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Entries in Jeff Rovin (3)


Sting of the Wasp by Jeff Rovin

Published by St. Martin's Griffin on May 28, 2019

Jeff Rovin is a flake with a questionable sense of reality, but so was Tom Clancy. I try not to hold flakiness against writers who produce good stories, including Clancy, who wrote some very good novels before he succumbed to right wing rabies. I got the strong sense in reading Sting of the Wasp that Rovin wanted to throw red meat to the rabid right while balancing the novel with more moderate characters. There isn’t much balance here, but the real test of a thriller is whether it thrills. As is true of Rovin’s other contributions to the Tom Clancy Op-Center series (zero of which were written by Tom Clancy), Rovin proves himself to be a capable storyteller without offering anything that thriller fans haven’t seen before.

Sting of the Wasp might be seen as prescient in its depiction of a president who is considering a missile strike against Iran. Apparently, John Bolton is dictating policy in the fictional White House, even if the fictional president is considerably more focused than Donald Trump. Only January Dow, in charge of intelligence at the State Department, acts as a voice of reason, and she is far from being a reasonable person.

The missile strike is contemplated as a response to a chemical attack at a military tourist center that begins the novel. The attack is carried out by Ahmed Salehi. Salehi was on the Center’s radar, but Salehi’s strike was neither anticipated nor preempted. That costs Chase Williams his job and puts an end to the Ops-Center. But there wouldn’t be a novel if Chase retired, so he’s secretly placed in charge of capturing or killing Salehi.

Chase’s new team consists of three people. The team was created to be mobile and agile, with the ability to respond to threats in “real time.” Its mode of operation is to charge into battle without a plan, which is touted as the new model for warfare. Unfortunately, the bad guys seem capable of planning, so charging after them willy-nilly might not be the most intelligent approach to military intelligence.

Chase’s “Black Wasp” team include a JAG professor called Major Breen, who supposedly represents the “conscience” of the team because he believes in due process rather than assassination; a Marine sharpshooter named Rivet, who believes in shooting people; and a psychopath named Grace who is a combat instructor with special operations command. “Black Wasp” stands for Black-ops Wartime Accelerated Strike Placement, an awkward name created to justify a cool acronym. Black Wasp is “liberated from the burden of morality” — morality being a quaint notion that right wingers quickly abandon when its strictures prove to be inconvenient.

The characters are stereotypes, liberated from the burden of complex thought and actual personalities. They see the enemy as “savages” while the Major with the alleged conscience feels no qualms about subjecting them to a bit of “discomfort” with “enhanced interrogation” (e.g., torture). Of course, Americans who torture people are not savages because, well, they’re Americans. One character seems to be upset that Americans are moved by the image of a dead child because the child is a terrorist’s granddaughter and therefore deserved to pay a heavy price for being born. The worst part of reading a novel like this is the realization that people think this way.

I was amused that characters express outrage about the treatment of women by conservative Muslims. It is evil to abuse woman regardless of one’s religious beliefs, but domestic abuse by members of the American military is both evil and rampant. I often see condemnation of violence against women in books that demonize Muslims, but those same books are inevitably silent about abusers in the American military, given that members of the military are regarded as heroic by default. That makes me think people who rail against the inequality of Muslim women in certain countries actually have a problem with Muslims, not with violence against women.

Anyway, Chase and his team chase Salehi to Trinidad and then to Yemen, making some adventurous stops along the way. Rovin always constructs a competent if simplistic plot and writes strong action scenes. He moves the story with good pace and produces entertaining pulp fiction. The novel shakes up the Ops-Center series, which was getting stale, but I’m not sure Black Wasp is any better. Sting of the Wasp balances decent action and competent prose with shallow characterization and a predictable plot.



For Honor by Jeff Rovin

Published by St. Martin's Griffin on May 29, 2018

The full title of this book is Tom Clancy’s Op-Center: For Honor. Tom Clancy died in 2013, but his name appears in the largest font on the cover. The name of the actual author, Jeff Rovin, appears in the smallest font, despite the fact that Rovin has written most of the Op-Center novels and Clancy wrote none of them. Regardless, you can bet that some gullible readers will write Amazon reviews complaining that Tom Clancy doesn’t write as well as he once did, or praising Tom Clancy for his continued literary excellence. I don’t know if publishers intend to deceive readers when a dead author’s name dominates the cover, but the practice has a bad smell. I like to see the writer who actually wrote the book get top billing.

The Op-Center series was relaunched in an excruciatingly dull 2014 book by Dick Couch and Steve Pieczenik. Returning Rovin to the helm was a wise decision. Rovin at least makes things happen in For Honor. Not everything that happens is interesting or credible, but enough of the novel works to earn a very guarded recommendation.

The plot follows a theme that have become popular in current thrillers: Russia is teaming up with Iran to cause mass destruction in the United States. The story throws in some action in Cuba involving series regular Kent McCord, but the Cuba plotline comes across as filler. It adds nothing of value to the story.

The better plot thread involves Konstantin Bolshakov, who disappeared from Soviet military records in 1962 and resurfaced after the Soviet Union broke up, having transitioned from naval officer to arms dealer. Bolshakov went into hiding after a rival arms dealer killed his wife, but only after taking the eye of the rival’s daughter. Bolshakov placed his son Yuri in a place of safety before he went into hiding. Entering adulthood, Yuri vowed never to have contact with the man whose career caused his mother’s death. That vow is broken when Yuri, now a faithful member of the GRU, needs his father’s knowledge about nuclear weapons that were stored and sort of forgotten in Anadyr, a Russian city in cozy proximity to Alaska.

