RogerBW's Blog

Maelstrom, Keith Douglass 27 February 2015

1993; fifth in the Carrier series. "Tombstone" Magruder, CAG aboard USS Thomas Jefferson, continues to fight against the Russian invasion of Norway in 1993+4.

Know, oh prince, that between the years when Reagan fell and SDI slew the USSR [this may not actually have happened], and the years of the War on Terror, there was an age undreamed-of, when the idea of a short victorious war to boost domestic morale could actually be explained to American readers as a thing the bad guys did, rather than being something they were living with.

Following directly from Flame-Out, this book starts with the Jefferson carrier group in a bad position: supplies are low, the Russian carrier Soyuz that was attacked last time is being repaired and reinforced, and there's the threat of a second Russian fleet moving out of the Baltic. It's not even clear whether there will be reinforcements, or whether the Jefferson group will have to fight its way out of the Norwegian Sea solo.

In an attempt to make this primarily about the conflict in Norway (so that sea power can be relevant), the Russian invasion of Sweden and Finland is elided in a few paragraphs and seems to be remarkably trouble-free.

Of course a series like this is primarily about the fighting, so that's what we mostly get, a series of air battles over sea and land, from the viewpoints of American, Norwegian and Russian military men. There's probably enough detail to build some wargames out of this. Technically it's mostly well put-together, which is not such a low bar as it might seem; five books in, some of the procedures are starting to get a bit repetitive, but then that's just what does happen when following procedures is a big part of staying alive.

I am less convinced by some of the tactics, in particular anchoring the Jefferson in a fjord to hide her from prowling Russians; don't you need a certain amount of wind over the deck to keep fixed-wing flight operations going? I'm sure you could push the tolerances a little and operate less-loaded aircraft, but there's no mention that this could even cause difficulties. Later on, a Russian air attack somehow gets from fifty miles out to dogfighting range over the carrier before anyone can move to try to stop it, by means which are simply not mentioned. Keith has always been a fast and productive writer, but this book sometimes feels as if it had been written a little too fast, with infelicities of style and minor technical errors that haven't been present in earlier volumes.

The characterisation remains thin but adequate; Magruder is settling into his new job as commander and coming to terms with the idea that the flying and dying now has to be done by other people. In a pattern familiar to those of us who've read other books by Bill Keith, he's developing a knack for coming up with high-risk, high-reward tactical plans. He rides the edge of being too good, too implausibly rewarded, but still makes mistakes.

Until the final section, which feels completely different in style from the rest of the book. There's what seems like a climactic battle, then a bit of future planning by the enemy, in a manner that in previous volumes has been coda and setup for the next book in the series… and then it's all suddenly resolved in the last few chapters, with an even bigger battle given relatively short shrift. And Magruder's back in a plane, even though he's the CAG, and for some reason it's an F/A-18 rather than the F-14s he's always flown before, and he gets to go one-on-one with the Russian ace we've been hearing about in this and the previous book. And the Russian invasion of Norway is defeated. And Magruder gets an early promotion to Captain. And someone thought to be dead turns up having been rescued. It all seems terribly sudden, as though Keith were writing to a word count, realised he'd hit the length requirement, and wanted to finish things off and get on with the next book; but it's also remorselessly positive, a significant contrast to the win-but-with-costs attitude of the rest of the book and indeed the series.

I enjoyed most of the book, but the final section left a bit of a sour taste and I wonder whether it was imposed on Keith by the publisher.

Followed by Countdown.

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See also:
Flame-Out, Keith Douglass

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