Harold Coyle

God’s Children, Harold Coyle

Forge, 2000, 316 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86296-2

I’m glad I’ve read this book. As a big fan of Coyle’s early work, I was dismayed to see that his return to contemporary-era military fiction after his “Civil War” trilogy had been marred by two clunkers, Dead Hand and Against All Enemies, two terrible novels that made me wonder if Coyle had lost his touch. The bad news are that God’s Children still isn’t up to the dizzying standards set by his earlier novels. The good news is that it’s a heck of a lot better than the two other books.

In some ways, it’s even more of a surprise considering the subject matter. While everyone can agree that peacekeeping missions are important and dangerous, they’re not exactly an exciting subject for a techno-thriller. Coyle has, in the past, specialized in engagements taking place on a much larger scale, from World War Three (Team Yankee) to a second American Revolution (Against All Enemies). Here, our protagonists are simply thrown in the mud and the snow of Eastern Europe, on a peacekeeping mission where neither side wants protection and everyone wonders why Americans are intruding in the affairs of another state.

Plot-wise, Coyle keeps a tight focus on a small cast of American soldiers at the exclusion of everything else: As their patrol is cut off from the rest of the world, no cuts to the White House or reassuring media reports come to break our isolation. It’s a repeat of stylistic choices made in Team Yankee (which followed an armoured team in the far-away context of John Hackett’s The Thirld World War) and it’s the single best element of the book. For it informs everything else and places the reader right alongside the soldiers forced to fight their way back to the base. It’s interesting to see that a simple plot (“get back home in one piece”) trumps such extravaganza as a Siberian meteor strike (Dead Hand) or war in Mexico (Trial by Fire) in sustained interest.

Part of the novel’s continued attraction is based on, once again, a very simple conflict between seasoned protagonist Nathan Dixon (son of Scott Dixon, protagonist of numerous Coyle novels) and Gerald Reider, an officer fresh out of West Point. When a regular patrol turns into something far more dangerous, Reider find his theoretical knowledge useless and his platoon taken over by Dixon. As tensions mount between the two men and enemy forces get closer, repercussions of their personal animosity become more and more significant. Simple plot dynamics, but boy do they work.

What also works well, but sometimes turns into straight-up lecturing, is Coyle’s description of what it’s like to be a soldier. At times, God’s Children, seems written to be taught at West Point. At others, it truly puts readers into a soldier’s mind. While Coyle is not a master stylist (Try this sentence: “Laced with the smells of mold and mildew common to wooden structures built by men to be used by men when enjoying manly pursuits was the pungent odor of urine.” [P.208]) but he’s certainly earnest and in military fiction, sincerity counts for far more than technique.

Still, good technique can make you avoid simple blunders such as the abrupt ending of the book or the lack of definition for some of the secondary characters. Technique could have streamlined some exposition, cut some of the most conspicuous lecturing and wrapped some of those loose threads. Fortunately, God’s Children is good enough and interesting enough to compensate for those flaws. Make no mistake: It’s still military fiction, impenetrable to laymen and reprehensible to anti-militarists. But for anyone who has been looking for gripping tales of modern warfare, it’s not a bad choice at all. In fact, it’s making me curious about Coyle’s latest books, which is certainly something I couldn’t say after Dead Hand or Against All Enemies. Time will tell which of those three books is the aberration.

(Fans of Coyle’s Dixonverse should note that even though Against All Enemies was published after God’s Children, it was written earlier and so explains why and how Nathan Dixon came to replace Scott Dixon as the series’ protagonist. Not an essential read, but it may explain some of the references in God’s Children.)

Against All Enemies, Harold Coyle

Forge, 2002, 412 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34169-7

Whenever the United States get around to fight their second civil war, I want it to be like in Against All Enemies: Dull, pointless, with few casualties and lasting only a few days. But what works for me in reality certainly isn’t what I’m looking for in fiction. Harold Coyle’s latest novel is, quite simply, a bore and to bore readers is the most unforgivable thing a so-called “thriller” writer can do.

The good news is that Against All Enemies brings back Scott Dixon, the hero of many of Coyle’s best novels (Sword Point, Bright Star, The Ten Thousand, etc.) The bad news is that there was absolutely no reason to do so. In fact, given the amount of material that Coyle voluntarily ignores in re-establishing his character and his family, it seems even worse than useless. While the “adventure in Mexico” (Trial by Fire) is very briefly mentioned, almost no mention is made of Dixon’s previous adventures in Iran, Egypt and -very importantly- Germany. Like with Clancy and Brown’s latest works, the perils of juggling an imagined military history concurrently with our “real” history get to be a strain. Best to play in an entirely new universe every time, otherwise the amount of material to conveniently forget gets to be too obvious to ignore.

Given that the emphasis, this time around, is on Dixon’s son (a brand-new army man by the time the novel gets underway) one would have thought that this would have been a perfect opportunity to get a brand new cast of characters. But no, and the contrivances are annoying. Here, Dixon’s wife (the always-beautiful-and-perfect Jan Fields-Dixon) is depicted as having a national-class TV show from the American Midwest. By sheer coincidence (of course), she finds herself part of the catalyst of the political crisis which will precipitate the Idaho uprising her husband and son will have to fight. As if that wasn’t enough, another returning character, Nancy Kozak, conveniently happens to be around (as a reservist, no less) whenever the action heats up. Ah, the curse of too much character background… Beyond “kill your darlings”, some writers need to be told “ditch your universe.”

