After an airliner crashes into the Capitol, killing the president, Jack Ryan, the vice-president takes over. The novel describes Ryan's campaign to impose a right-wing morality on the U.S. and a new order on the world, the latter accomplished with the aid of high-tech warfare. A sequel to Debt of Honor. Jack Ryan becomes president by sheer accident when the former president, most of Congress, the Cabinet and the Supreme Court are bombed out of existence. Ryan must jump in to discover who did it, all the while contending with the threat of military takeover and covert biological warfare.
I suppose I should have seen my overall reaction coming. When Clancy dedicated his book to Ronald Reagan, I had a sneaking suspicion as to where the story would lead.
The story has plenty of pulp promise. What appears to be the entire American government is wiped out in one fell swoop, and it's up to Jack Ryan to become the new president. But Clancy doesn't know when to quit. He adds on layers and layers of subplots, most of which would work by themselves, but only serve here to bloat an already large novel.
Part of the problem is that there is no sympathy created for any character. Every person in Ryan's entourage is decent, hard-working, and completely uninteresting. Any person who doesn't fit in with Clancy's idea of a hero is treated with suspicion and contempt. It might make a difference if ANY character was remotely memorable, but evidently, characterization is not Clancy's strong suit.
I had higher hopes for the action portions of the novel, but alas, I was also disappointed. Pages and pages of technical jargon only prove that Clancy has done his homework. What it doesn't do is advance the plot. Tank warfare may make for entertaining viewing, but they make for deadly dull reading. Particularly if, once again, there is absolutely no empathy created for anyone involved in the actual battles.
And as for the actual backstage look at how the presidency is run? I am reminded of a recent newspaper critique of television's THE WEST WING. It stated (quite accurately, to my mind) that when it comes to drama, the democratic viewpoint is the most dramatically satisfying. It leads to shows such as THE WEST WING, I'LL FLY AWAY, PICKET FENCES, and HOMICIDE. When the republican viewpoint is emphasized in a drama, you get THE A-TEAM and TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL.
By this point in his career, Clancy's books were becoming much more ideological and less interesting, and Executive Orders is quite bloated. A big portion of the book is devoted to an internal terrorism plot that goes nowhere and just fills up pages. The bioterror plot is more interesting, but still not all that plausible. There is still some decent entertainment value, but it would have been better at much less length.
Despite being huge it lacks the interesting details of former books, and doesn't have the saving grace of taut prose to redeem it.
Readers should not start with this book if they are interested in reading Clancy's Jack Ryan series. They should start with "Hunt for Red October" and move forward. The development of Ryan's character throughout the series is brilliant.
Starting with Red Storm Rising (1986), I used to buy every new Clancy novel in hardcover the day it came out. Back then, I was all about the storytelling, and when Clancy was on his game, there wasn't anybody better. He created an entirely new genre--the technothriller--and his sprawling, multiple-perspective stories were entirely satisfying and even educational.
Clancy always was an unapologetic conservative Republican, which, OK, I can deal. But right about the time he and his first wife separated and then divorced (1995-1999), a strain of misogyny started creeping into his books. Without Remorse (1993) was outright obscene, in fact--lovingly describing the sexual torture of one of the characters. That's when I started getting leery of Clancy.
So, with that backstory, on to Executive Orders, the second book to come out after Without Remorse and the eighth book to star Jack Ryan. By now, Ryan has become President, after a major terrorist attack on Washington, and he's fighting battles on several fronts: political, personal, the media, etc. At the same time, forces are gathering to destroy the U.S. once and for all, using multiple forms of attack. It's a race to the finish to see whether Ryan can set up a functioning government and unravel the conspiracy before other disasters strike.
The story is told from multiple perspectives, as usual. The best sections involve Clark and Chavez, the biological weapon development and its effects, the military strategies, and the political maneuvering. But it's WAY too long--it could have been cut by a third without losing anything. Jack's wife, Cathy, shines when she's in her medical role, but she's been reduced to a simpering fool at all other times. In fact, all of the women in the story are reduced to their reproductive function in the end--if they're childless, they always wanted to have them, for example. Blech. I didn't really notice how Neanderthal Clancy was when I was younger, but now that I've been around the block a few times, it's everywhere...in several places, I just kept flipping pages. It's still a satisfying story, but the signal-to-noise ratio was really low in this one.
This was the last semi-decent Clancy novel--the ones that came out afterward, in my opinion, aren't worth the effort to wade through the bloviating. It's too bad, too, because the Ryans, Clark, Chavez, Holtzmann, etc. were great characters for so long.
Carl Alves - author of Blood Street