B-52 crewmember) had definitely milked the plane for all it was worth during his previous novels. The new emphasis on the B-1B is a chance to explore a few more capabilities and update the limits of airborne military intervention. Series fans won’t be overly surprised to learn that Dreamland has now adapted the “Megafortress” concept to embrace the B-1B.

Battle Born is never better than when it follows the National Reserve crewmembers trying to regain their certification. In these scenes, Brown is writing from the heart and it shows: There’s a real spirit to the scenes between the fliers, and so the book’s best sequence comes during a highly unorthodox training exercise in which procedures are repeatedly broken –with consequences. Whew; it’s good to have the old Dale Brown back, even if only for a few pages. Once the Guard fliers are brought in the Dreamland fold under McLanahan’s supervision, well, it’s a clear signal that the series just got a boost of energy. (Unfortunately, it also includes a bit more silliness in the form of subcutaneous always-on transmitter/communicators.)

Given all of this, it’s a real shame that Brown had to go and include a full-scale war in the same novel.

Hey, it’s not as if wars aren’t a good and cool thing to read about in a techno-thriller. Unfortunately, the way through which Brown shows how a United Korea goes to war with China with nuclear weapons (!) just doesn’t ring true, nor does it make the most out of the tension offered by the situation. For every good scene in which the American Vice-President is stuck in the middle of an impossible situation, or in which departing Chinese soldiers are stopped from smuggling weapons out of the newly-united Korea, the novel bogs down in foreign minutia handled without much energy or interest. You can almost hear the gears and pulleys moving in Brown’s head as he makes up a war as a way to prove his new Dreamland crew. Sadly, it comes it too late and too predictably. Despite the wholly unnecessary final sacrifice of the novel’s best new character, Battle Born deflates as it suddenly sprints toward a finish. A shorter, snappier novel would have been more interesting.

(Add to that the difficulty of setting up a convincing international crisis in a series where nuclear weapons have been detonated a few times after Nagasaki. Whoever cares for series fiction as little as I do may start giggling as the characters remind each other of the fact that China atom-blasted an American base in a previous novel and… nothing much happened. The big problem with series thrillers is that their imagined geopolitics stop matching those of the real world, or require so much back-tracking that they become ridiculous.)

Still, Battle Born still feels a lot better than Brown’s novels since Storming Heavens. As characters repeat to each other, “Battle Born” is Nevada’s state motto. But it’s also appropriate for a novel that carries along a faint whiff of rebirth. If I had my choice, Brown should drop the McLanahan series entirely. But I’m just a lone reader in an ocean of commercial imperatives: If Brown is going to continue with the same characters, Battle Born shows the way to go. Now let’s see what happens in Warrior Class.

The Tin Man, Dale Brown

Bantam, 1998, 429 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58000-0

I haven’t been kind to Dale Brown’s previous few novels (no less an authority than on-line store mostlyfiction.com linked to my last review as “Christian Sauve’s (brutal) review of Fatal Terrain”), but don’t mistake my lack of enthusiasm as anything but disappointment: if Brown’s first novels remain cornerstones of the technothriller genre (especially Day of the Cheetah and Silver Tower), what’s stopping him from writing another scorcher?

While The Tin Man is ultimately not much of a success, it clearly shows that there’s hope for Brown’s career. It moves away from Brown’s usual aerospace plots, tackles other issues than “there are no problems that a well-equipped B-52 won’t solve” and even spends more time closer to the characters than has been the case over his last five books.

But there’s one big problem with The Tin Man, and his name is Patrick McLanahan. McLanahan, of course, is Brown’s favourite protagonist since Flight of the Old Dog. Brown seemingly can’t let go of his imaginary universe, even when the discrepancies between it and our world are getting too big to ignore. Smarter writers would see the constraints of series fiction, start from scratch, build other novels around other characters and ultimately let things run their course. But whereas Brown has tried singletons before (Hammerheads and Chains of Command), he has never been able to resist the latter impulse to fold them back into the McLanahan series at the earliest opportunity, regardless of internal coherency. (Let’s not even talk about the Taylor/Clinton/Martindale presidencies mash) With The Tin Man, Brown had another ideal opportunity to start afresh. But… no.

