Book Review: Silent Enemy by Thomas W. Young

I sought out my contact at Putnam’s Penguin Group to request a copy of Daniel Silva’s upcoming book for review. No dice. Silva has taken his talents to HarperCollins. But, offered the marketing maven at the imprint of the flightless water fowl, would I be interested in reviewing Silent Enemy by Thomas W. Young? Young is a veteran flight engineer with nearly 4000 hours logged on C-130 and C-5 aircraft for the Air National Guard and he has flown combat missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. Exploiting his unique background, Young made a big splash in the thriller novel genre last year with his first novel, The Mullah’s Storm. Would I like to review his new book? Don’t mind if I do.

There is nothing new about the basic premise of Silent Enemy. I do not point this out as a criticism, as there is really nothing new in literature. Authors simply find new ways of telling the same stories. In this case, Major Michael Parsons is piloting a C-5 Galaxy filled with wounded out of Afghanistan when he learns that a terrorist has hidden on his aircraft a bomb that is set to explode when the plane drops below 10,000 feet.

This basic story has been told well, think of the the 1968 book Airport by Aurther Hailey or 1994 movie Speed, about a city bus with a bomb set to explode when its speed drops below 50 mph. And it has been told very badly. Think Speed 2: Cruise Control, about a bomb on a cruise ship. Or worse, the spin-off movies based on Hailey’s book: Airport ’75, Airport ’77, and The Concord… Airport ’79.

Fortunately, Silent Enemy lands safely on the good side of the ledger. There are no pilots named Otto. Or serious passengers not named Shirley.

The setting for Silent Enemy is aboard a C-5 Galaxy, the largest airplane utilized by the US Air Force. The Galaxy is the gargantuan aircraft used to transport big cargo including helicopters, smaller jet aircraft, NASA satellites, and tanks. Imagine a pregnant Blue Whale — with wings.

Thomas W. Young leverages his experience in Air National Guard cockpits with the authenticity that only someone who has been there and done that can deliver. He convincingly puts the reader on the flight deck of the C-5 Galaxy listening to the pilots talk to Air Traffic Control and other aircraft; observing the teamwork between pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer as they manage the myriad of aircraft system; and watching the interactions between the cockpit crew, aeromeds, and loadmasters.

Much of the language is replete with jargon and military acronyms, but Young is able to explain the meaning by telling much of the story through the eyes of a Master Sergeant Sophia Gold, who has little experience aboard aircraft. As she is learning her way around the aircraft, terminology and processes are explained to the reader.

One would think that a thriller that takes place almost exclusively wrapped within the aluminum skin of an airplane would have precious little gunplay. And you’d be right. But there is some. And there is the following reminiscence that Sergeant Major Gold has of a day she took a class of Afghan police trainees to a shooting range to receive firearms training from an American government contractor:

An instructor of unknown qualifications, with the physique of a bag of doughnuts, asked her to have the students line up on the range. He passed out magazines, then told them to fire. Not a word about sight picture. Nothing about breath control, trigger squeeze, or follow-through. Just burn through the ammo and get it over with.

At a hundred yards downrange, the safest place to stand would have been in front of a bull’s-eye. More trainees placed few rounds on paper at all, let alone anywhere near the black circle. The instructor passed out more magazines and repeated the drill. No advice, just more bullets. Gold began to wonder if his company’s contract measured success in rounds expended.

“Wudregah,” she called. Stop. Then she said to the nearest recruit, Baitullah, “Tupak. Daa maa tah raakrah.” Give me the rifle.

She did not consider herself an expert marksman, but anybody who’d completed Basic Training could give a better class than this lazy civilian. Baitullah hesitated; he probably resented having to surrender his weapon to a woman. But he handed it over.

Gold kneeled, aimed, and pressed the trigger. A puff of dust erupted below the target and to the right, then vanished in the breeze. The rifle wasn’t even sighted in. She ordered all the targets moved up to the fifty-yard mark, and she explained how to aim for center and watch where the bullet went.

Then she talked the recruits through adjusting range with the rear sight and drift and elevation with the front post. She gave the rifle back to Baitullah and used him as an example. Round by round, tweaking the sights, he walked his bullets out of the dirt, onto the target, and left toward the center. When he’d shot a respectable group at fifty yards, she moved his target back out to a hundred. He put all of his rounds on paper, and a few within the black. Not exactly Olympic performance, but at least his AK was more dangerous to the enemy than to himself.

Silent Enemy‘s Achilles heel is the recycling of Major Parsons and Sergeant Gold from Young’s first book. The author expects the reader to believe that the first time Parsons and Gold meet in four years, since the plain crash that started the events of The Mullah’s Storm, is aboard a different transport plane that has a bomb on it. When writing a book that is otherwise so authentic, the expectation that a reader will accept this improbable leap is a glaring error. In this context the margin allowed for “the willing suspension of disbelief” is too narrow to allow for this ridiculous coincidence.

Hints of romantic feelings between Parsons and Gold are too undeveloped to justify reuniting the two. The most intimate interactions are when Parsons uses Gold’s first name, Sophia. It would have worked if Young had kept only Parsons or Gold. In this story, Gold was probably the most expendable of the two as it makes sense that Parsons would continue to fly. But get him a new leading lady.

Furthermore, the author spends too much time with Parsons and Gold recalling events of the first book. The Mullah’s Storm did not need to be relived in Silent Enemy. While it was appropriate at times, the pervasive and lengthly trips down memory lane beat me down.

If I had to give Silent Enemy a letter grade, I couldn’t give it better than a C+. With a little creativity in the casting of the key characters it could have been a B+ (the highest score I would normally give a book of this genre) on the strength of the realism in the telling of the rest of the story.

[Book provided for review by Penguin Group. Silent Enemy goes on sale August 4, 2011.]