Seas of Crisis: A NovelSeas of Crisis

Author: Joe Buff
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins
Year: 2006
Reviewer: Neal Stevens

     Having just completed Joe Buff's latest novel, Seas of Crisis, I thought back on some of the submarine novels I have read. As a boy, my sub reading fare had been almost exclusively non-fiction; real wartime accounts of U-boat skippers and crews, American fleet boat actions, and Cold War accounts of nuke boats. For some reason, fictional stories of heroic actions and amazing feats never really grabbed me. That is, until The Hunt for Red October. Like the rest of the military enthusiast world, Tom Clancy's (with help from Larry Bond) Cold War thriller seized my imagination. It was rich in intrigue, studded with pseudo-classified details, and believable. It spawned a new genre, the technothriller, and compelled me to read other post-WWII sub fiction. Regrettably, few were able to match the appeal of Red October and my reading list gravitated back to wartime accounts and service memoirs.

     Earlier in 2006, publisher HarperCollins sent me  a review copy of Seas of Crisis, the latest in the World War III series begun with Deep Sound Channel by national defense expert, Joe Buff. I had reservations about jumping into the tail-end of a series of novels but Buff does a capable job of beginning the novel with adequate prologue and stage setting. References to earlier exploits are made but the novel stands on its own.

    The political climate in Seas of Crisis bears very little resemblance to 2006. The year is post-2011 and  the Boers of South Africa feel the time has arrived to find their place in the sun and the ever-feisty Germans (always the Germans) have thrown their lot in with them. The US, and some allies, oppose this. Enforcing the peace has proven very difficult and the US is involved a strange war. Nukes have been used but rules of engagement keep them mostly in tactical battlefield settings. The Russians are belligerent neutrals, aiding the Germans in ways reminiscent of Roosevelt's support for the British in 1940. I cannot account for all the machinations since I have not yet read the earlier novels but the important part is the US is facing economic calamity unless the war is brought to an end.

     The author points out in his introduction that "The enemy you don't see coming... is the one who'll get you every time." True enough, and his series of novels is not based on the typical enemy being a Chinese/terrorist/Soviet model but rather a  premise of unanticipated adversaries who bring a host of unforeseen capabilities. This is the world and the reality the novel's protagonist Capt. Jeffrey Fuller faces. Fuller is the command officer of the futuristic attack sub Challenger. Endowed with a ceramic hull that can withstand 8000 feet and advanced active sonar suppression capability, Challenger is a fascinating glimpse into the next era of undersea craft, although I would put its genesis closer to the mid-to-late twenty-first century.

     Initially, Fuller comes off as the stereotypical hero; self-assured, assertive, and resourceful. Thankfully, his character breaks the two-dimensional mold by the occasional error in judgment and mistake. When his sub is transiting the Bering Strait, Fuller reckons to outfox the enemy by thinking out of the box and crowding the Russian side, in pointed opposition to his officers' opinions. The resulting encounter with unexpected complications produces a frightful and realistic chapter. Fuller thinks out the situation and applies the best solution, then finds himself in a jam when it turns out the "best solution" in this case only makes things worse. This  has an outstanding effect on the book's tension.

     The action comes early in the novel and immediately engages the reader. Fuller and the Challenger confront a gauntlet of deadly situations in the optimum undersea battlefield--beneath the polar icecap. The main thrust of Seas of Crisis is an assignment the US government gives Fuller that will either bring the war to an immediate end or escalate it to the point where the US can and will pounce on the Axis with the full might of its forces. This would be a pretty terrific gamble in real life and even in a novel it's a stretch, but Buff succeeds with clever foreshadowing and plotting. By the time the gamble is revealed, the reader has accepted the premise and the urgency upon which it is based, leaving few questions and pages of good reading.

     One of Buff's strengths as a storyteller is his ability to blend technical details into the narrative. Unlike some other techo-thriller authors, Buff does not spiel for pages on the exact chain of events when a missile impacts a target. He uses technical elements prudently and includes a short, seamless aside that explains what it refers to. The expertise is there, it's just presented in consumable form. You can be a complete naval noob and still keep pace with the events in Seas of Crisis.

     The novel's pace quickens when Fuller inserts a team of special forces commandoes ashore to raid a Russian nuclear missile base. As one might expect, this proves to be an imposing venture and serves up a blood-chilling fight between the commandoes and Russian security forces. Once again, not everything goes according to plan and the reader who assumes he knows where the end is headed gets a surprise or two. As I stated in the beginning, I pick up a modern sub novel with a jaundiced eye, but thankfully, Joe Buff knows how to deliver a tale.


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