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.)