One of last year's most pleasant surprises was the fiction debut of Air Force Maj. Chris Stewart , a B-1 bomber pilot.
His thriller, "Shattered Bone," proved that reports of the death of the so-called techno-thriller were premature. All the genre needed for revival was a writer who knew almost as much about people and politics as he did about throw weights and muzzle velocity.
With his second effort, Stewart proves he was no one-hit wonder, as he presents a high-powered adventure that is even more timely than his first.
In "The Kill Box," Odai Hussein, son of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, plots his ascendance - and the destruction of the United States - through the deployment of a doomsday virus invented in an Iraqi laboratory.
When Air Force One, carrying President Bush and the vice president, crashes after a diplomatic mission in the Middle East, it is discovered that everyone on board was already dead from a horrifying biological weapon.
The investigation traces the virus to Iraq and suggests Odai's involvement. An angry president then authorizes a mission to take out Iraq's manufacturing capability - and bring out Odai Hussein.
Capt. Charlie McKay, a hotshot F-15 pilot, is tagged to lead the military assault from without, while Aria Cutter, a beautiful Iraqi refugee, volunteers to penetrate her former country and guide the mission from within.
Unlike most thrillers of this sort, "The Kill Box" moves nearly as fast on the ground as it does in the air. Aria is a fascinating character, and Stewart is very effective in relating the terror of life in a cruel totalitarian state.
Nobody in the military fiction field matches Tom Clancy's scope or comes close to equaling Ralph Peters' realistic characters and political intrigue, but Stewart writes far better than Stephen Coontz, with livelier characters and flying scenes that are on a par with Coontz's.
A few cliches raise their ugly heads - some of the dialogue in the romantic subplot is a bit trite, and anyone who saw the movie "Hotshots" would yell "Dead meat!" shortly after one main character is introduced. Still, Stewart mostly avoids the clunkiness that plagues most of the genre.
As someone who's been there, Stewart knows that combat is mass confusion, and Murphy's Law is the one constant.
"The Kill Box" is not one of those repetitive yarns where we see training and then a mission that goes like clockwork. Even the most experienced techno-thriller reader won't be able to predict what happens in the action-filled last 100 pages of this story.
"The Kill Box" is right on target, and so is Stewart 's new career as a thriller writer who knows how to deliver.