Growing up, I would say starting in Junior High until late in high school, I was a huge Tom Clancy fan. I burned my way through pretty much every book in the Jack Ryan series, giving each book at least two or three reads over the years. As I grew older and the premises of the books began to grow more and more outlandish, I eventually dropped off the train and called it a day. As readers, it's natural and I think, almost expected that at some point you are going to grow out of love with things, your interests shift towards other areas.
When Red Rabbit came out, I was intrigued because instead of continuing the Jack Ryan franchise, this book is actually set in the past, events taking place between the books Patriot Games and The Hunt For Red October. I was excited at the idea of getting back to the time period when this character became such an integral part of my childhood. I thought it was a great idea for Clancy to sort of get back to his roots, instead of trying to perpetuate this lumbering franchise that had grown a little bit to bit for its own good.
At the start, let me just say one thing that I was impressed with, I thought it was great that after so many years and so many books, Clancy was still able to capture the time period that the book is set in. He was still able to find the voice and perspective of Jack Ryan at that young age, when the franchise was still new. He also did a great job of capturing that era - when you consider the inherent nature of the "techno-thriller", it was impressive that he seemed able to return to that era of technology and make it seem both historically authentic to the reader while being fresh and new for the characters.
I gave this book three stars so clearly there were some aspects of the story which I didn't like so much. In no particular order:
First of all, I found the decision for the plot to be a little strange. Briefly, the story is centered mostly around a small ensemble of characters. Jack Ryan, newly hired analyst for the CIA, has just moved to London and is trying to acclimate there, as well as come to terms with his somewhat meteoric rise through the ranks of the agency. The book also follows a pair of CIA agents stationed in Moscow who are the new handlers for one of the agencies top sources, code named CARDINAL (sound familiar Clancy fans? CARDINAL) The other key character is a Soviet intelligence officer who happens to become aware of a growing plan within the KGB to try and assassinate the pope. The officer, bothered by the prospect of the murder of an innocent priest, decides to defect, using his knowledge of the impending attempt as a bargaining chip.
What I found curious about this was that (as I said before) chronologically, the book falls some time before The Hunt For Red October. So that means that now we have Red Rabbit, The Hunt For Red October, followed by Cardinal Of The Kremlin - three books all dealing with high ranking Soviets defecting to the West. I would have thought that Clancy could have kept the plot centered around the assassination attempt while leaving the defection aspect out of it. It often seems like he goes out of his way to demonstrate how much better he thought life was in the west compared to the Soviet Union which is kind of related to my next point.
I got a little tired of the constant asides that were basically trumpeting American ingenuity and character. I can understand where that comes from with the books that were written during the peak of the cold war but as this book was written in 2002, I thought he could have toned it down a little. One example is actually not related to the Soviet Union, but with Jack Ryan's wife, Catherine as she adjusts to a new country and tries to figure out her role as a doctor in London. This could have been interesting, but instead, almost every scene ends up with a dull tirade going on about how amazing Johns Hopkins is and how lazy the British doctors are and how terrible socialized medicine is for patient care. Clancy makes his feelings on the subject pretty clear as he seems to use his characters to voice his opinions and it got to the point in the book where I didn't want Cathy to be in a scene because I was tired of hearing about how we do things "back home at Johns Hopkins". Ultimately, the plot goes nowhere and I don't think it adds anything to the book.
In the end, my biggest gripe about the book is that it's just kind of dull. I actually considered giving it a two star rating but my intellectual curiosity was stimulated just enough to bump it up to three. There is never any real danger to the book, there's a lot of hand wringing by various intelligence officers and there is a lot of debate about the best way to handle things and decisions that have to be made, but in the end the book is pretty much a really long string of conversations that take place in which one character is perpetually explaining something to the other. The book is mostly exposition and there just isn't any suspense. The events of the book are dispatched in routine order and I kept expecting some kind of hiccup in the plan which would create some drama and tension but it never happened and in the end, the actual coverage of the assassination attempt takes up very little of the book.
If you have never read a book by Tom Clancy, don't start with this one. It isn't at all representative of the rest of his work. I would actually recommend reading it last, even though you would be out of order. There are a lot of Easter eggs in the book - characters who will be more important in the franchise later on down the road. There are even a few references to John Clark. But beyond the references that will make you smile if you are conversant in the Tom Clancy universe, there just isn't much here. A lot of verbiage without very much substance.