Saturday, February 21, 2009

Book Review: 'Firelance' by David Mace

4 / 5 Stars

‘Firelance’ (1986; 314 pp) is a near-future military SF novel that takes place nine weeks after a nuclear war between NATO and the Soviet Bloc. The resultant devastation- billions dead, cities little more than mounds of ashes- is compounded by the advent of ‘Nuclear Winter’, with essentially the entire surface of the earth gripped by perpetual darkness, freezing temperatures, strong gales, and snow.

Nonetheless, elements in what remains of the US government are determined to continue the conflict and to do so, the ultra-modern battleship ‘Vindicator’ is dispatched to cross the Atlantic and loose volleys of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles onto the Soviet mainland.

The Vindicator is a 56,000 ton ‘Nemesis’ class ship, with advanced electronics gear for navigation, self-defense, and missile targeting; it comes with a complement of F-28 ‘Skycat’ VTOL fighters to repel enemy air attacks. In short, it’s the ideal ‘Doomsday’ weapons platform and needless to say, whatever remains of the Soviet armed forces are intent on sinking it before it reaches the cruise missile launch point in the North Atlantic.

The main plot line follows the Vindicator as it sets off on its mission and faces threats from Russian submarines, aircraft, and anti-ship missiles, with at-sea operations hampered by the abysmal weather and the knowledge that there are few, if any, allied forces left to offer assistance.

There is a large cast of characters, including Captain Bedford, commander of the Vindicator; Gloria Craze, the ship’s psychologist; David Drexel, a British contractor; First Officer John Boyce; and Bradford Kylander and Eileen Jenninger, members of the national security cabal that has given the ship its mission.

The narrative shifts from one character to another as a plot device to inform the reader on various aspects of naval combat, post-apocalyptic political maneuvering, the meteorology of nuclear winter, and the moral and ethical implications of committing what is essentially racial suicide.

Firelance is in many ways very similar to the technothriller bestsellers written by Tom Clancy throughout the 80s (‘Red Storm Rising’ is perhaps its closest analogue). Practically every other page contains a mini-treatise on some aspect of military technology; there are lots and lots of acronyms, and episodes of combat are relayed in a dry, quasi-clinical style. The prose is often dense and overly descriptive, and the insertion of numerous sub-plots and tangential incidents means the novel takes too long to get to the anticipated resolution of the main plot.

However, as a Britisher and a European, author David Mace is determined to avoid infusing his novel with the optimistic, ‘Team USA’ rah-rah spirit of the Clancy, Harold Coyle, or Larry Bond novels.

Firelance’s setting is unrelentingly bleak and depressing and is more akin to Ralph Peters’s novel ‘The War in 2020’. The Navy officers manning the Vindicator are by no means militaristic zealots, but they are so well inculcated in the military ethos of following orders that it takes some time for them to fully grasp what the Vindicator is designed to accomplish. By the time the ship is underway many of them begin to question the absurd nature of their mission, and their ambivalence contributes to the tension surrounding the action aboard the Vindicator. There are no real winners in what will be the last battle of the last war.

Firelance’s downbeat attitude will probably not have much initial appeal to the Clancy school of technothriller fans, but if they stick with it, I think they’ll find the book is rewarding in its own understated way.

Author Mace published a number of books in the 80s and early 90s. All are out of print but some, such as ‘Demon 4’ and ‘Nightrider’, are available for reasonable prices at and other used book outlets. The author has an unpublished novel, ‘Celestial Rain’, available at his website.

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