James Huston is easily the hottest new writer of military thrillers to come around in quite a while. That's because while other authors in the so-called "technothriller" genre are concocting scenarios of alliances and future wars -- even Tom Clancy is stuck in his Jack Ryan-as-president scenario -- Huston 's novels focus on the troubles of today. Sometimes, he even anticipates them.
His debut, "Balance of Power," started a debate in Washington over the Congress's war powers and when war should be declared in the face of terrorist attack. His last book, "Fallout" had pilots training in the United States to attack from within.
"The Shadows of Power" is unlikely to be so controversial, even though it touches on such subjects as whether foreign combatants with information about terrorist attacks should be tortured for information, and it notes that normal law enforcement techniques are completely inadequate for dealing with bad guys who murder on an international scale with the covert backing of radical governments.
This is the first military thriller I've read that is firmly set in the current war on terrorism. A new Islamist government has seized power in Algeria and has decided to use the confused world situation to control a piece of the Mediterranean.
A confrontation between U.S. Navy pilots and the Algerian air force leaves a MiG-25 in the water, and it makes Lt. Ed Stovic, an ambitious Navy pilot, into a celebrity war hero. Stovic leverages his status into his life's dream as a member of the Navy precision flying team, the Blue Angels.
But the dead Algerian's brother, who is in Washington on a student visa, also happens to be an ex-member of the terrorist group that staged the Algerian coup. Now he wants revenge, and his former buddies are more than eager to help him get it.
On Stovic's side is his old roommate, former Navy SEAL Kent "Rat" Rathman, who is supposedly a security consultant -- a cover for an even more secret and violent job. Rat's task is to flush terrorists out into the open so he can take care of them, hopefully with sniper fire.
"The Shadows of Power" has two Huston staples -- wrangling politicians and hotshot pilots. A former Top Gun Navy pilot turned lawyer and constitutional law professor, Huston knows his stuff here. One thing that he never loses sight of is that the youth and aggressiveness required of a fighter pilot can be a liability, something that has caused trouble in each of his last three books.
Huston also makes some points about the price of military fame -- especially salient after the publicity blitz about CIA operative Mike Spann's death in an al-Qaida prison riot -- when we face an enemy who is not above striking at families in revenge.
He also stages a debate about whether spending tax dollars on such frills as the Blue Angels is a good investment in public morale and recruitment efforts.
But the best work in "Shadows" is turned in not by the fancy-flying Blue Angels -- though the climax at the Paris Air Show is a doozy -- but by the gritty Rat, who operates in the shadows of power, not out in the open like the more admired pilots.
This isn't one of Huston 's heavier books, but it is consistently entertaining and informative, and the over-the-top climax will leave readers of military thrillers more than satisfied -- not to mention a bit breathless.