Now here’s the interesting part: The previous Dixon novel (Code of Honor) dates from 1994. While Against All Enemies is copyright 2002, Coyle mentions in his afterword that it was originally written in 1996. What happened next in Coyle’s career is well-known: a detour through civil war fiction, followed by a return to contemporary military fiction in the late nineties. (Alas, with works such as the wretched Dead Hand) One can speculate as to why it wasn’t published in 1996. And one can speculate very nasty reasons indeed…

But why speculate when we can read the result? Even with years of revision, Against All Enemies still feels like a half-hearted attempt at a military thriller. While the premise is fantastic (A second American Civil War! What else do you need?) and so is the thematic intent to explore the conflict between serving one’s country versus the needs of one’s community, the result falls short of expectations. Any expectations.

While you’d think that the rebellion of a state against the federal government would be caused by something big, something worth fighting for, Against All Enemies gives the impression that this comes from a governor’s oversized ego and a botched raid by the FBI. While you’d think that Coyle could milk a lot of juice from this type of premise (USA fights a war with itself! Films of modern weaponry at 11!), it ends up being a few planes and a bunch of tanks against a militia. Not very impressive, not very interesting. Even as the sort-of-antagonist governor eyes Dixon’s wife, you’d think that there could be some place there for very personal stakes. Naah. Coyle! You wuss! I accuse you of holding back! If there’s one more rationale for ditching the old universe, it’s this: With brand-new characters, you can blow them all up if you want.

I really wanted to like this novel, and there are in fact a few passages I like here and there. But overall, Against All Enemies is just a snore, and that’s the worst thing I can say about a thriller. I can’t even work up any kind of hate for it like I did for Dead Hand (which was a much, much worse novel, though). At best, I won’t remember any of it in a few weeks. And that’s just too bad. I want my fiction to be striking and my reality to be unmemorable, not the other way around.

Dead Hand, Harold Coyle

Forge, 2001, 358 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-57539-3

In a way, it’s a shame that I only began to write full-length reviews in 1996. By that time, I had already read most of the military thrillers available on the market, and jotting down my impressions could have formed an instructive critical evaluation of that genre, while describing the early evolution of the top authors in the field.

Take Harold Coyle, for instance: He began his career in 1987 with Team Yankee, a story about a NATO/Warsaw pact World War 3 fought in Germany. (In an interesting exercise, Coyle merely borrowed the conflict’s plot from Sir John Hacket’s The Third World War and inserted his characters in the middle of the ground battles.) He would then go on to write exceptional war novels about military engagements in the Gulf (1989’s Sword Point) and Northern Africa (1990’s Bright Star). I wasn’t quite so enthusiastic about 1992’s follow-up Trial By Fire, which took place in a Mexico gripped by a second revolution Mexico, or 1994’s Code of Honor, which dealt with a chaotic peacekeeping action in Columbia. On the other hand, I thought that 1993’s The Ten Thousand was one of the best war novels of the nineties.

After that, well, Coyle started writing about the American civil war, and I can’t say that this is an event of much interest to me at this moment. So I waited until he came back to a more modern setting. Dead Hand is actually his second contemporary novel in a while, after God’s Children, which is apparently unavailable these days. But no matter; I was quite happy to read Coyle again after a lengthy hiatus.

Alas, it wouldn’t be a happy reunion.

The problem certainly isn’t with the premise, one of the neatest concepts I’d seen recently: “When an unforeseen asteroid strikes Siberia with the force of a thousand Hiroshimas, it triggers Dead Hand, the ultimate defence mechanism developed by the Soviets at the height of the Cold War… [Russian] ultra-nationalists are willing to use it as blackmail… a NATO special operations unit is dropped into Siberia, racing against time before a global holocaust is unleashed” [back cover]

Wow! Asteroids, nukes and special forces? What can go wrong with these three elements? Well, plenty-especially when the writing’s barely adequate. There are flashes of the old Harold Coyle whenever technical matters are discussed, whenever the action really kicks up and whenever he extols the brotherhood of soldiers.

But if it wasn’t for the name on the cover, I would never had guessed that this is from the same storyteller who knocked my socks off years ago. Dead Hand, as a novel, progresses by spurts and jerks: it never flows as a harmonious whole. In what surely feels like an attempt to dash off a novel too quickly, we get vignettes and snapshots of people doing something, but never a good story that advances naturally. This is fine when Coyle’s still putting all his pieces on the table, but it becomes increasingly frustrating as the narrative progresses.

The writing itself is also a source of frustration. There are essentially no distinct characters worth discussing: All special forces men talk alike, feel alike and don’t generally act like people we’d cheer for. They do stuff; we read, but never out of any interest for the people, but just for the plot which itself becomes less and less urgent as it advances. It gets worse whenever Coyle steps on his soapbox and starts pontificating about soldiers, their place in society and the age-old traditions of warriors. While I normally enjoy such things, they feel awkwardly tacked-on here.

In the end, Dead Hand feels like a wasted occasion. Coyle even mishandles the asteroid impact with a scene that should feel tragic but isn’t (maybe because the people involved are such idiots). I even thought I saw technical mistakes, but then again it’s been a while since I was conversant in military acronyms.

Still, it doesn’t change that I’m very disappointed in Dead Hand. Though I still believe that Coyle is capable of writing great books, this is exactly the type of novel that should act as a warning sign, and surely represents a career low for the author. Tune in sometime in the future for another review confirming or disproving this trend.