Countdown: The Liberators, Tom Kratman

Tom Kratman started his career almost a decade ago with a not-really-SF military/political novel from Baen, about which the less said the better. His latest, Countdown: The Liberators, is the same concept – a present-day thriller – that he pulls off just fine.

Plot-wise, the premise is nothing fancy: The son of a quasi-national warlord is kidnapped by a rival warlord, who hires retired US Army Colonel Wes Stauer to form an organization, mount a mission and get the kid back. Stauer assembles a combined-operations team that goes in and, well, conducts violence.

Don’t expect fancy espionage, deep character or a novel that Says Something; this is meat-and-potatoes military fiction. Nothing past the basics, but it handles those basics as well as anyone.

There’s a nice little device we see at the start of every scene: a countdown of days, hours, minutes until the action starts. Or since it’s happened; about a quarter of the book takes place after. Since most of the first three quarters is preparation, it’s a useful mechanic – a couple of action scenes do keep things interesting, but the book does tend to drag.

The signature countdown’s a nice reminder that something big is going to happen. Kratman is a professional soldier who knows his material inside out, and he handles the preparation scenes well – but they’re still preparation scenes, still setup for the action.

Once it does happen, the action is fast-moving and well-handled. Kratman just gets better and better at writing combat, and the extended multiple-team combat sequence comprising the book’s final quarter makes the setup very worth it.

Not everything in combat goes right; Kratman knows that. Unanticipated things happen; sometimes unanticipated stupid things happen. The combat is tense, exciting; sympathetic characters do get hurt or killed, people behave unexpectedly.

There’s not a whole lot of character development; Kratman is writing setup-for-action and then action, not Literature. If you’ve read much of his before, you know the types; retired Colonel Stauer is cut from the same pattern of the same cloth as retired Colonel Hennessy of his Legion del Cid books, and you’ve got to figure both men have a lot in common with retired Lt. Colonel Tom Kratman. There’s a bit of a character arc with Stauer’s girlfriend, a nurse, learning some military discipline; not a whole lot elsewhere. A flaw, not a glaring one; you’re reading a book like this for the action.

A more glaring flaw is that most of Kratman’s retired military types are much the same. Yes, that’s a function of reality, of how these types really are, but a more colorful cast would have been nice. Looks like room for that in the sequels, though. And there’s enough interesting types – a pair of gay South African tankers come to mind – to keep things from getting too drab.

This is definitely the first in a series; the book ends with Stauer keeping the organization he’s built, more books clearly on the way. With the setup done, they look to be better – not as though this one’s bad. Kratman’s very much in his element and it shows. A well-earned B+.

— reviewed by Leo

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