December 12, 2013|By Kevin Nance
"Command Authority" is the first book by Tom Clancy published since his death in October. (Keri Wiginton, Chicago Tribune)
In "Command Authority," the first Tom Clancy espionage/military thriller published since the megaselling author's death in October, the Cold War is alive and well. It never really ended, in fact, bringing Clancy's Jack Ryan series — featuring the CIA analyst first seen battling the Soviets in 1984's "The Hunt for Red October" — full circle.
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After a lengthy and much-lamented absence from the pantheon of world villains in the Clancy universe (during which bad guys in the Middle East, Japan, Pakistan and China took turns menacing America or its interests), Russian scoundrels are once again wearing the black hats.
The chief scoundrels, in this case, are the Russian President Valeri Volodin, an ex-KGB man, and his main enforcer, Roman Talanov, who as young men foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union and have since demonstrated their talent for survival. A dictator in all but name, Volodin is bent on re-establishing Russian dominance over its former satellite states, beginning with an ultimately NATO-thwarted military foray in Estonia followed by a bigger, nastier push in Ukraine.
This brings them onto a collision course with Ryan, now the U.S. president, and his son, Jack Ryan Jr., who has followed his dad into the family business of protecting the homeland from its enemies abroad. The younger Ryan, on hiatus from his gig as an intelligence analyst, spy and part-time assassin, has moved to London and is working for a company investigating international financial crimes. This ultimately reconnects the Ryans to Volodin, Talanov and their old KGB cronies, who exited communism by means of a series of larcenous golden parachutes.
It's the familiar, mostly effective Clancy stew of trigger-happy testosterone, cloak-and-dagger spy adventure, high-tech military action and conservative politics, including the author's trademark disdain for international diplomacy and anyone who might dare to criticize American intelligence operations.
It's true, too, that the book's premise can hardly be dismissed as paranoid fantasy. Volodin bears an undeniable and no doubt intended resemblance, at least in part, to the real-life Russian president, Vladimir Putin, whose own KGB background and ambition to return his country to the status of global superpower are obvious to anyone with even a cursory interest in international affairs.
But whatever its level of geopolitical verisimilitude, "Command Authority" isn't exactly the bang that red-meat Clancy fans might have wished for as a culmination of the Jack Ryan series; it's more of a whimper. Its early scenes of military action in Estonia are thrilling in their smash-mouth fashion, but "Command Authority" soon bogs down in the details of complex financial transactions, military acronyms, espionage code, heavy exposition and backstory, and, worst of all, endless subplots involving dozens of characters. (These include the happy but brief reappearance of the Russian ex-official Sergey Golovko, whose death by poisoning becomes one of the story's catalysts.)
The result of this stubborn granularity makes for a sometimes sluggish pace over the course of such a doorstop of a book, an all but fatal flaw in a genre that makes its living off compelling the reader to keep the pages turning.
Like two of its predecessors in the Ryan franchise, "Locked On" (2011) and "Threat Vector" (2012), "Command Authority" was written "with" Mark Greaney, author of "Dead Eye" and other thrillers. Exactly how much each of the collaborators contributed to the writing is known only to the parties involved. But it's easy to speculate that Clancy, a one-man entertainment industry who allowed his name to be used by ghostwriters of movie scripts and other commodities, did not have the same firm grip on the storytelling here that made "The Hunt for Red October" one of the best books of the genre it helped launch.
Does Clancy's death spell the end for the Jack Ryan saga? If the ongoing careers of Jason Bourne and other thriller-franchise heroes who survived their original creators are any indication, it seems likely that we'll be seeing plenty more of the Ryans, for better or worse.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter: @KevinNance1
By Tom Clancy with Mark Greaney, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 739 pages, $29.95