Shadows of War – reviewed by Jeremy Taylor, Rear Admiral, USN (ret)
Robert Gandt. New York: Signet
November 2004. 352 pp. $7.99
Bob Gandt is still having fun. A former Naval Aviator and carrier aviator, Gandt has accumulated more than 30,000 hours in military, commercial and general aviation aircraft. In the early 1960s he was an A4 Skyhawk driver and logged more than 300 arrested landings. After 26 years with Pan Am he joined Delta in 1991. High on his list of current loves is flying his Siai-Marchetti 260 out of Spruce Creek Fly-In, billed as the “world’s premier fly-in country club”, which is located near Daytona Beach. He keeps his hand in air show aerobatics with neighborhood buddies who have formed the “Marchetti Mavericks”. (For more on Gandt: www.gandt.com)
Gandt has been flying and writing about flying for about 50 years, and it shows. He has graduated through the apprentice and journeyman phases of the writing craft to earn and retain a legitimate master’s rating as a “storyteller extraordinaire”. His latest novel, Shadows of War, the fourth in a series following the career of Gandt’s heroic Brick Maxwell, Commander, United States Navy, authenticates this conclusion.
While Shadows of War will provide sustained reading pleasure for the newcomer to Gandt and Brick Maxwell, I believe the better course is to buy and read the first three novels in the series—Acts of Vengeance, With Hostile Intent, and Black Star—before becoming immersed in the characters, geography and difficulties of the Gandt cast in SOW. The series is so good, none should be missed, and taking it from the top is the preferred way to go. Also, Signet has done such a good job covering each of the four novels that taken together they look almost as good as they read. They make a nice addition to a library.
Gandt is a master of the short sentence and every word is a dart. There is no fat. The result is a lean, mean, rapid-fire delivery of a well devised tale that captures and holds attention from beginning to end. Characters are believable and well developed. The storylines are a blend of actual fact, geography, and history and Gandt’s imagination and superb creativity. Where fact and fiction begin and end only the author might know.
All four of the Maxwell series are set in the Persian Gulf area and involve our Navy carriers and other American forces engaged in our ongoing war on terrorists in the region. Gandt has done his homework and produced a set of techno-thrillers of the Tom Clancy bent that I believe exceed Clancy standard. Gandt skillfully weaves the details of warfighting capabilities and strategies of all participants into the geography, politics, and personalities of the region to produce very realistic situations and difficulties for his cast of characters to overcome.
In Shadows of War Gandt’s storyline centers on the recovery of a downed Navy pilot who has been missing and presumed killed in action for more than a decade. There is an unmistakable similarity here to the real life mystery of Navy Lieutenant Commander Michael Scott Speicher, the FA-18 pilot shot down over Iraq on January 19, 1991. Enter Gandt’s imagination and his hero Brick Maxwell. The locating and recovery of downed pilot Raz Rasmussen becomes a gripping episode of good prevailing over evil. Gandt creates and spins a yarn that both entertains and informs.
As might be assumed, Gandt is at his best when he is in the air. He is a match for the best of the aviator–writers, guys like Stephen Coonts and Dale Brown, when it comes to taking a reader flying. As an old tailhooker, Gandt is especially comfortable and effective in spinning stories and situations that spring from carrier operations and the special breed of warrior that loves to fly and fight from the sea. In the process, both Gandt and the reader have spirited fun.
Shadows of War is a superb tale I most strongly recommend to Skyhawk Association members. Read all four of the Maxwell series and get ready for number five. I am.
Interview with Shadows of War author Robert Gandt by RADM Bear Taylor
A Dozen Softballs for Author Robert Gandt
Skyhawk Association members are fortunate to have an increasingly successful shipmate and fellow Skyhawk aviator among their number. Robert Gandt made his mark flying the A4 with Attack Squadron 36 on USS Saratoga. Then came more than 30 years of airline flying with PanAm and Delta. For fun he took his Marchetti on the air show circuit and entertained more than 3 million aviation enthusiasts.
