Lucky number thirteen in the Dirk Pitt series Shock Wave actually has a few surprises to offer, elevating it from the standard Clive Cussler formula. Not that there's anything wrong with that formula - it's immensely successful for a reason - but it's refreshing to find some new twists in the read.
The novel opens on an historical note, with the 1856 journey of the Gladiator. Under the command of Charles “Bully” Scaggs, it's on its way to deliver a load of prisoners to the penal colony in Australia when a typhoon strikes amidst the Tasman Sea. The wreck of the ship, the desperate construction of a raft, and the brutal battle that follows between sailors, soldiers, and prisoners is intense, matched only by the final journey of the raft and its few pitiful survivors. Cussler has done historical bits before, but never as well as this. Fantastic stuff.
The contemporary story is a bit odd, in that it casts a billionaire diamond tycoon as villain, introduces what feels like a very science fiction threat, and hinges it all on a bold financial move to manipulate the diamond market. It sounds preposterous, but it's the characters who make it work. Arthur Dorsett is a genuine monster, a brutal tyrant who treats his rebellious daughter just about as well as his illegal Chinese mining slaves. This is a man who shrugs off the impending death of hundreds of thousands of people, all so he can add an extra zero to the legacy of billions he'll leave to his family. As for that daughter Maeve, she is not only an admirable young woman and a pretty decent heroine, but a legitimate romantic interest for Dirk Pitt. Dorsett's two other daughters are largely cartoon caricatures, with Boudicca unnecessarily (and illogically) over-the-top, but important in demonstrating their father's ruthless power and control over them.
While the story is book-ended by some massive action pieces, involving daring rescues and last minute escapes from certain doom, Cussler does something different in the middle of the tale. First of all, he creates a genuine romance for Dirk Pitt, something we haven't seen for a very long time. You can almost allow yourself to believe he'll sail into the sunset and settle down with a woman worthy of his adventurous soul. Second, he allows Admiral Sandecker and NUMA to carry much of the story, putting their efforts to prevent Dorsett's shockwave from decimating the population of Hawaii at center stage. There's a lot of technical discussion and political maneuvering involved, but Cussler keeps it interesting. Lastly, he strands Dirk, his buddy Al, and Maeve on a derelict boat in the middle of stormy seas for a good portion of the story, creating a sustained level of dramatic intensity that really pays off. You know they're going to survive, but there is some read danger here, and some genuine doubt as to whether all three will escape intact.
There's no underwater archaeology or salvage this time around, trading the Indiana Jones feel of the earliest books for the James Bond feel of the most recent, but the entire story is built around life (and death) at sea. Shock Wave isn't quite the breathtaking ride we've become accustomed to from Clive Cussler, but it's a more well-rounded tale, and one with some real depth to it. Definitely recommended.
Paperback, 660 pages
Published May 20th 2008 by Pocket Star (first published 1996)