KOREA STRAIT is the tenth in a series that follows the naval career of Dan Lenson. He began his missions in THE MED (first published twenty years ago) as a young lieutenant. These days thirty-nine-year-old Commander Lenson wears a Congressional Medal of Honor decoration but his high-profile history is a hot potato for his commanding officer. When Dan refuses to retire early, he's assigned to what should be a routine and inglorious shipboard tour in the Orient. He's to command a TAG (Tactical Analysis Group) gathering information during joint war game exercises with South Korea, Japan and Australia in the Korea Strait. Of course, Dan's timing is impeccable and while he's afloat on the South Korean flagship, Chung Nam, the games tracking friendly targets are interrupted by a genuine attack by a squad of subs. The TAG commander is a "rider" with no command authority on the Chung Nam. But he and his team, determined to stand by an ally, disobey orders to evacuate (crossdeck) along with the rest of the American presence. Faced with typhoon seas and an unidentified enemy; Lenson aids Commodore Jung and the ship's company in such diverse ways as, among other things, calculating threat probabilities on his laptop and working with a belowdeck repair and rescue detail. The battle rages... and then the true destructive power of the enemy's weapons is discovered. Now, Dan must convince his superiors to approve a daring proposal in hopes of preventing mutual destruction in the strait!
This thriller is highly engrossing in many respects besides the tautly-told main plot of battle against foe and sea. For instance, it convincingly portrays the tensions and strains that an American naval officer could experience aboard a foreign nation's ship. A few of the South Korean officers speak passable English, and they teach Dan a few phrases of Korean, but the language barrier isolates Dan and seriously impairs the allies' abilities to work together. Chung Nam's captain despises Lenson's sometimes ugly-Americanness, and the commodore's aloof leadership challenges Dan. Basically, Dan can't help feeling like a fish out of water in a navy so alien. Even his digestive system is thrown wildly out of whack by the food and the stress, leaving Dan in less than fighting trim during combat.
But here is one nit to be picked: the narrative's formulaic inserts occasionally break the surface. We learn one of Lenson's team has a penchant for underage Korean girls, and sure enough, he gets himself arrested. That plot is ripped from past headlines about American military men and Asian host countries' women. And what do you think happens to another man, whose command decision on his own ship cost some sailors their lives? Does he get a chance to redeem himself? KOREA STRAIT can and does lean into the predictable.
On the whole, though, Poyer delivers a suspenseful and, unfortunately, plausible scenario. The real world Koreas, China, Japan, and America all have great stakes in that ongoing political and military brinksmanship. One of these days KOREA STRAIT might not be fiction anymore. KOREA STRAIT is an expert tale of the modern Navy, authored by a real pro. (nearly 4.5 stars)