After a seven-year absence, Tom Clancy, the grandmaster of the techno-thriller, makes his return with Dead or Alive. A door-stopper of a book, Clancy reunites his long list of characters to chase after the Emir, an Osama bin Laden-type terrorist who is plotting a devastating series of attacks against America and its allies. Prior to leaving office as President of the United States, Jack Ryan established The Campus, an off-the-books intelligence organization that exists in secret from the government. Knowing America's elected officials would not have the backbone and determination to wage a long-term war against Al-Qaeda and it's ilk, The Campus is an independent operator, staffed by a select few, including Ryan's son, Jack Jr. Joining its ranks this time out are old Clancy staples, and fan favorites, John Clark and Ding Chavez.
Without a regular Clancy release since his last book, The Teeth of the Tiger, in 2003, there has been a noticeable gap in the publishing world of quality military thrillers. Brad Thor and Vince Flynn were able to fill in nicely with their series characters, providing lots of action and excitement, with Flynn gaining such popularity that he briefly served as a consultant for season 5 of Fox's TV series 24. Both authors quickly found their niche of providing post-9/11 American heroics against terrorist radicals, often in spite of true-to-form incompetent politicians who live in a narcissistic vacuum.
Clancy, meanwhile, was silent on the publishing front. After delivering intellectual thrillers during the waning years of the Cold War, his works turned towards positing potential near-future catastrophe's on the horizon, such as a trade war turned shooting match with Japan in Debt of Honor, biological warfare initiated by the Iranians in Executive Orders, or escalating tensions and conflict between Russia, Communist China, and the US in The Bear and the Dragon. The orderly mechanics of spycraft, diplomacy, and military-might took a devastating blow with the attack on the World Trade Center, and Clancy attempted to shift gears and adjust to the new world order and the threat of rogue elements like bin Laden, introducing the Campus in Teeth of the Tiger with mixed results. It was a smaller novel than many long-time readers were used to; several past works were large-scale tomes clocking in around 1,000 pages or more, with Tiger weighing in at half that and ending on a bit of a cliff-hanger.
Nobody expected the wait to be so long, and with the post-9/11 competition from Flynn and Thor, the bigger question appeared to be whether or not Clancy and his worldview were still relevant in the current geopolitical landscape. Dead or Alive serves to answer this question, along with one other. Given the long wait between books, and some health problems that occurred in between publications, there was a presumption in some online forums that this book would be Clancy's last, his final attempt to put his long-standing series regulars to rest once and for all. While not all of his characters make it through to the end, it is evident this is not intended to be the last volume in Clancy's long career, and that we haven't seen the last of Jack Ryan or the Campus.
Joined by co-writer Grant Blackwood (his first co-author in fiction since Red Storm Rising in 1986), Clancy applies his expert knowledge and analytical skills toward the war on terror, proving that he can certainly stand tall against more contemporary authors who have sought to fill the void between his releases. The writing is tight and fast-paced, propelling the story forward in traditional "unputdownable" fashion. Writing with a partner also seems to have tightened up some of the editorial mishaps that plagued past novels. Over the course of his last few books, Clancy fell into severe moments of repetition, clinging to particular words or phrases and over-using them to a frustrating degree. Thankfully, this has been ironed out between Clancy, Blackwood, and their editors at Putnam (however, I couldn't help but smile when the word "niggardly" popped up, given Clancy's exuberant use of this term in Rainbow Six, and the ensuing condemnation of it by some folks too lazy to pick up a dictionary).
With Dead or Alive clocking in at over 900 pages, Clancy is back and in true form. Given the long amount of time it's been since Jack Ryan and John Clark have appeared on page, it's simply refreshing to catch up with them again and share in their new adventures. To have this stable of characters hunting down the world's Most Wanted and succeeding where the government cannot (or will not) is a delightful bit of escapist wish-fulfillment. Dead or Alive is a welcome addition to the Jack Ryan series, proving that the author is still relevant in these turbulent times, and promising more to come. Now we just have to hope it's not close to another decade to find out what happens next.