Thursday, January 31, 2008

"Protect & Defend", by Vince Flynn (Simon & Schuster)

Vince Flynn delivers yet another fast-paced thriller masterpiece, ever closer to stealing Tom Clancy's and Frederick Forsyth's crown
Exhibiting an excellent grasp of the current international climate, Flynn has brought Mitch Rapp into the middle of the most dangerous situation in the world - Iran on the war-path, if it had nuclear weapons, or at least an active program aiming for that capability. Released before the recent intelligence report stating this is not the case, Protect & Defend still provides some excellent commentary on the US-Middle East conflict (and rather even-handed, too).
Sometimes it feels like Flynn's characters say everything that US politicians really wish they could say - whether it's the President getting pissed off with Israel for creating the volatile situation specific to this novel (the destruction of Iran's main nuclear research facility). And here is another of Flynn's strengths - his dialogue is never cheesy, and very natural sounding. People say exactly what you imagine them to say, in the way you imagine them to say it. It sounds like an odd thing to praise someone for, as surely other authors do that, too, right? Sure, some do, but a growing number write the most grotesque dialogue (either too sickly-sweet, too butch, too seedy, or any number of other derogatory adjectives).
So, to the story: Simply amazing. While the initial build up is rather slow, once you hit the half-way mark the action ratchets up another notch and all hell seems to break loose on the pages. If ever there was a novel that deserved the words "Gripping" quoted on the front, Protect & Defend is it. The short chapters allow for the story's pace to keep going at a fair clip, but Flynn doesn't fall into a Patterson-esque addiction to them, and therefore the novel doesn't seem hurried.
The detail is impressive, but never devolves into Clancy-esque wonkish-ness (something Cussler does, too, when he's writing about nautical things). Nothing in the novel is surplus to requirements; this is a slimmed down novel, with no excess fat to distract you or draw you away from the fraught situation the characters find themselves in: How to diffuse a potentially explosive situation fanned by loud, ignorant, bigotted and obnoxious ideologues, without plunging an entire region into hell.
Dealing with the issue in a very even-handed manner, with equal sensitivity to both sides of the conflict. Not all the Iranians are bad guys - far from it, it's only a handful of the top tier officials who salivate at the thought of war with the US. Flynn even comes up with an interesting possible solution to the Iran-problem, though I'll leave you to read the book, to see if you agree.
By keeping his story and writing tight, there is never an instance when you feel comfortable putting the book down. You feel like you're right there in the thick of the action, either following Rapp as he annihilates an entire band of insurgents (but, surprisingly, in an incredibly reaslistic way), or at the start when he metes out some justice for events in the previous book (Act of Treason).
Since his debut, Term Limits, the latest Vince Flynn novel has been one of the highlights of my year, and I imagine will continue to be for many years to come.
Thriller writing at its best, Protect & Defend is highly recommended if you like your thrillers quick, intelligent and realistic. Enjoy.

Friday, January 11, 2008

"Allegiance", by Timothy Zahn (Arrow)

Zahn returns to the Star Wars galaxy, this time set in between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back.

"Allegiance" does something that I've been looking for for some time: it fills in a few blanks between episodes four and five. Namely, it helps develop Han, Luke and Leia a little more, explaining (in part) how Han decides to stick with the Rebellion, and shows Luke developing his Force abilities a little more. However, while these classic characters do feature in the novel, they are not the main protagonists. Written by the man who arguably kicked off the Expanded Universe line of novels with his Thrawn/Heir To The Empire trilogy (perhaps my favourite in the whole series), the novel had a lot going for it even before I opened to the first page.

Instead, Zahn's best creation, Mara Jade, returns - this time still only nineteen years old, still serving the Emperor as his private spy and assassin. Zahn deftly shows us her affect on others, as they discover her true identity: it's as if you compressed all the fear and suspicion created by the Gestapo, and distilled it into a nineteen-year-old girl.

Mara isn't as hard as she was in Zahn's other Star Wars novels; perhaps a reaction to how she's portrayed in other novels that feature her so much (specifically the New Jedi Order and Legacy Of The Force series). Regardless, she's still coldly calculating and without qualms of using a heavy hand, if needed. Her interactions with Darth Vader are enlightening, too, and in some instances help give the Sith Lord more of a rounded, flawed character (his obsession with Luke and Leia, in particular, and how it clouds his judgement).

The other main characters are five Stormtroopers that, after a minor scuffle with an Imperial agent that results in a casualty, desert their posts. Already disillusioned by what they are witnessing in the service of the Empire, they get caught up in a sector struggle between space pirates and local authorities, becoming vigilantes. Inadvertently, however, they end up aiding the Rebellion.
Each of the strands of the novel eventual connect, bringing the wider picture into focus, with the ending being very satisfying - both showing the Rebellion's strengths and also the Empire's. Political intrigue is the order of the day, as separatists help to boost the power and scope of a local pirate syndicate, hoping to create an opening to declare independence from the Empire.
Zahn's writing continues to be of the utmost calibre, never dull, and always engaging. While this isn't his best novel, fans of the series will enjoy the references to future events in both the movies and also the following novels, and you can't fault his story-telling ability. Well worth reading, "Allegiance" is a novel to make you think about the Star Wars universe from another perspective, lacking the rather clean lines of the original trilogy, showing that the Empire wasn't the united juggernaut that's portrayed on screen.

Monday, January 07, 2008

"Darth Bane: Rule of Two", by Drew Karpyshyn (Arrow)

Darth Bane returns, this time with a new apprentice in tow, ready to sow disorder and fear in the supposedly Sith-free galaxy.

Picking up the story immediately after the end of "Path Of Destruction", with Darth Bane beginning a new search for ancient Sith knowledge, his new apprentice Zannah in tow, the story actually took a little longer than expected to get going. It was only after the considerable time-shift that the story itself took off, throwing in a good amount of intrigue, politics and dark side sneakery. The later time allows for much more action and adventure, as Zannah stops being a small girl, and starts to talk back to Bane, challenging him a number of times through the course of the novel.

Told from the perspectives of Bane, Zannah and newly minted Jedi Knight, Johun Othone, "Rule Of Two", we get to see how the Jedi lull themselves into a false sense of security now that they believe the Sith are extinct, killed by the Thought Bomb at the climax of "Path Of Destruction".

Karpyshyn brings some innovative new creatures and tech to light, most notable of which are the Orbalisks - a truly horrifying creature that has a taste for Dark Side power. His story-telling skills, and his ability to write engaging characters makes the reader sometime forget who it is you're supposed to be rooting for. As one of only three Star Wars novels where the "bad guy" is the main protagonist (the third, non-Bane, volume is "Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter" by Michael Reaves).

While it's difficult to discuss this novel without giving too many things away, the insights into the Dark Side, and the altered, unbias perspective of it is a refreshing plus, especially after the rather philosophically-inclined latter half of the New Jedi Order series. It's a novel that's well worth checking out, and with any luck it will reach enough people to warrant a third outing for Bane, the ever-angry, bubbling ball of contempt and rage. Karpyshyn (who's also written two Mass Effect novels, based on the recently-release video game, and is also a designer/writer for the hit game company BioWare) writes in an excellent style, never allowing description to take over, always ensuring that the pace of the novel (at least, after the time-shift) never lets up. His writing allows the reader to be pulled along with the story. Most likely, you'll be up all night reading this.

I wonder if this series, should it continue, might lay the groundwork to allow for a novel that charts the rise of Palpatine - his training, his rise, etc. It would be a welcome addition to the growing Star Wars cannon now available.