Sniper's Honor: A Bob Lee Swagger Novel
SNIPER’S HONOR does not fit comfortably into genre classification. Rather, it straddles the line between historical military fiction and contemporary thriller, chock full of elements of both.
Author Stephen Hunter, as he has over the last few Bob Lee Swagger novels, confronted head-on what I call the “Dondi” factor. Those of age and long memories will remember “Dondi,” a comic strip named after an orphaned refugee from World War II’s Western front who was adopted by an American GI. In 1960, Dondi was known as the world’s only seven-year-old who remembered the 1940s. Similarly, Swagger, a veteran of the Vietnam War and seasoned forever by combat, must age or be abandoned as he enters the 21st century. Hunter has found a way to make him both viable and realistic. Is he slower? Yes, but he still retains the deadly skill set and knowledge of the sniper he was and continues to be.
"All of Stephen Hunter’s books are memorable in their own ways and for their own reasons, and SNIPER’S HONOR is no exception."
That being said, when Swagger makes his first appearance in SNIPER’S HONOR, he is in danger of succumbing to an old soldier’s deadliest threat: boredom. This is alleviated soon enough when he is contacted by a long-time friend, reporter Kathy Reilly, the Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post. What begins as a question about a rifle soon evolves into a discussion about a team of female snipers who saw action with the Russian Army in World War II during the German invasion. One of the women in particular is intriguing. She is a deadly and beautiful sharpshooter named Ludmilla “Mili” Petrova. While the other female snipers were well documented, Mili seems to have disappeared from the records, with no mention of her at all after mid-1944.Swagger is intrigued, and within a couple of weeks finds himself in Moscow to join Reilly in her research. They retrace the grim history of the Russian and German conflict, where the Russians met frightening weapons with their overwhelming numbers and great personal sacrifice.
The narrative goes back and forth in time between the present and 1944, rotating among several characters in the past --- from officers high in the German and Russian government and military to Russian partisans and members of German special forces teams, including the Islamic officers who were so crucial to Hitler in the implementation not only of his war effort but also of his chillingly titled “Final Solution.” And, through the narrative, the reader comes to meet and know Mili herself, who is sent on a suicide mission that results in both the German and Russian armies pursuing her with orders to shoot on sight. Acting on few known facts, instinct and supposition, Swagger and Reilly slowly but inexorably approach the truth concerning Mili’s ultimate fate.
Meanwhile, a seemingly unconnected storyline in the present slowly moves toward intersection with Swagger and Reilly, as a CIA operative seeking anomalies in the financial markets uncovers a slender transactional thread that leads back to Swagger’s own investigation and a thrilling conclusion.
All of Stephen Hunter’s books are memorable in their own ways and for their own reasons, and SNIPER’S HONOR is no exception. His up-close and personal description of the realities of war are graphic, though hardly gratuitous. From the description of the weapons used to the trajectory of arterial spray, he presents the grim reality of what is involved in getting the grimmest and most necessary of jobs done, and who is involved in doing them, regardless of what uniform they wear. End it with a conclusion that is unexpectedly heartwarming (and will remain so, even with that heads-up I just gave you), and you have one of Hunter’s most satisfying novels to date.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 30, 2014