Author: Don Clayton Meadows
"What-if?" and alternate history novels are usually taken with a grain of salt by serious readers. Granted, there are plenty of alternate history stories out there, but when the actual history is bad, the results are usually disastrous. I approached Of Ice And Steel with a bit of trepidation -- here was a modern day alternate history techno-thriller with a World War II sci-fi twist. It was either going to be an exciting novel, or the dumbest piece of tripe I'd ever read. Thankfully, my doubts were quashed soon enough, and I spent the next three days on the edge of my seat.
Of Ice And Steel opens in August, 1944. U-761 has been sent to the Arctic Ocean to investigate the disappearance of a secret research base. Also onboard is an experimental gas that could ensure the survival of the Third Reich, and an SS major with mysterious motives. When they arrive, they learn that everyone at the base has been mysteriously killed. Soon afterwards, U-761 becomes trapped in the Arctic ice and is unable to free itself. Out of options, U-761ís captain Manfred Becker decides to use the gas, and all aboard fall into suspended animation. Clever, the air-tight submarine makes the prefect vessel to enclose the gas and occupants.
Flash forward to October, 2008. In Russia, the government has been overthrown in a bloody military coup, and a ruthless and militarily incompetent mobster has taken power. Almost immediately he loses control over the military. An American P-3 is caught in the crossfire when the carrier Kuznetsov is sunk trying to escape. The situation begins to spiral out of control when an American frigate and a Russian Oscar accidentally sink one another. Meanwhile, a new satellite named ĎVITUSí, capable of mapping the polar ice caps in extreme detail is launched into orbit. It discovers a large metallic object under the ice, which is assumed to be a renegade Russian missile submarine.
The submarine Miami, recently acquired by Grant McKinnon after the sudden death of her last commander, is sent North to investigate the mysterious contact. They soon discover that this is no Russian sub, but an ancient U-boat in seemingly perfect condition. A team boards the U-boat, and finds everyone onboard dead. Circumstance force them to abandon the derelict sub, they leave her adrift with one of the diesels still running. Hours later, the crew of U-761 awake from their deep sleep, unsure of exactly where they are, or even what year it is.
The United States and Russia maintain an uneasy peace until ships begin disappearing around Iceland. The crew of U-761, unaware of the warís end, continues to hunt "allied" ships. In a northern Russian port, a nuclear warhead goes missing, and the fleet deploys in disarray. Once again, the two countries are pushed to the brink of war. A retired Chief Petty Officer with an avid interest in U-boats believes he has an answer to this underwater mystery and is flown to Russia. Once there, he has to convince the new Russian president to work with the Americans to find and stop U-761. He reluctantly agrees, but can they pull it off without starting a nuclear war?
I donít read much naval fiction, because I find most of it boring or implausible, and often a mixture of both. Of Ice And Steel is one of those rare books that sounds completely illogical when you first hear about it, but ends up working perfectly fine in the end. The author, Don Clayton Meadows, is a retired submariner with nearly 20 years of experience. To put it simply, the guy knows his stuff. In fact, I noticed a couple spots where he used incorrect designations for certain types of equipment, simply to avoid sounding too authentic.
My chief complaint is the absolutely horrible editing. I recently helped edit the manuscript for the 2007 Subsim Almanac, so perhaps I'm just feeling jaded. I felt like pulling out a red pen, fixing all the mistakes, and shipping this book back to the publisher for a second revision. Quotation marks appear out of nowhere, sentences blur together and end without warning, apostrophes show up in the wrong places, ship names are unitalicized, and every page has at least one typo. Itís frankly infuriating, and after 100 pages I gave up and simply ignored the hundreds of editing errors.
Many alternate histories ask "what if a military power came into possession of weapons far beyond their understanding, and how would they use them?" Itís not very often we see ancient weapons coming into contact with modern warships, and itís nice to see that Meadows didnít resort to time travel cliches in this novel. Near the end of World War II, the Germans were actually experimenting with suspended animation, and with a little suspension (bad pun) of disbelief itís not hard to imagine all of this happening.
Even at 556 pages, Of Ice and Steel is a brisk, exciting read. There are plenty of plot twists, cliffhangers, subplots, and action sequences, and the reader is never quite sure whatís around the corner, or whoís going to get a bullet in the head. The dialogue is well written, and for the most part is fairly convincing. At times characterís reactions to certain events seem a little melodramatic -- I lost count of how many times someone paused a muttered "Oh my god!" That aside, the characters are well developed and act like human beings.
Of Ice And Steel is one of the more entertaining and unique books Iíve read in a long time. My body ached, my eyes strained, and my head pounded, but I just couldnít put this book down. Don Meadows has the potential to become a rising star in the field of military fiction. I hope he does, and brings a good editor along with him.
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© 2007 SUBSIM Review