Springblade #6: Battle Zone, by Greg Walker
December, 1990 Charter Books
I’m missing a couple installments of Springblade, and it appears there’ve been some changes to the status quo; whereas the previous books featured the three-man team of Bo Thornton, David Lee, and Jason Silver, with gruff old former master sergeant Frank Hartung serving as the organizer, “Springblade” is now comprised of a couple extra members…not to mention a girl(!!). This would be Thornton’s girlfriend, Linda, who previously only appeared in the opening scenes on Thornton’s Oregon ranch; now we’re informed she can shoot, drive, fight, and etc, “just as good” as any of the male members of Springblade!
Regardless, the series has if nothing else become even more in the vein of the “military fiction” thrillers that were, at this point in time, taking over the shelves of bookstores – shelves which once featured more-escapist men’s adventure fiction. I mean Springblade might as well just have a generic photo cover of some SEAL commando or somesuch; Battle Zone is stuffed to the gills with military acronyms, military strategy, insights into military life, and even military red tape – unlike the men’s adventure of the decades before, this one is on slow-boil for the duration, building up to the “realisitc” rescue of a DEA commando deep in the Burma jungle. Whereas say Phoenix Force would be blasting apart native soldiers by chapter three, the members of Springblade plot and plan for the majority of the novel’s runtime, not even getting onto the field until page 126. And the book’s not even 200 pages long.
As mentioned there’s a lot of background on the military and Special Forces and whatnot. The book is dedicated to Colonel Nick Rowe, a real-life Green Beret who was a POW in ‘Nam, escaped, and wrote a best-selling book about his experiences. He went on to found a brutal Special Forces training program called SERE, which factors strongly into Battle Zone. Rowe was assassinated by Communists, in the Philipines, shortly before Battle Zone was published, thus his sacrifice is often mentioned. Walker clearly looked up to the man, as one of the “new” Springblade members, presumably introduced in the previous volume, has the same last name: Alan Rowe, “the team’s only Chinese-American.” Curiously none of the characters mention that he has the same last name as the recently-departed colonel. And also Rowe doesn’t do much, but we learn he enjoys painting in his California home, as this is what he’s doing when he gets the call to go along on this latest Springblade mission. Personally I imagined him doing fluffy clouds and trees a la Bob Ross.
The other new member is Peter Chuikov, a former Spetsnaz commando who is just now getting Federal clearance to become part of Springblade, which we’ll recall is Thornton’s special commando team of active and inactive soldiers who do special jobs for the US government. He also doesn’t make much of an impression on the reader. In fact it’s Linda who takes up the brunt of the “new member” focus; this is the first mission Thornton decides to bring her on, concerned that the guys in the team will be ruffled a bit that a woman’s coming along. But Linda we are assured can hold her own…not that we actually see her do so. Her role will be “computer girl,” and like the female character in MIA Hunter she essentially stays off the field for the duration, running point on info and etc. The most action she sees is when she flies in a chopper with Hartung and watches him blow enemy troops away with a high-caliber machine gun – but shockingly enough, Walker keeps the vast majority of the novel’s climactic action off-page.
This is especially shocking given how much padding there is in Battle Zone. Seriously, almost the entire novel is focused on the plight of the DEA agent, Thornton’s past with him, Thornton putting together the team, then finally getting them all over to Burma…where the hellfire full-auto action slaughter is, as mentioned, pretty much kept off-page…relayed via off-hand dialog in the final pages. Really the DEA agent is the star of the show: Mike Bannion, a former Special Forces comrade of Thornton’s who now heads up a SLAM commando team for the DEA which has gone through some hardcore SERE training. (You see what I mean with the acronyms.) The first twenty pages of the book, for some reason entirely presented in ugly italics, concerns his plight in Burma: his chopper crashes and he manages to escape with a bunch of guns and knives, soldiers of the Shan United Army chasing after him.
Meanwhile Thornton stews on his old buddy’s capture, having learned about it a few days later. He’s chomping at the bit to get the clearance from DC to head into the green hell of Burma and get Bannion out…while also checking out Linda’s nice rack. We’re often reminded how hot Thornton finds his girlfriend, checking her out while she waltzes around half-nude in their place in Oregon (they’re clearly not married yet!). But as ever any hanky-panky is firmly off-page in this series…I mean it’s the early ‘90s now, and all that sleaze is just oh so ‘70s. I mean we wanna read about guns and knives and military acronyms, right?! Well anyway, Thornton eats a bunch of MREs (meals ready to eat) and gabs a lot on the phone with his DC contacts and checks out Linda in her revealing clothes, and meanwhile Bannion survives like a true badass in the jungle, knifing Shan soldiers in the dead of night and doing pretty damn well for himself for a dude’s whose stranded in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the enemy.
After a meeting with “Reagan’s heir” (aka Bush – whom we’re later told is “a good man”), Thornton’s government handler Billings finally gives Springblade a go. At this point Thornton officially assembles the team. This is like 90 pages into the book, folks. About the only memorable part here, I thought, was how Jason Silver plays T. Rex’s “Bang A Gong” on his “recently-purchased CD player.” (Dude, keep your vinyl!) But boy is it an exercize in patience. Meanwhile Bannion takes up the brunt of the action scenes, becoming more animalistic as he flits across the jungle, slitting Shan throats in the dead of night. Oh, and suffering from bouts of diarrhea, Walker even thoughtfully detailing the act for us. Bannion’s plight is clearly intended as a callback to Colonel Rowe’s real-life tribulation; Bannion even often thinks of Rowe, not to mention that SERE training which prepared him for just the sort of situation he now finds himself in.
So Thornton and team work with ground forces in Burma to mobilize various military vehicles to venture into the jungle and extract Bannion. And folks get this – the part where Thornton’s scout team actually finds Bannion’s comatose form happens off-page! Instead more focus is placed on his Thunderball-esque extraction, which sees a special flight suit prepared for Bannion; it pulls him aloft on a balloon, which is collected by a Talon plane or somesuch. Actually this part goes on for a bit, relayed from multiple perspectives. And get this, too – Thornton and team’s battle with the converging Shan forces is entirely off-page! Mind-numbingly enough, the chapter ends here, picks up the next day or something in a military hospital, and we learn that Thornton and some others picked up some injuries during the massive battle which ensued. I mean we waited the entire novel for the action to go down, and it all happened off page!
At least Battle Zone ends on a memorable note, though again we must endure a lot of narrative padding to get there. It seems to me that the gimmick of this series is that Thornton uses the titular weapon each volume – ie, the “Russian ballistic knife” which launches its blade at a push of a button on the hilt. So the main Shan soldier guy, who has his own inordinate share of the narrative, has come to Rangoon to get revenge on Thornton, posing as a bellboy in Thornton’s hotel. It leads to a knife fight, of course, with that Russian springblade again saving Thornton’s ass.
But while Thornton’s ass might be saved, the novel’s is not – Battle Zone was a little too padded, too listless, and the fact that it kept all the climactic action off-page was unforgiveable. In other words, I’m not sorry that I’m missing a few volumes of the series.