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 Megabook, Part II
Executive Orders picks up right where Debt of Honor leaves off, with Jack Ryan left to pick up the pieces of the government, which was largely incinerated by the kamikaze airliner. (Is that racist?) Yamata is sorted out and the Indian Prime Minister is put in her place, but Orders doesn't wrap up with Zhang Han San and China for another two books. Mahmoud Daryaei comes upstage as our alpha villain, revealing his long-term and awfully expansive plan.
Nearly all of our Tom Clancy Heroes and their friends get a job promotion in this book (though by contrast, Cathy mentions having declined prestigious academic posts). While it is mentioned that several of them are not really ready for their new jobs, none of them mess up in significant ways.
Japanese Prime Minister Koga has been reinstated to power, faced with restoring his country from the destruction of the Yamata-led industrialists and their compliant military partners (we think President Eisenhower had a term for this kind of pairing, but we can't remember). His first task is making sure the Americans are not going to Hiroshima/Nagasaki them again, but he quickly finds rapport with sensible man of peace, Jack Ryan.
American General Marion Diggs is hosting Russia's chief military planner, General Gennady Bondarenko, letting him witness how much America has improved on Soviet armored cavalry doctrine. The training stuff pays off with Diggs and the Americans as they find themselves undermanned with the UIR later, but the alliance with Bondarenko doesn't really come back into play until The Bear and the Dragon.
Ding Chavez and John Clark, fresh off of rescuing PM Koga, run the investigation leading the Ebola terror attack back to Iran. Hooking up with our friends in Russian Intelligence, they hammer in the final nail of the UIR's coffin.
Cathy Ryan, having inadvertently saved the economy by reciting her aphorism "if it isn't written down, it didn't happen", soldiers on as the begrudging First Lady. To the stress of the Secret Service and the befuddlement of "Official Washington" (we'll get to that), she continues to work as the world's best eye surgeon. She and Jack try to make life as normal as possible as possible for their kids, which doesn't work out so well. Also she grumbles about not being able to cook dinner every night, having to settle for dining on the work of a gourmet chef who supplies her with tips and recipes.
Mahmoud Daryaei, leader of Iran, sets in motion his decades-long plan to unite all of Islam under one flag. His successful coup in Iraq eliminates Saddam Hussein (referred to as "The Mustache") and exiles prominent military and government officials; Iran quickly fills the leadership vacuum. He arranges an assassination of the premier of Turkmenistan, a Muslim state formerly of the Soviet Union. He deploys attacks on the president, the president's family, and the country in the form of biological warfare.
Ed Kealty, recently resigned former vice president of the United States, figures he can cash in on the death of the President. He sends a henchman to steal his letter of resignation from the deceased secretary of state's office, removing the evidence that he actually quit (never mind that he didn't object to the swearing in of Jack Ryan as the caretaker VP). Beloved of the media and Official Washington, he casts aspersions on Ryan's fitness to serve as president and, with humility feigned, acknowledges his personal weakness yet asserts his alleged rightful place in the White House.
Official Washington is comprised of lobbyists, media, appointees, and other affiliated figures who have tremendous influence in How Washington Works. They are swayed by Kealty and appalled by Ryan's non-politician-ness. The author acknowledges the power these people wield by his opinion of their character is made abundantly clear.
Tom Clancy has his fun with the news media. At first the media is primarily and antagonist for Jack Ryan, their political leaning and personal style being more aligned with Kealty and their preference for ratings-grabbing stories above all else. Through previous and later books Clancy declares his undying love for CNN because of their competence in news coverage and intelligence gathering; everyone in the U.S. government watches CNN (keeping in mind these books are written just as the internet is becoming ubiquitous and before the current crop of CNN on-air talent). In Executive Orders we focus on two NBC guys: John Plumber, an old school journalist who believes in doing things The Right Way but is worn out, and Tom Donner, a soulless ratings whore who screws over Jack. Plumber falls on his sword and tries to make things right and Donner is given a special opportunity to cover war up close. Returning is Bob Holtzman, the old school Washington Post reporter extraordinaire who does journalism The Right Way, who steers Plumber toward his repentance, showing him that remarkable as it may seem, the President is a truly decent and honest guy.
A couple of racist rednecks and militia secessionists Ernie Brown and Pete Holbrooke decide that if they can both blow up the White House with Ryan in it and take out Kealty, they can create a Constitutional crisis and reboot America in The Way It Should Be. The story of their road trip to Washington is not explosive.
