Our book today is a new paperback original from Penguin, The Red Line, Walt Gragg’s debut novel, which tell the story – in pointillist, gripping detail – of a Russian surprise attack on Germany at the Czech border, an attack that starts with massive tank-companies abandoning their war games and advancing straight at the border defenses, an attack launched under cover of a serious blizzard, an attack authorized by the ruthless autocrat of Russia as the first step in a bid to conquer Germany – and beyond.
It’s never quite a reassuring thing when a novel of this kind immediately earns the description “prescient,” because it’s not like predicting the winning lottery ticket for yourself – it’s like predicting the losing lottery tickets for everybody else. Gragg seems comfortable with the concept, however. “Despite the fact that our relationship with Russia at the time appeared rosy, I had little doubt that given Russia’s history we would eventually find ourselves where we are today,” Gragg told Publisher’s Weekly in an interview. “So despite the fact that the book’s political scenario looks like it was written last week, its central core was actually put on paper more than 20 years ago.”
That “central core” isn’t quite exactly our current world political situation, but it’s close enough in the gist: Vladimir Putin’s successor, an even more absolutist dictator named Cheninko, has risen to power on the back of a revitalized Communist power-grab in Russia, and one of his most daring generals has devised a plan that will allow Russia to conquer all of Germany in under a week, the whole time double-talking the US and the UN until the whole thing is a fait accompli. When it comes to these broader-scope explanations of politics and international pressure, Gragg’s sheer enthusiasm can sometimes lead him astray into a king of vagueness that almost breaks the spell he’s weaving:
There’d always been that 20 percent in both the East and West who refused to accept the changes occurring at the end of the first Cold War. Instead of joining the new world order, they continued on with a policy of fear and suspicion. In the East, they seized the opportunity a struggling Russia created. A new hatred was born, stronger and more resolute than ever.
But on the small scale, the scale of individual military commanders on both sides, The Red Line downright crackles with energy – and an air of authenticity I presume comes from the author’s own military experience (service in Vietnam, including some time spent with Special Forces). For instance, in the novel’s intense opening segment, Sergeant First Class Robert Jensen observes that the Russians – still on war games as far as he can tell – have moved large groups of foot soldiers into support positions around their tanks … and draws the only possible conclusion:
For the briefest of instants, Jensen’s mind begged him to believe it was nothing more than another Russian ploy to test their American adversaries. Just that brazen general trying to see how his foe would react this time.
But the veteran platoon sergeant knew otherwise. Tanks and BMPs at the wire might be a test of wills. Moving dismounted infantry into position to support the armor, however, could mean only one thing. As much as he fought against it, there was just one conclusion he could reach – the Russians were preparing an attack.
The Red Line‘s action scenes are superbly done, and the whole thing is virtually all action scenes. I think it’s fairly certain that any 21st century reader flying through these pages will be pausing periodically to wish that they felt just a bit more fictional than they do. The author’s protestations about starting the novel 20 years ago notwithstanding, there’s scarcely a single detail in this terrific novel that doesn’t feel like it could be showing up in tomorrow’s news. And since Gragg does a resolutely thorough job describing the raw human cost involved at every stage of his version of World War III, readers are spared nothing at all. I finished The Red Line hoping two things with equally fervor: first, that the author writes a second book, and second, that the real-world version of his first one leaves anybody alive to read it.
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