”It was time to start being afraid. Clark was not a stranger to fear. He’d been in too many tight places for that, but in every other case he’d had an element of control over the situation … such as the ability to run away, which was a far more comforting thought now than he’d ever realized. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.”

Substitute the pronoun ”I” for ”Clark” and ”he” in the above paragraph from Tom Clancy’s new techno-thriller, Rainbow Six, and you understand my reaction upon being assigned this 740-page behemoth of a book to review. Until now, the closest I’d gotten to a Clancy novel was sitting next to the inevitable guy in aviator glasses reading one on a flight to L.A. I even managed to interview Clancy last year for a story about one of his computer games without cracking one of his books. (Interestingly enough, Rainbow Six the book was inspired by Clancy’s CD-ROM game of the same name.)

So it was perhaps not surprising that the start of what Clancy would probably term my ”rogue mission” started badly. I realized I had to research the entire Clancy oeuvre before I could even figure out the first page. Rainbow Six is Clancy’s 10th novel, but only the second to feature John Clark instead of the now nearly legendary CIA analyst-cum-President Jack Ryan. Clark, as Clancy fans well know, is the former Navy SEAL who is both Ryan’s associate and his dark alter ego.

Clark turned vigilante in 1993’s Without Remorse and surfaces here as the head of the Rainbow, an international antiterrorist strike force that can only be described as extreme terrorists themselves — a kind of Greenpeace gone berserk. Clark is the ”Six” of the title. The fate of the world, naturally, is at stake. A menacing former KGB agent with the same last name as a popular vodka is prominent. The ”Gaea Hypothesis” is involved. There are Richard Preston-like biological-warfare overtones. Something evil named Shiva will be revealed in all its malignant glory.

”Excellent! But I require a translator!”

By the second chapter, I thought I’d cracked the code to the Clancy phenomenon, the secret to how this 51-year-old former insurance agent has built a reported $190 million fortune from his nine best-selling novels, movies, videos, and computer games. It had to be the acronyms. Nearly every page in Rainbow Six reads like a surreal eye chart; RCAF, DCI, GCHQ, STU-4, USAF, MP-10, NATO, SAS, MIRV, PT, OEOB, SOAR, NCO, GSG-9, NVG, TRW, IDI, TAD, and SMG are just a few examples.

By chapter 8 I had learned more about obscure topics like the German Staatspolizei, thermal targets, and Sikorsky helicopters than I cared to, but I’d also begun to develop a grudging respect for Clancy as the story slowly drew me in. True, the prose is often tortured, as in this typical passage: ”Well, Carol Brightling was also pretty smart, but more political than scientific, and perhaps her ego, capacious as everyone in this city knew it to be, had quailed before the greater intellectual gifts of her husband.” (Let’s hope this isn’t Clancy’s attempt to make a thinly veiled reference to his real-life wife, Wanda, whom he’s divorcing after 28 years of marriage for a 31-year-old former TV reporter and relative of Gen. Colin Powell.)

But Clancy, who packs Rainbow Six with the latest hardware and gadgetry his fans expect — like a device that resembles a ray gun and tracks the electromagnetic field generated by the human heart — clearly knows his stuff. Clancy is well-known for consulting with pals like Powell, interviewing other military types at length, and poring over declassified military documents and technical journals to make his books more authentic, and a lot of what got him that $190 million fortune is in the details. If you ever wanted to know exactly how to fill the pipes of a fogging system in an Olympic stadium with lethal nano-capsules containing a deadly engineered virus, this is your book.

Clancy also writes action scenes beautifully, and he weaves them into a sprawling, Bondesque plot that spans the globe from Germany to Australia to Kansas. His descriptions of a transatlantic airplane hijacking, a raid on an amusement park in Spain, and a shoot-out in the U.K. are vivid and cinematic — and notably lacking in the clichés and B-movie tone of his dialogue. And while some of his secondary characters have a flat, dime-novel feel, John Clark is a gratifyingly distinctive, three-dimensional hero. The conceit of the book is that Clark must confront his own worst fears from his past while battling the possible end to mankind. It may be decoder-ring literature, but within the genre, there’s no doubt that Clancy is king. And you can roger that. B+

Rainbow Six
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