Chains of Command
Dale Brown is one of those authors who managed to remain firmly in a genre even as it declined. Which is to say, as the genre began to decline and other authors like Ralph Peters and Harold Coyle moved to different topics like the American Civil War, Brown and his super-planes just kept going and going and going and going and going and going like a technothriller Energizer Bunny. Somehow enough people bought the books that he kept getting publishing deals for more of them without being a super-big name like Tom Clancy.
He was also out-there from the get go, leaning on the “super-science-fiction” edge of technothrillers from the start of his first book, Flight of the Old Dog, which featured a super bomber against a super-laser. (That book I unreservedly recommend-it’s a fun cheap thriller). This and the melodramatic excess of his later novels has made him who he was.
How does Chains of Command, this Russo-American war novel, stack up?
Dale Brown has been there from the start, so it’s no surprise that if you know the type and time period of this thriller, nothing will be surprising. It’s a Dale Brown thriller so you’ll get the Air Force saving everything, lots of nukes flying, and more than a few political rants. It’s a cheap thriller, so you get a cheap thriller plot. It’s post-1991, so the enemy is a regressed Russia.
Like a lot of technothriller authors, Brown loves his rivet-counting, with lots of exact designations and detailed descriptions. The biggest problem isn’t so much the infodumps themselves as how they exist in this exaggerated fantasy world of super-planes. It’s like giving a detailed, technically exact description of a car’s engine and mechanics-in a cartoonish video game.
Well, there’s the regression of Russia, for one. Then there’s the plot-nukes. Dale Brown loves nuking everything without going full Dr. Strangelove. Then there’s an infodumped past war that should crowd out the real Gulf War but doesn’t. The zombie sorceresses haven’t been the busiest here, but they’ve still had to work.
This is a cheap thriller plot, and it wildly zigzags. On one hand, Brown is a former navigator-bombardier in the Air Force, so he can show a feeling of immediacy in the battle scenes. On the other, they’re loaded with infodumps. On one hand, Brown’s plotnukes show he isn’t afraid to have the enemy do real damage. On the other, they make the world seem less real and more contrived. On one hand, the heroine is an effective character by the standards of the genre. On the other, the action is too spread out…
You get the idea.
The Only Score That Really Matters
Chains of Command is not truly bad, but Brown has definitely written better. While he hadn’t yet sunk to the levels he would later on, this is not his best book, nor is it the best in the genre. It manages to deploy both general technothriller and Brown-specific cliches in bulk without having anything like prose or plot to make up for them.
I’d recommend reading Flight of the Old Dog first and seeing if you like his style before trying Chains of Command. It can work as a time-passing cheap thriller, but even in that easy genre there are better books.