Through out his flying career, Bob worked hard to hone his writing skills, and by the mid-1990s he was enjoying modest success as a non-fiction writer. His fourth book, Bogeys and Bandits: The Making of a Fighter Pilot, was published in 1997, and in 1998 he was writing for the TV series, Pensacola: Wings of Gold. He published his first novel, With Hostile Intent, in 2001. The cast of characters for Hostile Intent has been retained in three more novels in the “Brick Maxwell Series”, and his latest, Shadows of War, hit the bookstores in November 2004.
Coincident with a short review of Shadows of War for The Skyhawk Quarterly Review, Bob agreed to take a swing at a set of questions from Bear Taylor, another old Skyhawk driver, retired two-star, and wannabe author, who makes no secret of his admiration and respect for Bob Gandt.
Softball #1: In all four of your novels, Brick Maxwell rises above all. Where did you find this guy?
Brick Maxwell was the name of a pioneer flying boat captain and a hero of mine. I thought it was a cool name, and now that he’s dead I’ve swiped it. The fictional Brick Maxwell is an amalgam of all our flying heroes—a flawed but gutsy warrior who doesn’t mind breaking a few rules.
Softball #2: There is an axiom for writers that states that you learn to write by reading. What do you read?
Everything, all genres. Military and aviation stuff. Two, sometimes three novels a week. You learn from the bad as well as from the good. Some of the best contemporary writing, by the way, is in the crime and mystery genre.
Softball #3: You did very well in non-fiction, and are now having great success with novels. Which is more fun? Harder work?
It’s all work, but the real high comes from fiction. You get to play God, create characters you love or loathe, invent a world of your own design. Much more fun that reporting the unvarnished truth.
Softball #4: You have created an interesting and believable cast of characters for the Brick Maxwell series. Do you lie awake at night devising interesting trouble for them?
No. I lie awake wondering how I’ll get them out of the interesting trouble I’ve gotten them into.
Softball #5: I have found that research is fun and writing is work. Agree?
No. It’s all work.
Softball #6: You are on top of your history, current events, political geography, military technology, and the real world. What’s your secret? What are your favorite internet resources?
I read a dozen or so military and tech journals. AvWeek, print and online, is a prime source. Jane’s, for detailed stuff about foreign militaries. The internet, of course, is the greatest invention since beer. God bless Google.
Softball #7: What is your writing process?
The wee hours around dawn are my high energy time. I start a new novel with a premise, then a list of story beats, a lengthy character flesh-out, finally an outline of key scenes. When the drafting starts, the pace revs up to 2,000+ words a day. If I’m lucky, I stumble onto some neat plot twists and reversals along the way. Then comes the rewrite, which I hate.
Softball #8: A sage has observed that writing fiction has little effect on the world. What’s the role of a writer in society? What reader reaction to your novels are you looking for?
A commercial (as opposed to literary) novelist has one paramount duty: to entertain his audience. If he can also illuminate or celebrate a facet of our society, all the better. Then he’s in the big league. I’ll take that anytime.
Softball #9: Where and how did you learn to master the short sentence? Is compression a driving factor in your approach to the writing craft?
As a kid I tried to write like Hemingway. I got over that, but I still think the best writing is lean and gritty, to the point, no fluff.
Softball #10: Did your participation as a writer and consultant in 22 episodes of Pensacola: Wings of Gold provide a working lab for perfecting your ability to craft dialogue?
It was a great education. TV writing is all dialogue and plot. You develop a main story and a couple substories, three acts, cliffhangers before every break. A classic formula for the commercial novel.
Softball #11: When you were a tailhooker, there was no other response to an LSO debrief except to say “thank you”. How do you handle the reviews of your writing?
Same way. No whining (even when they’ve got it dead wrong). Suck it up and move on.
Softball #12: You started writing at age sixteen and have achieved an enviable success over the past fifty years. What’s next? What’s the goal?
Well, Brick Maxwell has a few more missions left in him. In the meantime, I’m conjuring up a novel with more historical breadth, sort of a multi-generational furball. Sorry I can’t reveal any more. The details are still classified.