Red Dragon Rising: Blood of War by Larry Bond and Jim DeFelice
Ah, yes, you are calmly saying to yourself. This is another of the team-writing efforts which bring the excitement of war into your homes without the need for television or the blu-ray machine. All you need for this to work is a pair of reading eyes and an imagination. Except. . . The opening title is, “Personal Chronicle: Looking Back to 2014”. Because I have a memory like an elephant, I remember reading Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy which was, appropriately enough, considered political science fiction (later rewritten as Looking Backward from the Year 2000 by Mack Reynolds which is more economic science fiction). But, if the premise of such books is they are an historical account written in the future about events that have yet to take place, we should properly label Red Dragon Rising: Blood of War by Larry Bond and Jim DeFelice (Tor-Forge, 2013) military SF. Except, to my innocent eye, the technology on display is substantially what we have now, so it lacks the key feature which is supposed to underpin the genre. There’s no new technology. Since this is an extrapolation of what might happen if China goes through a period of drought and civil unrest because it no longer has agricultural autarchy, perhaps this should be considered an alternate history novel (albeit this is also considered a subset of science fiction). Such books are predicated on a “what if”. . . what if Spain had assumed dominance in Europe after the assassination of Queen Elizabeth (Pavane by Keith Roberts), what if the South had won the Civil War (Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore), and so on. This produces a fork in the timeline and a chance to suggest how history might have changed.
The Red Dragon Rising series of which this is the fourth and presumed last in the series, has economic chaos not only in China, but also the US where petrol is more than $14 a gallon during a new recession following the bursting of another bubble. The Europeans have comparable economic problems as a result of collapsing world markets. The essentially pragmatic Chinese decide the rice bowl of Vietnam will potentially keep a lid on their political problems. Anticipating little resistance, the Chinese mobilise and cross the border. The primary series characters are President George Greene, Mara Duncan (CIA), Major Zeus Murphy (Army), Josh MacArthur (civilian scientist), Dirk Silas (US Navy) and Jing Yo (Chinese assassin). Essentially, the basis of the tetralogy has covert US military support for the Vietnamese Government while the basis of a cease fire is sought. Conveniently, Josh MacArthur has evidence of a Chinese atrocity which faked the casus belli so he has to be smuggled out of the war zone, while on land and at sea, Chinese progress is frustrated. Adding to US difficulty is a rebellious Congress threatening impeachment for fighting a war without approval.
The delivery vehicle is written to a very precise formula. In saying this, I’m not making an adverse criticism. Every book designed to fit into a genre must, of necessity, match reader expectations. So this is beautifully crafted individual action scenes against the big picture context. Although Zeus Murphy proves indestructible in a series of engagements, most of the military descriptions have a high-adrenaline quality showing American heroism at its most inspiring. Fortunately, although out gunned and less well trained, the Vietnamese are also allowed to do quite well while a multinational group of CIA operatives do what’s necessary to break Chinese morale north of the border. If we look beyond the natural desire of American authors to show national pride in their military personnel and hardware, there’s a nice balance struck between the human emotions of those involved and the rigours of war. People do care for each other and bond under difficult circumstances. For the most part, this feels credible. If there’s a false note, it lies in the journey taken by Jing Yo. Throughout the series, he trails after Josh MacArthur and, in this final book, finally catches up with him. I think my favourite sequences are at sea. I was born close to the mouth of a strategic river which came in for heavy bombing during World War II. Both my father and uncle served in the Royal Navy so I grew up with oral histories of their experiences. So reinforced by fairly extensive reading of naval fiction when I was young, I find the tactics of this form of fighting fascinating. Again, the US destroyer proves remarkably unsinkable but I forgive this pandering to national pride. At the end of the book, the Chinese must be vanquished. The big picture of how we get there is more important than individual losses in credibility. As a commentary on some aspects of Chinese culture, this feels plausible. So I remain something of a fan of Larry Bond and his various co-writers. Red Dragon Rising: Blood of War is top-class military fiction (with science fiction overtones).
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.