McLanahan started life as an air force navigator, evolving -over time- into an all-purpose action hero. This trajectory finds its ultimate expression in The Tin Man as McLanahan, seeking to avenge his rookie policeman brother, asks a few favours from a genius-grade friend and gets a high-tech armour fit to take on a small army of terrorist. (“He’s an air force officer! He’s a nerdy engineer! Together –THEY FIGHT CRIME!” would go the TV spots.)

The “Tin Man” armour is certainly a neat gadget, despite blatantly ignoring every law of physics you can think about. Its wearer can absorb gunshots, manipulate heavy weaponry and kick really high. Armour-clad McLanahan goes on a rampage and soon finds himself battling terrorists and policemen, finding out that vigilante justice isn’t as much fun as DEATH WISH promised. Brown has never let a real-world detail stop him from writing fabulous action scenes, and so The Tin Man at least delivers a few good thrills along the way.

The Tin Man is better-structured than any of Brown’s novels since before Storming Heaven and integrates a number of good technical details about Sacramento’s police milieu. Brown hasn’t lasted this long in the techno-thriller genre without learning how to deliver a copious amount of detail, and so the technical aspects of the novel are relatively pleasant to read: Should Brown decide to abandon the military genre, he’s clearly got a future in police procedural thrillers.

The character details are also better than in Brown’s last few novels. The relationship between McLanahan and his younger brother is compelling, even if it’s in a plotting-101 fashion. It’s also good to see uber-nerd Jon Masters get a featured role in this novel: He’s easily my favourite character from the Brown oeuvre, and his budding romantic relationship is heartening despite lacking in subtlety.

But even my attachment to Jon Masters can’t displace the feeling that if The Tin Man has most of the right elements in the right place, it loses points for some silly on-the-nose plotting, plausibility-stretching sequences and (cue familiar refrain) sticking McLanahan where he doesn’t belong. It would have been much better as a standalone singleton, especially given how this is the first time (and maybe even the last time) McLanahan has even mentioned his younger brother. Oh well; at least it’s better than Fatal Terrain. Battle Born, which apparently brings McLanahan back in a cockpit, is up next.

[June 2008: An anonymous but disappointed Dale Brown fan sends along:

dale browns tin man doesn’t seem so outlandish 10 years later maybe he did something called research those 10 years ago into future weapons systems. every toy in his books is at least under study and or development and feasible sometime down the road they break no laws of physics so maybe you guys need to do some research into a subject called physics

Reprinted without comments regarding Dale Brown fans.]

Fatal Terrain, Dale Brown

Putnam, 1997, 448 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-399-14241-X

When do you say enough is enough?

When do you start giving up on formerly-good authors, despite repeated substandard works, an overall feel of staleness and, frankly, a lack of fun in their latest novels? What’s “giving them another chance”; buying in used bookshops, tracking down cheap paperback copies, loaning at the library?

Dale Brown drove me to these questions with Fatal Terrain, the limp follow-up to Shadows of Steel, an already lifeless military thriller several notches below his earlier efforts. As Brown desperately tried to interest me in Chinese politics, I felt more fascinated by the mechanisms driving a formerly exciting author to mediocre output than with the actual plot of the novel.

So here is, in a few easy steps according to the Dale Brown corpus, how to become a has-been author.

One: Start your career with a few good books. That’s essential to become a disappointment, otherwise you’re just a mediocre author who keeps on churning trash. Dale Brown started his career with gripping high-concept novels such as Silver Tower, Hammerheads and what probably remains his career high, Day of the Cheetah. Good fun, fast reads, good characters. At that point, the sky wasn’t even the limit for Brown.

Two: Settle in a routine. If you managed to invent a few original gadgets and characters, just keep re-using them until you’ve squeezed out all interest, and then keep using them some more. Brown had an fascinating gadget in his first novel; a high-tech, refurbished B-52 capable of almost all military feats. (A natural wish for an ex-B-52 crewmember like Brown) While its use was integral to Flight of the Old Dog and justified in Night of the Hawk, it became ridiculous to see Brown apply his “magic toy” over and over again in his latest novels. Snap out of it, Dale, and that also stands for the characters you so lovingly fleshed out in the first novels: Now that the readers know everything about them, stop propping them up one more time whether it’s credible or not.

