In Kevin Miller’s Declared Hostile (Book #2 of Raven One) getting promoted can be fatal.
Does the sequel to the astoundingly excellent Raven One hold up against its predecessor?
The answer is . . . no.
This will be a difficult review for me to write because I adored Raven One and I think author Kevin Miller is a very cool dude. Unfortunately, Declared Hostile, a book which I started in September of 2016, simply didn’t have the addictive nature laced in the text of Raven One. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the series, Raven One and Declared Hostile are Naval Aviation stories. They center on a group of navy fighter pilots, specifically Commander Flip Wilson, and their experiences aboard a naval aircraft carrier Coral Sea.
Where as Raven One sucked you into the tense moments of a night time carrier landing, launching from the flight deck of a carrier, fighting skilled pilots in enemy territory; Declared Hostile switches gears and focuses on the characters and the responsibilities of command. This by itself is not inherently a bad thing. But the tepid plot, underwhelming antagonist, preachy scenes, unfortunate typos, and unnecessary focus on irrelevant characters blow out the engines of what could have been an exciting sequel.
Let’s start with the plot.
The story revolves around a secretive U.S. Naval group conducting black ops to illegally neutralize boats suspected of smuggling drugs into the United States. The drug dealers, feeling pressure from the navy, call one of their generals in Venezuela to provoke the U.S. to draw attention away from their shipments. The plan works a little too well and in response the U.S. goes full ham on attacking Venezuela which doesn’t have a strong enough military to counter the U.S. Navy.
So . . . the U.S. Navy, one of the most powerful navies in the world, is expending its very expensive resources to blow up drug dealers and a country ill equipped to retaliate? Color me unimpressed. The lack of a dangerous antagonist like say Iran, or Russia, or China, makes the good guys (U.S. Navy) seem like the bullies, or in other words, the bad guys. Yes, drugs are bad. But using a 70 million dollar fighter/bomber jet to attack a freighter full of drugs seems like overkill.
Without a worthy adversary, Declared Hostile paints the U.S. Navy and the government in a very negative light (as if we needed more negative publicity). Maybe this is intentional, but still, a weak antagonist does not make for a very interesting book. In fact, I found myself completely underwhelmed and bored whenever the jets would go on sorties to attack Venezuela. Since I knew Venezuela didn’t have the technology or the manpower to fight back, the normally exciting mission sorties became dull.
That’s not to say that Miller didn’t make things exciting. Some pilots were blinded, some jets were shot down by anti-aircraft fire, and a few deaths in this book left me completely shocked and in disbelief. I kept saying to myself, “Did (the character) really die? Oh my God.”
Those moments were great. In fact,
the final chapters of Declared Hostile recapture what made Raven One so thrilling.
But Declared Hostile is needlessly long and two hundred pages longer than it needs to be.
The entire front half of the book is forgettable and superficial. There’s an aircraft carrier admiral, Meyerkopf who gets a lot of scene time . A lot of buildup was created around how he wasn’t qualified to lead a carrier group. It was implied through dialogue with the drug dealers, that Meyerkopf would turn traitor after being forced out of his command position by SouthCom. But instead Meyerkopf simply boards a plane and flies off never to be heard of or mentioned again.
What was the point of this character? It bugged me to no end that Meyerkopf had zero effect on the plot and yet was featured heavily throughout the beginning of the book. If his being ousted from command doesn’t create drama, betrayal, tension, or solve a plot point, why have it? There was also intense focus put on “Macho” one of the female aviators in the strike group. This character was grating and annoying and she got way more focus than she deserved. Her constant shtick where she complains about men leering at her and her constant negative attitude really made it difficult for me to empathize with her.
What’s ironic is that the descriptions in the beginning of the book implied a juicy story idling hot on the runway. We’re set up in this beautiful location in the Caribbean with the pilots on shore leave, the fly boys checking out the girls, and we get a sense that paradise is going to burn. Yet, this never happens. Instead the focus is on inner squad bickering, naval women being treated like meat, and Meyerkopf complaining about losing his job.