Thanks to a snazzy Ops-Center computer program that scans social media posts worldwide, Kathleen Hays spots the elder Bolshakov in a photo at a Moscow parade, and spots him again catching a flight to the port city of Anadyr, where no sane person would go. Why she cares about a has-been arms dealer is unclear. With a bit of snooping, she finds that Yuri is also going to Anadyr. From this she deduces that world peace is once again threatened.

Meanwhile, the Ops-Center is helping with the interview of an Iranian defector named Ghasemi, who claims to be a closet Christian who is being persecuted by the Russians, but quickly admits that he has been planted to provide disinformation to the Americans, and claims that his daughter will be killed if he does not cooperate. A video showing the daughter being tortured is offered as proof of his story. Chase Williams, who heads the Ops-Center, is suspicious of Ghasemi, while Ghasemi’s daughter, a nuclear physicist named Parand, eventually comes to play a role in story other than that of a helpless torture victim. Unfortunately, the father-daughter relationship involving Ghasemi and Parand is less well developed than the father-son relationship involving Konstantin and Yuri. In the end, the father-daughter story just sort of fizzles out.

Naturally, the good guys quickly albeit improbably draw a connection between the Russian and Iranian storylines. In support of the Cuban storyline, we’re told that “planes, ships, and even submarines” from Cuba are “constantly shuttling senior planners of terror groups to Florida and the Gulf Coast.” Homeland Security knows about most of these trips but lets them happen because it prefers to “watch and listen” rather than disrupting “terror groups” by arresting their “senior planners.” This is an astonishingly paranoid view of Cuba, but it’s red meat for a certain kind of reader. It also suggests a certain ineptness on the part of Homeland Security that, at least, isn't difficult to believe.

The reader will need to tolerate the usual thriller veneration of “men of action” (i.e., guys with guns) who do what needs to be done while “bureaucrats” and “academics” (i.e., people who solve problems by thinking rather than shooting) never understand anything and should really just keep their mouths shut and listen to the guys with guns. I particularly laughed at the notion that soldiers who fought in Iraq know more about Iran than a scholar who has devoted a career to studying the country. Iran is ruled by a theocracy, Iraq by something that passes for sectarian government. “Boots on the ground” in Iraq won’t give anyone useful information about Iran, but extolling the virtues of soldiers while bashing academics and politicians is standard fare in novels like this one. Again, red meat.

Rovin also tosses in some Krav Maga workouts and fights, including one at a pointless NATO war games digression in Poland. Krav Maga is a trendy form of martial arts in thrillers and Rovin is nothing if not trendy. Unfortunately, the fights add nothing to the plot, which meanders a bit before Americans rush in to save the day. In the end, I found the Bolshakovs to be more compelling than the American characters, simply because their disagreements were based on substance while the Americans are busy mouthing talking points. The novel offers little in the way of tension or suspense, and action scenes are too standard to be exciting. Rovin knows how to keep a story moving, so it is easy to breeze through the chapters. I found For Honor worthwhile for the Russian father-son dynamic, but the rest of the novel lacks sufficient energy to be work as a thriller.



A Vision of Fire by Gillian Anderson and Jeff Rovin

Published by Simon & Schuster on October 7, 2014

Like many other geekish guys, I had a thing for Gillian Anderson during her X-Files days -- or more precisely, for Scully, a woman of intellect and understated sexiness who easily made it onto my laminated list of Favorite Fantasies. I feared that her attempt to write fiction might produce another awful clone of Twilight, but as a committed Gillian groupie, I set aside my anxiety and took the literary plunge into A Vision of Fire.

After witnessing an assassination attempt on India’s ambassador to the UN, the ambassador’s daughter, Maanik Pawar, enters a disturbed mental state that includes periodic trancelike states, speaking what seems to be gibberish, and moving her arms in peculiar ways. Dr. Caitlin O’Hara is asked to assist. O’Hara is an adolescent psychiatrist who specializes in solving the problems of children around the world.

Meanwhile, in Tehran, a boy sets fire to himself. In Haiti, a girl is drowning without going near the water. Badly behaving birds and swarming rats also figure into the story. O’Hara’s task is to find the connection between the various events. Her willingness to fly off to Iran and Haiti to do so struck me as unlikely and foolish, but I was willing to suspend my disbelief for the sake of Gillian Anderson.

The novel’s backdrop is an escalating military conflict between India and Pakistan. O’Hara’s hypersensitive friend, Benjamin Moss, not only persuades O’Hara to intervene with Maanik but is the first person contacted by a UN peacekeeper when hostilities break out. Those both seem like improbable roles for a UN translator to play -- he’s really in the novel to give O’Hara the opportunity for love or lust -- but again, I suspended by disbelief. (Oh, Gillian, the things you make me do ….)

The novel’s final element concerns the Group, which collects (or steals) artifacts from the southern polar seas. The artifacts come from the distant past, a time of crisis, and as one expects from artifacts in a novel like this, they hold power that endangers the present. That plot thread fizzles out until the end, when it returns to set up the sequel.

The plot of A Vision of Fire is reasonably smart. It has the feel of an average X-Files episode (I attribute that to Gillian). The writing style is smooth (I attribute that to Jeff Rovin). The love interest subplot seems forced but the political background gives the novel some heft. Unfortunately, the story is less suspenseful, less creepy, than I want from this kind of novel. Doing my best to remain uninfluenced by my swoony feelings for Gillian/Scully, I’m giving A Vision of Fire a modest recommendation. I don’t know if I would read the next book in the series without the Scully connection, but as a besotted fan, I’m sure I will.