Huston delivers 'fast-paced civic lesson'
'Balance of Power'
William Morrow & Company, $25
Review by Ann Hastings
Web posted on: Tuesday, July 28, 1998 4:26:30 PM
(CNN) -- Grab a copy of the U.S. Constitution and tear into this military/action novel, as "Balance of Power" delivers a fast-paced civic lesson. Author James W. Huston may be stepping into territory dominated by Tom Clancy, but Huston more than stands his ground with an international crisis involving all three branches of government as they fight for control of the military.
The book's premise is engaging and clever. An American merchant ship is hijacked in Indonesia and the crew is murdered. The captain of the ship is taken hostage and becomes a bargaining chip for the terrorists. The terrorists demand that the U.S. Navy leave the South Pacific and that America stop expanding its economic market into Asia. The American government is faced with the dilemma of letting Indonesia handle this crime or use military retaliation for the murder of the American crew. Huston's central question is: Who decides the extent of America's involvement in an international crisis?
The crux of the problem starts when President Manchester decides to let the Indonesian police bring the terrorists to justice. Speaker of the House Stanbridge sees an opportunity to bring down, in his view, an incompetent president. This particular part of the story really makes you think of what Newt would do in this situation. Stanbridge's assistant, Jim Dillon, researches the Constitution and discovers a long forgotten clause that allows Congress to conduct limited war without presidential approval. Stanbridge sees his chance, and Congress issues a Letter of Marque and Reprisal to the Navy. Huston's main character, Dillon, delivers the order to attack to the commander of the Pacific fleet and gets to participate in the chase.
Huston sets up the conflict quickly and clearly with plausible arguments for each side. The rest of the book is devoted to the hunt for the terrorists. Will the Navy carry out the letter's orders before the Supreme Court decides on the constitutionality of the issue?
Besides a copy of the Constitution you will need a copy of "Jane's Fighting Ships" to keep track of the action as Huston displays vast knowledge of ships and naval tactics. Of course, we get to the inevitable showdown with the terrorists. Unfortunately, this is where the book's slight weakness shows through.
Characterization is thin; President Manchester's anti-violence stance is never fully explained. Even after the terrorist attack U.S. forces, Huston keeps the president closed mouthed on exactly why he won't move. Huston rests the book on the concept that the president may or may not be a pacifist without ever resolving the question. Stanbridge is almost stereotypical in his quest for political power. That the president may be a pacifist isn't exactly a dramatic cliffhanger. The book's conclusion, action-wise, is satisfying but the legal argument peters away with a short paragraph explanation. Once the action is over, Huston lets the book fade away without clear resolution.
But if you want a great summer read devoted to military action with an interesting premise thrown in, look to "Balance of Power". Just don't expect answers to all the question that Huston raises.
Ann Hastings taught history for three years before joining CNN NewsSource as an archivist.
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