Arc Light by Eric Harry is a good but uneven World War III tale. Even at its worst, it never dips below the genre median, and at its best it goes in a novel direction that takes a big concern head-on instead of sidestepping it. While this might seem (and is) praiseworthy, it left me wanting the whole story to be more consistently good.
Arc Light has two “parts”. One is bold, the other cliche.
The first part is the nuclear war. This, for all my small quibbles, handles the defining weapon of the Cold War excellently. The initial strikes are described in massive detail, and the threat hangs uneasily for the rest of the book. Instead of either handwaving nukes aside altogether or, worse, dropping a few contrived “plotnukes” (Hackett’s Birmingham-Minsk exchange is a picture-pefect example), it launches a big but survivable nuclear “counterforce” strike while keeping the unease of follow-up strikes there.
The second part is a totally conventional military cheap thriller. It’s not outright bad or unreadable, but it has most of the genre tropes there. Multiple viewpoint characters (though, I will say, not too many), and worse, contrived, tinny political scenes that only serve to set up the action that everyone knew was coming anyway.
The rivet-counting concerning the nukes is present and annoying. Annoying in the sense that they alternate between well-described horror of nuclear war and clinical, dull infodumps. A lot of the nuclear infodumps have the “I know what the formal name of a Scud TEL is” feeling, where it sounds like the author using the story to demonstrate what he knows instead of using what he knows to help make the story better. But, in an excample of how conflicted this book can be, they’re interspersed with genuinely gripping descriptions.
The rivet-counting concerning everything else is just irritating, especially when large battles and plot-progressing moments are told in nothing but infodumps.
While I’m sure the zombie sorceresses were at work with the setup, the important part was that it didn’t feel as contrived as it had been. It has Russia as the opponent and its nuclear exchange dominates the book without being too big.
I’d say the biggest zombie sorceress intervention came in politics and the Americans invading Russia. But even that I forgave, for it was more novel.
This kind of wobbles a lot. The low-level soldiers are handled very well. The noncombatants are handled decently, at least in a well-intended way. Anything political turns into either infodumps or Larry Bond-wannabe “they set up what you knew what would happen” scenes.
Arc Light feels like it’s trying to tell a big Red Storm Rising-style story while using a fairly small number of viewpoint characters. The former is acceptable, and the latter to me is laudable. But what this means in practice is that a lot of the story is told in either infodumps or maps. It either needed more characters (which are not necessarily bad if handled well) or a smaller scope.
The Only Score That Really Matters
This takes the eccentricities of 90s techno-thrillers and manages to use them well. But it still could have been more. At times it feels like a gritty genre-amplifier and at times it feels like a routine Larry Bond knockoff.
It’s kind of befuddling. Arc Light will have a gritty infantry battle that has down and dirty bleeding and confusion, and then it will have a classic conference room infodump. It will show something with great skill-and then tell anyway. A giant tank battle is explained in an infodump.
But it still tries to move outside the narrow genre limits and mostly succeeds. In particular, it handles WMDs without them ever feeling like “plotnukes” there to just add a bit of cheap drama. It just could have used a little more focus and a lot less tinny politics.