Friday, July 29, 2016

Fighting the Forces of Evil

As Ghosts of War opens, members of the Taskforce, the extra-legal super-clandestine group fighting terrorists by doing whatever it takes to win, are still adrift following the events of The Forgotten Soldier. The government officials who give them their missions are unwilling to reactivate them after one of their members went rogue and began his own vendetta.

So Pike Logan and Jennifer Cahill, two civilian members of the Taskforce who operate an archaeological/historical items research and recovery service as their cover, decide to take on a job proposed by two Israeli secret agents with whom they've worked in the past. The job is simple: Help provide a cover story while the agents verify the authenticity of a medieval Torah scroll thought lost in the Holocaust. But the Israeli agents had a backup mission, and the Torah scroll is also on the shopping list of a shady Russian oligarch trying to stay one step ahead of the ruthless Vladimir Putin. His method? Destabilize U.S.-Russian relations to the degree that the two nations actually threaten war, which will cause other oligarchs to band together and oust the Russian leader. But he's more successful than he thought he would be and now war looks like more than a threat -- and Pike and Jennifer are right in the middle of it.

Even though the scale of the threat outweighs just about anything he's done with Pike and the Taskforce to date, the scope of the book remains smaller. Taylor writes most of his story around Pike and Jennifer as well as Aaron and Shoshana, the Israeli team. While the Taskforce pair still have some wrinkles in their relationship, they are Ozzie and Harriet compared to the Israelis -- but the latter want to navigate their way into a relationship they both desire but don't know how to create. The presence of someone from Shoshana's past doesn't help them at all.

Taylor gets credit for trying, as usual, to examine some of the real-world consequences -- political and personal -- of an agency that operates in explicit denial of the ideals and laws of the nation it wants to protect. He's less successful at exploring the relationship waters that the two pairs of agents and lovers are trying to navigate. He gets where he wants to go, but lacks the finesse that could tighten up and bring a shine to this part of his story. Still, he's offering a quick-paced action yarn where heroes act heroically, banter a bit and take care of the business at hand. And he's doing it with enough skill and nuance to stand out from the crowded shelves of similar yarns that leave a lot to be desired.
In 2010, Power Down introduced Dewey Andreas, a former covert operative disillusioned with his work and his home nation who finds himself called back to work to face a threat that could cripple the country for decades. Since that interesting debut, Ben Coes has kept Dewey humming in adventures that haven't quite lived up to the promise of Power Down even though they feature some great character-building flavor.

First Strike, the sixth Dewey Andreas novel, starts out as strongly as any have before in the series. What if the terrorist group known as ISIS started out as a misguided attempt by U.S. intelligence to create a counter-weight to the jihadi forces sweeping the Middle East? And what if the brilliant mastermind of the group used that fact as leverage to keep the pipeline of weapons and resources flowing? What would happen when that arrangement finally came to light?

Well in a world with Dewey Andreas, the first thing to do would be to send him to Syria to meet with a possible ISIS defector to get information that confirmed the relationship. Although he does, and U.S. intelligence uses that info to stop the latest massive shipment, Dewey is caught and faces a brutal execution. Rather than cleave to the usual "I ain't skeered" attitude of he-man heroes in situations like this, Coes gives Dewey a healthy fear of his fate. Which makes his desperation in his escape that much more believable and heightens the tension as well. This part of First Strike is easily the best and ranks at the top of any of Dewey's adventures.

But the second half of the book, which deals with the ISIS leader's attempts to force the U.S. to give him his weapons shipment by taking over a dorm at Columbia University, is completely pedestrian, silly, cruel and paint-by-numbers Flag-Waving Patriotic Thriller 101. When we've gone a few pages of Dewey and company trying to figure out how to break into the dorm without getting any more people killed, Coes seems to think we need a reminder of how eeeeevil the terrorists are so they commit another atrocity on another poor innocent cipher. These incidents develop a significant cut-and-paste feel, down to similar language -- we cut to the hostage scene at least three times by being informed the air on the un-air-conditioned floor is "fetid" with the heat of so many bodies.

In the end, First Strike almost seems as though it's two unrelated short novellas mashed together under one cover -- Dewey's Syrian mission is a first-rate espionage thriller, but the Columbia hostage dorm segment belongs in a much lesser book.

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