Three: Try to adjust your universe to fit the real-world. This works especially well if your earlier novels are wildly implausible. In Day of the Cheetah, a Soviet traitor pilot hijacks a thought-driven experimental plane and flies it to a Central-America country that is subsequently bombed by the Americans… in 1996. That’s fine when your novel dates from 1988, but not as fine when your latest novel maintains that it all happened, while trying to integrate increasingly realistic real-world elements in the plotline… The Brownverse should diverge, not converge with the real world. (Also see the latest works of Tom Clancy for a further example.)

Four: Downgrade your writing and make it less interesting and far more verbose while ignoring sustained plotting. Whereas Brown’s earlier novels were snappy, exciting, well-paced entertainment, his latest novels seem built around two or three key action scenes each requiring dozens of pages of laborious setup. Whereas his earlier novels moved quickly to the action, his latest are dogged down with useless techno-speak in an unconvincing effort to add more realism. It’s not only tedious, it’s exasperating.

Five: Stick with one plot, book after book. So… hmm… American interests are threatened and foreign forces led by evil generals attack and all hope is lost until one lone high-tech plane comes in and bombs them all away! Sounded good for Flight of the Old Dog. Sounded increasingly worse for Skymasters, Chains of Command, Shadows of Steel and now his latest.

Fatal Terrain is the culmination of these threads, a limp “thriller” that spends too much time setting up and justifying battles than actually describing them. Only a significant character point and one neat concept (the underground airfields) save the book from total failure. As it is, the only thing driving me to read Brown’s subsequent book, The Tin Man, is the promise that it’s based on something totally different. Hey, wish me luck.

Shadows of Steel, Dale Brown

Putnam, 1996, 367 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-399-14139-1

Another book, another enemy, another war.

It must not be an easy job to be a techno-thriller writer. The standard formula -to which one must adhere in order to keep readers- requires at least one non-negotiable variable: An implacable enemy who threaten America’s interests. In the eighties, such an enemy was easy to find: Every country behind the Iron Curtain was an acceptable foe and most novels featured Evil Soviets.

Of course, things weren’t as simple after the Berlin Wall came down. Writers have been forced to use drug dealers, American Terrorists, India, Russian extremists and other more-or-less convincing enemies.

Iran, however, has always been a good enemy (Clancy’s Executive Orders, Coyle’s Sword Point, etc…) and in Shadows of Steel, we go back to the tried-and-true Iranians, whose usual anti-American stance and aspirations toward becoming a regional power makes up for at least a willingness to fight.

On the other hand, these are the enlightened nineties, and only a few of Iran’s craziest military officers wish war with the United States. No matter; before long we’re bombing them again. What else do you need to know about a Dale Brown novel?

If it’s any good? Tough question. Shadows of Steel is a competent technothriller, but invites comparison with other works that will inevitably make it seem less enjoyable than it actually is.

The biggest problem with Shadows of Steel is that it’s part of Dale Brown’s long-running “Patrick McLanahan” series. It brings together characters from many novels, including Skymaster‘s Jon Masters, Day of the Cheetah‘s Wendy McLanahan and Storming Heaven‘s Kevin Martindale. In internal chronology, it takes place after Brown’s second novel Day of the Cheetah. And there lies the difficulty. Brown’s 1989 novel wasn’t very realistic, featuring several fictional high-tech devices in a future seven years removed and postulating a dastardly plot by the Soviets to steal one of America’s newest fighters. On the other hand, it’s still one of Brown’s most exciting novels: Plausibility was more than compensated by slam-bang action and the result was one heck of a good read.

You can guess the rest: Shadows of Steel is so much more down-to-earth (fewer high-tech, more jargon, more actual procedures) that compared to Day of the Cheetah, it’s downright boring. Not entirely boring, mind you: Brown is incapable of delivering anything else than a good read. But the difference between the two novels is shocking, almost as if a soft-spoken attorney reminded you of his past as a Black Panther.

Either Brown wants to be exciting, or he has to match his series’ coherence with real-world markers. There is increasingly less middle ground. Unlike Tom Clancy, whose “Jack Ryan” novels are now ludicrously diverged from reality, Brown is trying to take his wilder earlier novels and tighten them up even more closely with current events. It doesn’t work. Time for new singletons.