Elderly nun Jean Baptiste contracts Ebola from Patient Zero in the jungles of Africa; Dr. Mohammed Moudi uses her as the incubator for his bioweapon factory. He feels bad about using her like that, but not so bad that he doesn't also have her companion wasted.
General Diggs and Colonel Hamm are back to show off Tom Clancy's extensive knowledge of armored military units. They do a lot of training, then lead the charge to demolish the UIR's sad attempt to seize Saudi Arabia.
Movie Star is the rare Clancy bad guy who does not get punished by the end of the book; he's the guy who organizes the attack on Katie Ryan's preschool. The preschool attack is supposed to serve as a tool to make it easier for Daryaei's Secret Service plant to kill jack instead of increasing scrutiny of those defending the president rather than being page filler in a book that needs absolutely none.
Aref "Jeff" Raman is an Iranian immigrant who has risen up the ranks of the Secret Service, building his cover identity around being a guy who's all about work and college basketball. He's been groomed since childhood to waste the American President and he tries very hard. The investigation that finds him out is gripping and the way he's stopped is clever.
An unintelligent, unsophisticated, unremarkable looking teenager named Bella leaves her profligate mother in Arizona to go live with her negligent alcoholic father in western Washington. Despite her total lack of aesthetic appeal or virtually any other quality, she becomes the most popular girl in school. Bella strikes up a creepy and abusive romance with a sparkly Ronald McDonald-looking vampire named Edward, whose family of non-predatory vampires are much more interesting than him. Bella draws the perpetual longing of a dumb and handsome werewolf who cannot take the
hint gigantic billboard that the feeling is not mutual. The werewolf falls in love with Bella and Edward's monster baby. This plot is not actually part of Executive Orders but might as well be with all of the other characters and stories.
Given that most of the cabinet has been blown up, Jack Ryan has to appoint new ones. None of the old cabinet members have any role in the book. All of the new cabinet members are essentially the same person: self-made success, working class background, talk like a "real person", are outsiders, and like to drink. In this book, their main function is to articulate Tom Clancy's personal politics in lengthy passages. A partial exception to that is Ben Goodley, the very young and inexperienced analyst Jack appoints to be the National Security Adviser, which is written off as being okay since Jack is so good at national security himself. Goodley's most important quality is that he hasn't been subsumed by the hivemind CIA bureaucracy and is therefore the best choice to advise the nation's president.
In Atlanta at CDC and in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins, medical researchers who are trying to find ways to combat Ebola are made aware of the outbreak in Africa, which infects one of the Iraqi officers fleeing the newly formed UIR. Cathy Ryan joins in the Ebola battle, the investigation thereof setting up our final conflict.
Storm Track and Palm Bowl are two military surveillance stations in the Middle East. We spend many a page with them monitoring troop movements in Iraq, etc.
The government of India is working with China and Iran to stretch out the US military and decide they want to grab some territory. They fail.
Bart Mancuso guides the Navy in deterring the Chinese and Indians, even while the Navy is hobbled and undersupplied. They perform like Michael Jordan in the "flu" game.
We're probably leaving out 10 or 12 plot lines; this book is 1,358 pages in paperback. The bottom line: Jack's first few months as president really, really sucked.
These is a ton of good stuff in this book, lots of exciting stories and interesting insights. There is also a metric ton of fluff and stories that could have been in another book. Executive Orders had enough material for two books and much of it would have been better served in a separate volume. With a contemplative opening segment, wrapping up and dealing with the events of Debt of Honor, and rebuilding the government, we add lengthy detail of Ebola cultivation, lengthy detail of deploying Ebola in the terror attack, lengthy detail of combating Ebola, pages-long speeches by President Ryan, numerous press conferences and interviews, descriptions of how Cathy is going to get to and function at work, the inner workings of the White House, pages-long policy speeches and discussion by Ryan's aides, government meetings in a half dozen countries, reports on the activities of a number of Navy vessels, accounts of surveillance outposts, terror attacks on the country and First Family, assassinations and assassination attempts...you get it. There's little room for the characters and stories to breathe.
