You've been on pins and needles for somebody to review the books your dad was reading when you were in middle school; we're here to help. Last year, we read all of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan books in order of Ryanverse chronology rather than order of publication (we include the John Clark and Jack Ryan Jr. books in this process). This year, we're doing it again and posting about each of the books as we complete them/manage to be sufficiently unlazy to actually post a blog. Your comments are more than welcome. NOTE: POSSIBLE DECADES-OLD SPOILERS!!!
The Soviet and American governments are simultaneously working furiously to create laser and space weapons systems, code named Bright Star (USSR) and Tea Clipper (USA) while CIA and KGB compete to discover the capabilities of the other side.
Mikhail Filitov (code-named Cardinal) is a high-ranking employee of the Soviet military, a decorated war hero, and having been personally screwed over by the USSR's ineptitude,
steals a nuclear submarine becomes a decades-long source of intelligence for the United States. When his secret is revealed, can the Foleys get him out in time???
Within the Politburo, a key member is dying and must soon be replaced. Government figures maneuver to create alliances and jockey for position; how the hell will this relate to our main story? (Hint: his name rhymes with Schmack Schmyan).
Jack Ryan happens to be in this book, so he puts the pieces together. And despite his not being in the Operations Directorate, he is personally involved in executing operations.
Younger readers might find two prominent plot issues, the laser wars and the US's involvement in supporting Afghan jihadis, to be less than believable, but were in fact major issues of the time. America's program to have a space-based laser-shooting defense system was widely called Star Wars, a problem-ridden and hugely expensive debacle. Russians look at the Afghan war the way Americans look at Vietnam. Along with several U.N. allies, America trained, armed, and fed intelligence to Afghan warlords resisting Soviet invasion; these are the very warlords that would become the Taliban and al Qaeda.
It is impossible to read The Cardinal of the Kremlin in a post 9/11 context without feeling a sense of dread and regret as Emilio Ortiz of the CIA teaches the Afghans to use more advanced weaponry and tactics. The US and USSR fought a number of proxy wars in the name of containment vs. global communism, and the Afghanistan conflict was no different. We couldn't find much about public opinion of US involvement, but supporting the mujahideen was a decades-long commitment, another gift of the glorious Jimmy Carter administration. Cardinal gives very brief consideration to the "rightness" of the policy: in the two sentence deliberation, Ortiz admits "he didn't know." Consideration of the rightness of actions becomes a hallmark of later books in the series, especially in Clear and Present Danger, but reading this historical-ish story in our present context adds a strange layer of conflict for the reader.
Characters come and go and come again in this series, usually to the series' benefit. Cardinal introduces us to a critical character, American intelligence super-fixer John Clark; a major character, Russian uber-spy Sergey Golovko; and a handful of third-tier characters we'll see pop up later, like US missile defense genius Major Alan Gregory and Soviet military rising star Colonel Bondarenko (Gregory and Bondarenko both appear in The Bear and the Dragon). Each of these characters reflect Tom Clancy's deep and abiding love of competence and training, even from bad guys.
Clark and our frenemy Golovko of course have important roles in several future Ryanverse books, but in Cardinal brings back all of our main submarine friends from the Dallas. Naval history is Clancy's first love, and he manages to bring back Mancuso and Jones even when Jones is no longer in the service; this is not the last of the sub folks. Even Marko Ramius comes back to play a prominent part, whose inclusion is, to be charitable, less than plausible. It would have been fun to have Jack run into Ramius at a bar where Marko is buying everybody rounds with his government-funded largess, but including him in an actual mission is a major stretch.
The Cardinal of the Kremlin and Red Rabbit are the most traditional spy novels in the series. Even so, we are not left without Clancy's trademark attention to technical detail (weapons, organization structures, etc.) His prose had improved and the dialogue is mostly fitting, though we're left with the impression that Clancy spent little time ever talking to actual women, certainly not witnessing conversation between themselves. This book does actually pass the Bechdel test at least once: Ann and Bea exchange spy information in a clothing store.
Cardinal is probably the most soulful entry in the Ryan series. Filitov's dream conversations with Corporal Romanov, his beloved son-figure deputy that fought alongside him in the tank corps defending against Hitler's invasion, act as the window to his conscience. The conversations manifest both his guilt and his motivation for his treasonous actions, alternately giving him pause and strengthening his resolve to damage to government he believes has betrayed his country. The book opens with a character mostly known to us as the Archer, an Afghan freedom fighter who deftly leads his band of men repelling the Soviet invasion. We learn that he had previously been a math teacher with a family whose life was violently ruined by the Soviet Army, war transforming him into a gifted (if self-trained) hunter of helicopters and planner of small ambushes. As American intelligence guides him to his next major mission,
he remains a vivid character experiencing remorse, mercy, doubt, and satisfaction.
Jack Ryan ties the stories together, but the action in Moscow and along the Afghan border are the emotion center of the novel. Bondarenko's aspirations, for his career and his country's armed forces, shape the direction of events on the Soviet side of the conflict. The Archer's desire for revenge and religious fulfillment propel direct the Afghan rebels into action. With Filitov acting out of his own definition of patriotism and the Foleys working to save him out of loyalty to their agent, our D.C.-based protagonists seem very reactive and secondary to the events of the book, including Jack Ryan. The CIA storylines are interesting, yet the stories and especially the characters abroad are more compelling.
What About the Movie/TV Show to be Produced by WYNE Media?
Cardinal would make a really compelling character-driven TV season. Flashbacks for the Archer and Filitov would be Emmy gold, Filitov's vodka dreams would be really moving, the Vatutin interrogations would be terrifying, and the spy stuff would be very exciting. You could make a cool action movie based on the bare-bones outline of rescuing Filitov and the Soviet/Afghan conflict and cutting out the New Mexico story (not a big loss). The problem of adapting a book to screenplay is loss of depth, nuance, and detail that enrich story and character; the structures are fundamentally different. An original screenplay can convey all of these things more easily than an adapted screenplay, usually because of a narrower focus and proper structure.
More fascination with the ascetic aspects of Mormon life: Will Perkins is an excellent FBI counter-intelligence agent, but Clancy makes sure to not that Perkins wouldn't be caught dead with porn.
Constant casual drinking isn't yet an omnipresent feature in the series yet; our drink references primarily reflect Filitov self-medicating before sleep.
After the attack of the Archer's band is finally stopped and he is killed, his comrade who has Soviet military experience decides that their group will be more effective under his guidance since he has formal training he can pass on. We are not exaggerating Clancy's obsession with training.