No pity. No mercy. To the death.
Continuing my spring through Huggins’ bibliography brings me to the book that, back when I read some of his books in college, I thought was his best. And it remains a super-compelling thrill ride. The main character, Jackson Conner, is an electrical engineer who’s taken a super-secret government contracting job on an island off the coast of Iceland. It was a mistake to bring his wife and young child along however; it seems that the mysterious underground complex he’s in charge of handling the power for houses a government experiment in genetic manipulation that’s about to go awry. Now Conner, his family, a batch of scientists and a small group of soldiers find themselves trapped in an underground complex with a creature out of myth: a six-ton, fire-breathing, armor-plated killing machine, bred to do nothing but destroy. And then there’s the failsafe: if this creature isn’t killed or returned to hibernation within twenty-four hours, a nuclear device will vaporize everyone on the island. Huggins is self-consciously doing Beowulf here in some ways. One of the best characters here is an ex-priest in self-imposed exile on the island, struggling to regain his faith; his name is Thor, he’s six-foot-eight and he carries a battle-ax. As ex-priests do. Conner is also a really compelling character, precisely because he isn’t a trained soldier or a hero; he’s just a guy doing his best to keep his family alive in a situation he has no real facility for. What’s even more interesting is the way Huggins is able to use the fact that Conner is an electrical engineer in the story. Huggins once again writes with what seems to be a lot of expertise about Conner’s craft and makes it central in the efforts to defeat the murderous Leviathan. Conner’s wife is also a first for Huggins: a genuinely strong female character. He’s still primarily a guy who writes about guys, but he’s changed a bit. In A Wolf Story, there wasn’t a single female character that I recall; in The Reckoning, the only female character functioned as a damsel in distress. But Conner’s wife here is a computer genius that’s unapologetically presented as being far smarter than her husband and her emotional strength is unflagging. She serves an integral purpose in the story and doesn’t need to be rescued. There’s a lengthy section that deals with the complex’s computer system, which is an AI, of course, and the climax of that plot line is sure to have modern audiences, who know about computers, shrieking with laughter, but that doesn’t detract from the book’s strengths. At the end of the day, it’s visceral with intense action sequences, which get more and more extended as the book progresses until the last quarter of the book or so becomes one long extended chase/battle. It moves like a forest fire and purposely evokes the imagery and symbols of myth. It’s just rollickingly entertaining, a pulp novel that fulfills every goal of the genre: chills, thrills, laughs, pathos, good vs. evil in the form of a Viking priest vs. a fire-breathing dragon. That’s not enough? 4 stars.
tl;dr – battle- ax toting Viking priest vs. a genetically created dragon in a secret underground government complex; what high-octane action novel could ask for more? 4 stars.