Command Authority (a book review)

Command Authority
Does someone get paid to come up with these generic titles? I’d like that job!

“Clancy’s done it again!” That’s what the back cover used to say on old Tom Clancy novels. I always assumed that “done it again” meant “written a really-long novel full of extraneous material that could have easily been cut in half!” I can’t agree that he always did it again, especially once he started having co-authors (on the other hand “The Teeth of the Tiger” was so bad that maybe he needed some co-authors). But I’ve stayed on board with Jack Ryan and company over the years. Even though I haven’t read them all (when a Clancy novel exceeds 600 pages, you’re usually in trouble), I’ve never lost my love of the Clancy universe, regardless of who is writing the characters. The topical storylines and rah-rah conservative patriotism are always fun to come back to. The global military action and occasional suspenseful espionage keeps me there.

So let’s look at Command Authority, the third novel with co-writer Mark Greaney, and the final novel before Mr. Clancy went up to the great writer’s conference in the sky.

This novel was published in 2013, so keep that in mind when you realize in the story that Russia hasn’t claimed Crimea yet. In fact, the story centers around Russian military action in Ukraine. Russian President Valeri Volodin, an obvious stand-in for Vladmir Putin, wants to flex his muscle in the western nations that used to fall under the domain of the U.S.S.R. He’s eyeing Ukraine. To that end, he’s spent his free time trying to destabilize the nation from within using not only his own intelligence organizations, but also local organized crime. Riots and assassinations plague the country, their military is weak, and spies abound. A former Russian spy and friend of Jack Ryan, the President of the United States, is poisoned with Polonium prior to meeting with the President at the White House. In London, Jack Ryan, Jr., investigates the brazen, and apparently legal, theft of a U.K. Citizen’s multi-billion-dollar oil company that had discovered oil in Siberia. Somehow, Russian-state-controlled Gazprom ended up with the company and the oil rights.

How all of these incidents relate is what forms the basis of the novel. That sounds like it could be a huge mess, but Command Authority actually feels like a tightly-plotted novel, probably the best of the recent bunch that I have read. Could the authors trim some fat? Sure. Could it have been a little more focused? Yup. But it’s never boring. I always had an idea where things were going, which is nice change.

Clancy novels of the past often have huge swatches of story that don’t seem to go anywhere. It always comes together at the end, but the uncertainty of what’s going on, or why I’m reading about certain plotlines, gets in the way of what a thriller is supposed to do, which is hook you in and barrel forward with consistent pace and a clear objective. Command Authority mostly avoids that issue by making each scene matter at the time, instead of being some incredibly long setup. It’s not exactly perfect, but it’s not bad either.

Given current issues between Russia and Ukraine, this novel dovetails nicely with the solo Mark Greaney effort Commander in Chief. That novel revisits Ukraine and feels timely right now, even though it’s a couple of years old. Commander in Chief suffers from the pacing issues described above, but it’s worth reading after this one — if you like the Tom Clancy universe.

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