The Navy has a long standing initiation rite for those who have never crossed the Equator (referred to as Polywogs). Once you have crossed the Equator and endured the initiation, you become a Shellback and earn a much sought-after certificate to atest to this fact. NSA analyst Bill Lane has a far more insidious initiation to endure as he hops back and forth across the Equator in Flannery's first installment of the Bill Lane franchise, "Winner Takes All". In this novel, Flannery's newest protagonist, Lane, must unravel the mystery surrounding the sinking of a U.S. spy ship off Russia's coast before the incident taints a planned War Game between the U.S. and Russia, called Operation Pit Bull, set to commence off the coast of Brazil.
Lane and company must contend with power-crazed Ukrainian Generals, renegade submarines, treacherous politicos, and . . . yes, assassins before he is able to defuse the powderkeg that Operation Pit Bull has become. Throughout it all Lane gets to spend time on half of the U.S. Navy's Atlantic fleet. He's hard to keep up with.
Sigh - how does this stack up to previous Flannery fare? Its AWESOME. Flannery is a master of back alley Coldwar shenannigans and he successfully brings that talent to bear on a totally believable post-Coldwar plot. He has oodles of sub-plots, most of which are attended to before he closes the novel. In previous outings he had flexed his considerable gift for military action sequences, however, he has honed that skill to crackling perfection in this novel. Not many people can make a combat simulation suspenseful. Flannery does.
The pace of Winner Takes All is very fast - much faster than previous works by Flannery. In earlier works he could be accused of redundancy as he digs in to the depths of his characters' motivations. And that redundancy tended to slow his previous works down a bit. That is not the case with this novel. There is very little redundancy - that's the good news. Unfortunately, there is very little character development, too. Perhaps in future outings with Bill Lane, we'll get to know him as well as we got to know Flannery's legend of previous works, Wallace Mahoney.
Characterization lapse aside, however, Winner Takes All is clearly one of Flannery's finest.