Although oddly structured for a thriller, and remarkably heavy on the science for a genre that's more often known for guns and technology, Starfire was a thoroughly enjoyable read. It's been a long time since I read a Patrick McClanahan novel, but Dale Brown does a great job of catching up readers both familiar with and new to the world and its characters. This is very much a passing-of-the-torch kind of tale, with the focus on Patrick's son, but the spirit of the story remains the same.
The first half of the story moves rather slowly, as a college-level project seeks to re-purpose existing elements of the American space program in order to create energy and deliver it to Earth. There are some technological leaps required to make this plausible, but the science is well laid-out. It's not quite info-dumping, but there are a lot of conversations about project Starfire. Having said that, the science is fascinating in the level of detail Brown provides, and in the way he delivers it.
Paralleling the story of discovery and invention involving Brad McClanahan and his team of fellow students is another of aggression revenge involving the Russian president. It makes for an interesting tie to Brown's previous stories, with the next generation of McClanahans and Gryzlovs at odds with one another, and that long-simmering conflict is at the root of the wider conflict. While it's a bit implausible to see a world driven to the brink of war based on little more than a desire for revenge, it's only a part of the story, and there is some very real fear behind the political aggression. Having said that, while Dale Brown's stories always have a significant political element, the personal vendetta lends an interesting moral aspect to the tale as well. Brad McClanahan's evolution into something of an action hero parallels President Gryzlov's continued descent into madness, which itself parallels the evolution of a weapon of war into a tool for good (and back again). In all three cases we see how quickly and easily the best of intentions can lead us astray, and just how fine of a line there is between defense and aggression.
Making up for the pacing of the first half, the second half of the book quite literally takes off. Once project Starfire is ready to be put into place, and the team finds themselves in space, the action and the drama come to the forefront. At the risk of spoiling a pulse-pounding climax, Brown absolutely nails the idea of space warfare, along with the fragility of life in orbit. Threats come fast and furious as we race towards the conclusion, and the tension is incredible. Lives are at stake, both above and below, and the entire world is just one wrong move away from the next (and last) word war.
There's a little bit of something here in Starfire for everyone - science, technology, warfare, politics, and more - all wrapped up in a tightly plotted package. It's an exciting tale, smarter than most, and plays as well to those of us who dreamed of growing up to be James Bond as to those who dreamed of going up in the Space Shuttle. Whether you're already a Dale Brown fan or new to his work, it's a great read.
Hardcover, 432 pages
Expected publication: May 6th 2014 by William Morrow & Company