Saturday, July 14, 2012

Dead or Alive (novel) review

    Dead or Alive is a difficult book for me to review. On one hand, the book is quite entertaining and doesn't drag nearly as much as a 'typical' Clancy novel. On the other hand, the book takes all of Clancy's usual straw politics to the eleven plus has some genuinely ridiculous scenes. I'm reminded a bit of David Weber's early Honor Harrington books in how the story itself is quite good but the bad guys' beliefs are so caricatured they become a source of unintentional comedy.

    The premise of Dead or Alive is that the Ryanverse's version of the 9/11 attacks were perpetuated not by Osama Bin Ladin but by a mysterious figure called the Emir. A secret clandestine agency called the Campus, named for the CIA's headquarters, was formed by President Jack Ryan (Sr.) to hunt down the figure. Now in the term of Ryan's successor, President Ed Kealty, the organization has neglected to inform the current President of their existence yet continues to hunt for the Emir.

    On the surface this is an excellent premise. You have a rogue agency, divided from official channels by politics, going on a mission against a much worse foe. There's all sorts of interesting things you can do with this premise such as question what is justifiable in a war against a mass murderer and what separates such an agency from the very sort of terrorists it fights.

    Dead or Alive doesn't do that.

    I'm not sure whether it was Tom Clancy himself or co-author Grant Blackwood but the writing goes in a bizarre direction with the Campus. Basically, the story completely overlooks any illegality or unethical qualities to being a unlicensed death squad to focus on how awesome it is. Every single character who joins the Campus think it's a great idea and no one has even the slightest question to its morality.

    This is problematic to me because the characters, themselves, include survivors of the events of Clear and Present Danger. Not to spoil the plot of C&PD but the theme was the dangers of abuse of military force by the government. Here, they abuse it by about a thousand times worse only for everyone to flat out ignore it. It's an action whose consequences are conspicuous by their nonexistence.

    There's also some genuinely silly bits where Tom Clancy throws the law completely to the wind. For example, the Campus is illegal but unpunishable because President Ryan wrote one hundred blank but signed pardons for the organization to carry around. Whenever one of its members gets in trouble, they can apparently use one as a literal 'get out of jail free' card. This is... yeah.

    Some long-standing fans of the Ryanverse-series have commented on continuity errors present in the book as well. The largest being the complete lack of reference to many of the disasters which occurred in previous books. Given the book is focused on 9/11, this is understandable but the inclusion of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is curious given I'm not sure who started them without George W. Bush. A man who was never president in the Ryanverse.

    I could go on but there's a lot of mistakes about how the law works in the book. These often stop the narrative because they're so bizarre. A major subplot, for example, is the trial of a US Army Ranger for war crimes. The problem is that the actions he took were manifestly not war crimes and the authors seem to forget he'd be tried by a military court.

    Surprisingly, the book is still enjoyable despite these factors. Dead or Alive is a wish-fulfillment fantasy about a bunch of upright spies out to wipe out an evil terrorist organization. Its premise is ridiculous but that doesn't mean that you can't enjoy the work as it heads to its inevitable conclusion. The use of many familiar characters from previous Ryanverse novels also contributes to the book being more enjoyable than it probably has any right to be.

     Of all the characters to be fond of, I especially enjoyed the Emir. The Osama Bin Ladin substitute is a bizarre and fascinating character who seems more interested in hookers than terrorism. The idea of the world's most infamous terrorist being a complete hypocrite regarding his Islam is something that appeals to me and leads to some of the book's most humorous scenes. The fact these scenes aren't played for comedy but straight simply makes them more fun.

     Really, the best thing Dead or Alive has going for it is its numerous interesting action sequences. There's hostage rescues, covert assassinations, military assaults, and a massive finale that plays like a Bond movie. I also enjoyed the return of (former) President Ryan to politics, delivering the kind of warm respectable politician we all believe Washington D.C. should be filled with but isn't.

     I am iffy but overall okay with the book's primary star of Jack Ryan Junior. Basically, the literal Jack Ryan of the next generation, he's a character who wants desperately to be a covert operative as opposed to an analyst. There's no real tension whether or not he's going to achieve this goal but the question forms the majority of his character arc in the book. If you like Jack Ryan Senior, you'll like Junior since they're very similar despite their differing backgrounds.

    In conclusion, Dead or Alive is a fun but poorly-researched book. What's odd is the questionable elements didn't even have to exist as there's nothing preventing the Campus from being a black ops project of the CIA or the participants being aware of their criminality in the service of a good cause. Still, the characters are enjoyable and the action is fun. Plus, I always approve of fighting Osama Bin Ladin substitutes so long as the novel avoids racism.

    I recommend people check out Dead or Alive only if they have a desire to continue reading in the Clancyverse.


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