Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Review: "East Wind Returns" by William Peter Grasso

Review - East Wind Returns

What if the Trinity test explosion fails because of a design failure of the implosion device? What if through accidents and negligence the available enriched uranium of the US nuclear bomb program has been destroyed, forcing the United States to go ahead with its planned invasion of the Japanese home islands? And worse, what if the Japanese themselves have built their own nuclear device, using the enriched German uranium?

Set against the impending - and later, unfolding - events of Operation Downfall (specifically: Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu), Grasso spins a very convincing story. With the American uranium stores destroyed in a fire - with both scientists and army guards blaming one another - and the initial plutonium-based device not working, President Truman sees no alternative other than to go ahead with putting American boots on Japanese ground. Unbeknownst to the him, the Japanese have successfully tested an atom bomb of their own off the coast of Korea and are now planning to put their remaining weapon to good use. The Navy opts for a suicide run against either San Francisco or the invasion fleet. The Imperial Army wants to use the weapon on a key invasion beach to inflict horrible casualties on MacArthur's task force and break the US spearheads in two. And the new prime minister secretly prays for common sense to prevail and a peace deal to be reached.

Like much the Japanese Navy proposed during the latter days of WW II, their suicide run turns out to be impractical. The weapon is too large to be carried inside even their bigger submarines, and to be activated they would have to surface and manually prime it - in the middle of enemy forces. Thus the task of putting the bomb to good use is awarded to the army. The author also explains quite vividly why a delivery by airplane would be impossible for the Japanese.

In an already strong novel, these are the strongest parts. It clearly shows that Grasso knows his trade, filling the flight scenes with just the right mix of technical knowhow and lively imagery. It is here where the danger of flying lurks just beneath the surface: mechanical and human failure can turn even straight flights in good weather into deadly events. It only gets worse when its cold, you're flying through anti-aircraft fire, and you've got Japanese fighters on your tail.

I've got to commend Grasso for his choice of tense and point of view. The author employs a strange mix of past and present tense narration, but at no point in the novel was I put off by that. In fact, it immersed me deeper into the story, making it actually feeling closer, more personal.

The main POV character of East Wind Returns is Cpt. John Worth, a recon pilot operating from an airfield on Okinawa. He's an expert flyer, and we witness most of the story through his eyes as he experiences the uncertainties and dangers of war: new comrades appear, only to never return from a mission; the Japanese adapt their tactics to ever more deadly ones; trouble brews back on the base with a pampered fighter jock; and true love blossoms between him and Lt. Marjorie Braden. Grasso writes a believable love story in the face of war without it being cheesy or overbearing, and quite unlike what I thought when I began reading the novel, it adds to it more than I thought it would detract (let's face it: most people can't write good romance).
There's not a single character in it without a certain depth to him or her; even the secondary ones are more than fleshed out. If I sound as if I'm heaping praise on East Wind Returns... well, I am, deservedly so. Without it feeling rushed or shortened, Grasso manages in barely 90,000 words to feature a love story, the story surrounding an American invasion of Kyushu, a nuclear plot, personal rivalry and - something I criticized as severely lacking in my last fiction review, Hitler's War - a look on the macro-perspective, showing the discussions and decision-making of the Japanese and American leadership.

Final Verdict: A. This is the hallmark of a well-structured novel. It's got everything: alternate history, adventure, drama, and a love story. And even better, you can get East Wind Returns on Amazon or Smashwords for only $0.99, and the paperback is also reasonably priced. I highly recommend you get this gem.

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