Who is the most interesting man in the world? It’s not the guy who drinks yellow beer and urges you to “stay thirsty, my friend.” My vote for the title goes to Alex Hawke. On a first-name basis with Vladimir Putin and a personal friend of the Queen of England since he was a little nipper, Hawke has the biggest sailboat in the world, more money than God, and a skill set that enables him to walk through the valley of death without fearing evil because he is the deadliest S.O.B. in the valley. All of this, and he is courteous and polite to a fault, of course.
"There is plenty to make the heart race here, and [Bell's] masterful pacing causes pages to turn at lightning speed. Oh, and don’t miss the afterword. While currently a work of fiction, it may not be for too much longer. Read it while it’s still an entertainment."
Naturally, Hawke exists only on paper, and the canvas that author Ted Bell paints on is a broad one indeed. He adds another sheet or five to it with PHANTOM, his seventh adult novel, and in a better time it would have been called a “ripping yarn,” full of action, adventure, brave deeds, and, most importantly of all, with a very deadly and frightening villain. His latest begins with an introductory piece where things go very, very wrong at an adventure theme park --- I don’t think that Bell will be welcome in Orlando for some time to come --- and then switches directions and scenarios, as Hawke, one of MI6’s deepest operatives, returns to Russia on a personal mission. He does not retrieve that which he had hoped, but comes back with something he did not expect, something that influences the events in the book to some extent and will no doubt affect the course of future Hawke novels.
From there, PHANTOM proceeds on two somewhat divergent tracks. A very deadly Russian secret society is out to eliminate Hawke once and for all, and has the money and manpower to do so. Hawke has his friends, his money, and…well, he’s Hawke. If you are laying down money, bet on him. There is a much bigger threat that he faces, along with the entire world. A series of bizarre incidents are taking place wherein sophisticated computer-operated machinery seems to acquire a life of its own. A Russian submarine is on maneuvers when it torpedoes an American cruise ship, in spite of the best efforts of the Soviet crew to prevent it from doing so; the test presentation of a new Israeli war plane goes horribly wrong; and an American missile silo in Alaska is seemingly attacked by UFOs, with disastrous results.
Meanwhile, experts in the field of Artificial Intelligence around the world are suddenly meeting bad ends, all seemingly at their own hands. The common denominator of all these events is a man known as Darius, who was one of the principals in what was known as the Perseus Project. Darius has developed Perseus on his own, but the creator is coming to realize that the creation is slowly slipping from his control. To put it another way, the student has surpassed the teacher, and the world as we know it may come to an end. Hawke, of course, has a plan and a means by which to carry it out. But he has never encountered a foe quite so powerful, and recognizes all too soon that he may have met an adversary he can barely understand, much less conquer.
Bell’s work puts one in the mind of a collaboration between Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler, though his books are a bit more character-driven. But that is not to say that PHANTOM or any of his other novels lacks for action. There is plenty to make the heart race here, and his masterful pacing causes pages to turn at lightning speed. Oh, and don’t miss the afterword. While currently a work of fiction, it may not be for too much longer. Read it while it’s still an entertainment.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 6, 2012