A quick aside: I don’t mind scenes or themes focusing on how women are not as highly regarded in the navy. But the execution left me wondering why it was included because nothing changed nor did a character change. It’s just there without feeling meaningful. If it’s commentary on the boy’s club environment of the U.S. Navy, it would have been better if our main protagonist Flip Wilson had an opinion on it.
Once the mini war against Venezuela starts the action noticeably picks up but so do the worst flaws of this book. Campy dialogue, a preachy scene with . . . a preacher, and typos which cause more than a little turbulence on this flight.
At some point during this naval aviation book, Miller banks a hard left away from his target and detours into ham-fisted religious bible thumping.
These scenes are further exacerbated by an annoying and frustrating to read Father Dan, who questions Flip Wilson on why he’s in the military. “Do you think you’re doing God’s work by killing drug dealers?” “Do you regret killing men?” “Do you think the Navy is doing God’s work?” And then Flip Wilson (our protagonist) wastes time defending his actions to Father Dan. The man is a pilot who was shot down and being hunted by a hostile militia. Does that strike you as a good time to discuss theology and God’s Will?
Why are we going in this direction? Where did this sudden preachiness (which was non existent in Raven One) come from? Scenes with Father Dan blow out the tires of this aircraft and the awful dialogue makes these scenes drag on forever and ever. If Flip decides Father Dan is right and he chooses to follow in God’s footsteps, guess what? Unless the books are going to become about a Navy Chamberlain holding mass, Flip’s story will come to an unceremonious end.
Here’s an actual quote of dialogue from Macho, the most annoying character in the book. Spoilers: She doesn’t change.
“Because I sinned. And since I can’t make it up to the person I betrayed, I’m trying to make it up to you.”
Because I sinned? Really? Even the staunchest Catholic, Christian, whatever, wouldn’t ever say, “Because I sinned.” I could see, “Because I screwed up. Because I made a mistake. Because I was wrong.”
Using “Because I sinned” and other instances of bad dialogue and cheesy scenes turned Declared Hostile, a naval action thriller, into a sanctimonious dud.
Also, and this may be overly nit-picky but it has to be stated. As I progressed to the end of the book, I encountered more and more typos which ruined the reading experience for me. Unlike Raven One which was a masterpiece and at most had one typo, Declared Hostile is riddled with them. It almost felt as if the editing team was shrunk down and as a result, not as many eyes read the book to catch the various typos littered throughout.
There were also numerous instances of POV switches in the book. Though most of them felt natural, there were more than a few where the POV shift was jarring and left me confused as to whose head we were in.
It pains me to be so harsh on this book, because I truly loved Raven One, but the reason I loved Raven One was not present in this book. First of all, Raven One had an awesome antagonist by the name of Saint. The guy didn’t do much, but when he did something, man you couldn’t help but hate him. Also, the fighter pilots had a formidable foe in Iran and we were introduced to a new fighter craft capable of standing toe to toe with the F-18 Hornet. They weren’t fighting drug dealers, they were fighting a nation.
Ultimately, if this series is to survive another sortie, it needs to go back to what made Raven One so special. It should be a much larger conflict against a super power capable of attacking the mainland, not drug dealers and an ill-equipped country incapable of fighting back. I don’t care about Flip Wilson going over his mission aim points with the Carrier Air Group, and I definitely don’t care about Macho’s hatred against men, nor do I care to be told to ‘believe in a higher power’ when I’m trying to read a book that lets me feel like a fighter pilot undertaking dangerous missions. Not that I don’t believe, but I didn’t pick up the book to read sermons.
Declared Hostile is sadly, a bolter landing, but I have hope that the next book will be able to line up its ILS, get the ball, and make a solid trap.
(Sorry for all the military aviation lingo. I really love military jets.)
3 out of 5 stars.