Operation Barracuda (David Michaels)
Operation Barracuda is a direct sequel to the eponymous previous novel in the Splinter Cell series. The arms dealing organization known as the Shop, Sam's blossoming romance with Katia Loenstern, and the race to hunt down the last of the renegade nuclear weapons comes to a close here as Sam's quest takes him to Ukraine, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and inside the communist state of China in a quest to track down the mysterious MRUUV before it is too late. Despite the decent set up, this novel is even less entertaining than the previous because it retains nearly all of the flaws of that first book, while bringing little of interest to the table.
The novel suffers from being just as formulaic as the previous, with the arc for any given mission consisting of information gathering, infiltration, plot advancement, and frantic escape. The frantic escape is the most contradictory part, as seemingly every time Sam tries to do something, he ends up running away while under fire or killing a ton of guards. In the games, detection was strictly penalized, but here it is a readily accepted aspect of Sam's job.
Another nitpick with the story is that once again, Sam is saved by outside forces which require him to do little to rescue himself. Like the air strikes in the first book, Sam's rescue comes in the middle of a one on one conflict and renders his escape nearly inevitable. This kind of thing cheapens Sam's character and makes him more of a luck based character than a skill based one. The cold and calculating nature of Sam's persona in the games just does not fit with the blind luck that befalls him so many times in this book in order for him to survive. This, along with the ill advised romance I will discuss later, results in the book feeling more like a terrible James Bond novel than a Splinter Cell novelization.
Also, I'm getting kind of tired of the whole nuclear warhead thing. Though the attempt to defuse the MRUUV does give Sam a good excuse to discuss his SEAL training just before the book's conclusion, it is such a tired gimmick (and one used in seemingly every Clancy book) to bring some tension into an otherwise dull plot that it falls well short of creating any interest in the finale.
The plot does get some things right though. There are some fantastic chase scenes sprinkled throughout, and the escape sequences, contradictory and senseless though they may be, are highly entertaining action pieces. The book doesn't come alive in any substantive way though, serving as mindless popcorn filler as opposed to a genuinely intriguing thriller.
Sam's character is still a bit off here. Admittedly, how much you enjoy his character basically boils down to how you think Sam should/would view a romantic relationship, because otherwise the character is completely blank. There isn't much to his persona here besides his relationship with Katia, as even the ever present dynamic between himself and his daughter Sarah hardly shows up here, and the author doesn't go out of his way to elaborate on his relationship with the other characters or explain some of his core motivations and beliefs. The relationship seems quite out of character for a man who hasn't even dated a woman since the death of his estranged wife some fifteen years earlier, and the fact that it turns him from incredibly cautious federal agent to carefree love guru undoubtedly clashes with what we know of the character.
In this book Sam's support team begins to resemble that which we see in the video games, and this change definitely turns out for the better. First up, and most crucially, is Sam's boss, Lambert. Lambert plays more of a presence here, asserting his authority to reign in Sam when he needs it most, while at the same time facing a subtle conflict in the lack of budget support that Third Echelon is suddenly receiving. Lambert spends many of his scenes attempting to convince his superiors that the Splinter Cell project is a worthy one, and this sub plot helps to add some weight to Lambert's interaction with Fisher. There is an interesting minor sub plot in which Sam has to be persuaded into participating in the Field Runner program against his will, with Frances Coen (who made a short appearance in the first game) as his on the ground support for several of the missions. This adds an appeasing new dynamic, and it helps to paint the events of the first Splinter Cell game in a different light. Another positive is that Carly St. John, an excessively dull character that is simply a mash up of various clichés, is quickly replaced by Anna Grimsdottir, Sam's technical support from the video games. This move puts a more compelling character in Sam's ear, and brings the book that much closer to the games. Grimsdottir doesn't do anything terribly interesting in this book, but the switch was appreciated.
The antagonists are the usual collection of creepy foreigners, criminals, and sell outs all too familiar to Splinter Cell fans. There is nothing extraordinary about any of them, least of all the members of the Shop, making a toothless return appearance in this novel. More important are the renegade forces of General Tun. Tun is a character we don't actually see at all, but his forces play a huge role in the story and he provides much of the opposition for the final stretch of the book. Playing more of an ambiguous role are the Lucky Dragons, a Hong Kong based Triad that Sam encounters quite often, and makes use of in quite a cunning manner. The antagonists aren't anything special though, in no way are they relatable, interesting, or particularly fearsome.
The author makes use of the same bizarre narrative style that plagued the first book, utilizing first person for the events from Sam's perspective and third person for the events from the eyes of other characters. Furthermore, there is some inexplicable tensing errors during the third person passages as they often start in past tense, switch to present tense, then go back to past tense for no discernible reason. The transition from the two different narrative styles, along with the weird tensing errors, makes for a choppy read, and unfortunately is the most notable element of the prose.
What really hurts the chapter to chapter writing in the book is the excessive amounts of repetition we are exposed to. The author carefully explains each and every piece of Sam's gear multiple times, even after doing so in the previous book. It even extends to his personal life, recapping even the most obvious and well known elements of his life. Though the book is the second in the series, it seems to cater to newcomers a bit too excessively. Additionally, the somewhat intriguing cultural primers on the areas Sam would be infiltrating that were used to good effect in the last book have been replaced by obvious, random facts that are repeated over and over again in an attempt to create the appropriate atmosphere for the proceedings. We are told at least four times that the British surrendered control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, so there are less British people but capitalism reigns supreme. The facts are often random, limited, and serve as little more than filler in place of the intricate political climate that was at least attempted in the previous novel. The writing in Operation Barracuda left me sorely unimpressed.
Operation Barracuda is a disappointing read because it improves on so little that the first book did wrong. The major change, Sam's romance with Katia, is an ill advised attempt to explore a new element of Sam's character, and at the same time much of the book is dedicated to making Sam as weak as possible to excuse more huge explosions and random chase scenes. The few bright spots, the supporting cast and a few of the chase scenes, are far outweighed by the bad narrative style, tepid antagonists, and ridiculous plot. This is one to avoid.