The Clancy Manifesto
We imagine Tom Clancy had been watching The West Wing rack up a billion Emmys in the 90s, preaching Aaron Sorkin's thinly veiled personal politics, and figured he'd get in the game. Clancy heroes have always articulated his policy views, usually in off-hand mentions and brief conversations; Executive Orders has them conversing at length and giving speeches. Sum of All Fears and Debt of Honor are largely arguments against downsizing the military and eliminating nuclear weapons, Clear and Present Danger expresses Clancy's hatred of drug use but his reservations with the "War on Drugs", and Red Rabbit rails against the obesity of East Slavic females. Orders drones on about finance, defense buildup, international relations, diplomacy, taxes, war policy, terrible imitation Dr. Pepper brands, and the usual Clancy elaboration ad nauseam about every possible unit involved in martial conflict.
Tom Clancy even coins his own political term: the Ryan Doctrine. The Ryan Doctrine states that if nations are justified in fighting against the soldiers and underlings sent to fight them, they are justified in attacking the leaders, political or military, who give the orders. We spent way too much time thinking about how this would work in the real world and what that would mean.
We can't find the words to succinctly describe Executive Orders; there is an incredible amount of story, characters, and tone dealt with to varying degrees of success. The first segment of the book - the immediate aftermath of the disaster - is refreshingly meditative in pace and as character-driven as anything in the Jack Ryan series. Jack feels through every decision, contemplates the consequences for Roger Durling's family and everyone else in the White House, and realizes the huge burden each of his predecessors has faced. He measures his character and ability and finds himself wanting. Jack has always been fairly self-flagellating, but the story circumstances make it feel totally appropriate. His coming to grips with both his burdens and how well he's supported is profound and interesting.
Mahmoud Daryaei is a worthy villain for Jack Ryan, just as principled in his own way, a man who has shaped his life and worked himself sore to pursue his deeply-held beliefs. He would have stood out even more, but the book spends so much time talking about the specifics of creating the Ebola crisis, fighting the Ebola crisis, and performing and fighting the terror attacks. Daryaei's assassination is fun and cheesy in a very 90s movie sort of way, but not really in keeping with Jack Ryan's professionalism and not relishing violence.
The Ed Kealty storyline is pretty interesting but gets a little repetitive. That he ends up shooting himself in the foot by having legal technicalities work against him is a fun bit of irony.
The worst story in Executive Orders is that of the would-be assassins Brown and Holbrooke. We don't really learn anything substantive about the Mountain Men, don't know their ideology other than they love the Constitution and hate bureaucrats. The story is a very 90s domestic terror tale, recalling Timothy McVeigh, Branch Davidians, etc., and it's boring and completely unnecessary. It doesn't generate any tension or connect to any other part of the story (how unClancyan!)
Of course the combat is really good, the world-building details are expert, and the stories are mostly interesting. As addressed previously, the primary problem with the totality of the book is that there is far too much content to try to keep track of. Clancy books are pretty dense and have twisting, intertwined plots, but Executive Orders makes his usual entries seem like John Steinbeck. There's a cool emotional component and yet so much Clancyness. It's really entertaining yet could have been more.
The Sure-to-be-Amazing WYNE Media Production
A movie version would be a total disaster; we might even need two seasons to do the book justice. A good, Kyle Chandler-esque actor could take us through Jack's emotional and intellectual process, combining his uber-intelligence with his everyman character. The book takes time to mourn, considering those who had been slain and those affected by the tragedy; we'd keep that in and set the emotional underpinnings for the dual base story of Jack's unexpected rise to the presidency and a grieving, then angry nation. For the sake of time, we'd have to gloss over the navy and surveillance stuff, trim back the Ebola specifics, lightly touch on the details of the UIR takeover of Iraq, and eliminate a lot of the content with the new cabinet members. A few things worth adding: perhaps some flashback stories with Daryaei, maybe give him a family to go home to and deal with. We don't ever learn about the families of the Clancy villains and we feel it would give him a compelling new dimension.
Jack Ryan tells the reader that he knows that his dad worked the case of Clark's (Kelly's) murder spree in Baltimore; Clancy ties up every loose end.
With Jack becoming president here, later resigning, then running again, Jack is president for about half of the books in the series. Actually, we wonder if Tom Clancy didn't know what to write about after Ryan becomes president after a few books. We'll get into that when we cover The Bear and the Dragon and Teeth of the Tiger; it starts to feel like Clancy was still attached to this world but lost his will to put in the work.