Published by St. Martin's Press on February 2, 2016
As he has often done, Stephen Coonts teams series hero Jake Grafton with series hero Tommy Carmellini in The Art of War. The strength of those characters and a couple of powerful moments sold me on the novel. The plot is standard for a modern thriller, meaning it approaches the outlandish. Fortunately, the book races from scene to scene with so much energy that it leaves little time to think about the story's improbability.
The Chinese navy is the bad guy in The Art of War. Chinese naval commanders want to control the South China Sea, but worry that Americans might interfere with their grand design. They take steps to keep that from happening. Big steps, on several fronts, calculated to disrupt America’s various intelligence agencies and, for that matter, the government and the entire country.
Coonts pushes the Chinese shenanigans rather far, to a point that nearly exceeded my generous willingness to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good story. Fortunately, The Art of War never became so ridiculously improbable that I lost interest in it. To his credit, Coonts recognizes and addresses some of the reasons that his imagined scenario is largely divorced from political and economic reality.
The good guys in The Art of War are in the CIA. One is Grafton, who takes over as the agency’s acting director early in the novel. His contribution to the story is told from a third person perspective. Carmellini, an all-purpose spook who is usually tasked with planting bugs in foreign embassies, is the novel’s action hero. He tells his part of the story in the first person.
Some of Coonts’ characters have obvious political biases but, unlike some thriller writers, Coonts doesn’t let them overwhelm the story. I appreciate that, since I read fiction to be entertained, not indoctrinated. At the same time, Coonts isn’t afraid to show the ugly side of America -- an “us versus them” ugliness that too many people eagerly embrace when they use race or ancestry to define “real Americans.” That’s refreshing, and it gives the story a realistic sense of balance.
The Art of War blends action with drama. As is typical of thrillers, the action dominates at the end, but unlike many thrillers, it isn’t mindless action. Engaging characters, a certain slyness of wit in the storytelling, and a satisfying conclusion make this a fun novel.