Two other major annoyances: Along with the previous Storming Heaven, Shadows of Steel also feels like a series of good-to-great scenes linked together by a thin thread of plot. More ominously, Shadows of Steel concludes on a note that more than feels like if the whole novel was a setup for Brown’s next book (Fatal Terrain).

Is Shadows of Steel still worth a read? As usual, the answer -despite the relative lack of excitement in the plotting- is still that military aviation fans will find here one of the most polished novels dealing with their favorite subject. Non-fans need not enlist.

Storming Heaven, Dale Brown

Putnam, 1995, 399 pages, C$28.50 hc, ISBN 0-399-13931-1

It’s always a pleasure to go back to a favourite author, only to discover that his newest novel is as good as his previous efforts.

Dale Brown is an ex-Air Force pilot who has specialized in far-out aerial techno-thrillers. His writing appeal to me for various reasons; an emphasis on plot, a love of details, a knack at serviceable characters and an eye for the Cool Scene. Contrarily to techno-thriller ubermeister Tom Clancy, Dale Brown’s novel have remained manageably lengthy, and in roughly the same familiar territory.

Storming Heaven is, at the same time, solidly similar to Brown’s previous novels and an encouraging venture in new directions. Like all Brown novels so far, it’s about war in the air. This time, however, America isn’t sending units to fight far away. This time, the battle is at home.

After a perfunctory prologue (Summarized: “I say that America’s borders should be more protected!”, “Ha-ha, you crazy old fool, go home!”), the action kicks in high gear as American authorities try to apprehend Henri Cazaux, the world’s most wanted terrorist. Cazaux doesn’t see it that way, of course, and departs in a small plane after killing a good half-dozen Federal Agents. After National Guard fighters units join the battle, Cazaux is cornered and fights back like a mad dog, blowing up a substantial portion of the Los Angeles Airport in the process.

As everyone licks their wounds, Cazaux realizes that this is how to take revenge on the Country That Abused Him. He quickly hatches a plan to make devastating strikes against the USA’s largest civilian airports…

Most techno-thrillers remain solidly in the military world, barely according attention to more humdrum civilian concerns. Storming Heaven is an exception, given that it’s solidly built around the world of civilian aviation. As is the norm with the best novels of this type, Brown takes us places we wish we could visit: High-stakes financial boardroom, an air controller’s station, a gigantic plane storage park…

As for the novel itself, it might not be the best Brown yet, but even an average Dale Brown novel is better than the norm. Perhaps too disjointed (the novel often appears to be a string of big action sequences tied together) to be fully satisfying and too loosely connected to its characters to be involving, Storming Heaven is still interesting enough to sustain our attention.

Still, the novel has significant shortcomings. Henri Cazaux might be fine even (because) when he’s so over-the-top, but the same can’t be said of his “love interest”, Jo Ann Vegas, who oscillate between victim, sadist, astrologer, punching bag, manipulator, oppressed and genuinely puzzling personality. In a genre so founded on hard facts, it’s puzzling to see the appearance of such a mystical character. She’s the weak link of Storming Heaven. Stylistically, Brown still has a way to go. There has to be a simpler way of saying “The vertical and horizontal antenna sweep indexers of the F-16 ADF’s AN/APG-66 radarscope continued to move, but a small white box had appeared at the upper-left portion of his F-16 Fighter Falcon ADF’s radarscreen.” [P.232] even though I appreciate this level of detail…

Oh; Storming Heaven links together Brown’s Hammerheads (given Ian Hardcastle’s supporting role) and Chains of Command (with the thinly-veiled references to the Clintons, more acidly Hillary who’s described as “The Steel Magnolia”.) even though only Hammerheads (a substantially better novel) is useful as background material.

At least Brown doesn’t forget to have fun, as he slips in some barbs about the Clintons (P.352: “’She’s got bigger things on her mind these days… like how to keep her and the President from being indicted.’”) and self-congratulates himself (P.205: “’Ludicrous. This is not some damned Dale Brown novel, this is real-life.’”)

Not the best Brown novel, but still a darn good one, Storming Heaven should please more fans of the authors, as well as bring in a few new ones.