RogerBW's Blog

Flame-Out, Keith Douglass 13 October 2014

Fourth in the Carrier series. "Tombstone" Magruder is now deputy CAG aboard a Nimitz-class carrier, and Russia is invading Norway.

What do you do when you're writing a cold war series and there's no more cold war? You restart it, of course. Writing near-future is always a perilous game, and rapidly turns into alternative history. Not that I mind that.

So this is happening, according to my new format, in the year 1992+5. The 1991 Russian coup attempt has failed as happened historically, but a second attempt has worked rather better and put a hard-line communist government back in power. On the other hand, NATO has broken up as various countries try to cash in the peace dividend, which means in narrative terms that a single American carrier group is the only significant combat force in position to help out in Norway as the Soviets take Finland and head round the north end of Sweden (they're not entirely stupid) into Norway in the chaos caused by a "terrorist" assassination of the Norwegian leadership (and the Russian premier, since he was too inconveniently reformist for the hard-liners). Yes, the politics are somewhat implausible, but the politics in this sort of book always exist primarily as a setup to put the good guys' lives on the line with little enough support that they can come over as heroes rather than the footsoldiers of an all-conquering global empire. In that sense, the version here gets the job done.

Because this is a book about naval aviation, we have the Soviet carrier Soyuz, second of the Kuznetsov class and similarly armed with navalised MiG-29s and Su-27s, as was a reasonable speculation at the time of writing. (And there's mention of a larger Soviet carrier undergoing sea trials, which will presumably turn up in later books.) There's less operational detail than we got on Kreml in Armageddon Mode, but enough to be getting on with.

But most of the book deals with Matthew "Tombstone" Magruder as he's forced to grow up a bit, learning his new job while under extreme operational pressure. He's been away from carrier flying for a while, since his reputation in previous books has allowed the Pentagon to use him as a convenient hero for PR, and while he was hoping to get back to flying F-14s he's now forced to think more about the other aircraft on board. This is actually pretty decent material, getting away from the Tombstone who's sometimes come across as a little over-privileged and whiny, and forcing him into a new job that he needs to learn to be good at before he gets his friends killed.

That, of course, is in between the battle scenes that we came for. This is a full naval conflict, with some decent submarine and anti-sub action as well as the aviation. During the climactic battle Tombstone isn't even in the cockpit: he's had to learn to move on and leave the flying to the more junior guys. Keith continues to be an engaging writer, providing plenty of tension and excitement in this core of the narrative.

Several characters are back from previous books, including Batman and Coyote, and we also get a couple of Soviet viewpoints, a smart and cocky young pilot and a more cynical and political CAG-equivalent. As before, there are plenty of briefer views from other people too, so that we can get a full picture of the various engagements that develop.

There are multiple mentions of an "An-74" Soviet AEW aircraft, reporting name Madcap and presumably a replacement for the Beriev A-50 (Il-76) Mainstay; this seems to be entirely fictional (the real An-74 is a STOL transport, an upgrade of the An-72). It seems still to be land-based rather than launched from the Soviet carrier, so I wonder slightly why Keith didn't just use the old Mainstay.

This is mostly a book that one reads for air and naval battles, and it doesn't disappoint. There's not much lingering over the actual details of hardware compared with some writers, though there are plenty of name-checks. Best in the series so far.

Incidentally, there are no actual flame-outs in this book.

Followed by Maelstrom.

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Previous in series: Armageddon Mode | Series: Carrier | Next in series: Maelstrom

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