Review: “Zero Hour” By Clive Cussler & Graham Brown (Novel)

Well, although I had mixed views about the first Clive Cussler novel I read, I was gripped enough by it to give another Cussler book a try.

This time, I followed the exact opposite of the decision-making process I’d used when choosing to read “Iceberg” first. In other words, I chose one of the most modern Cussler books in the pile of charity shop books I had that also included a co-writer too. It was a wise decision. Anyway, the book in question is “Zero Hour” from 2013.

But, even if I hadn’t followed the decision making process I mentioned earlier, the cover art is certainly attention-grabbing enough. Not only does it include the classic “action movie poster” blue & orange colour scheme, but it also includes ultra-dramatic cover art of the type that books really don’t use often enough these days.

So, let’s take a look at “Zero Hour”. Needless to say, this review will contain some mild SPOILERS.

This is the 2014 Penguin (UK) paperback edition of “Zero Hour” that I read.

After a mysterious opening chapter involving a scientific accident in a cave in California sometime during 1906, the novel jumps forward to 2009 where two ships are caught in a storm. A large tug is towing a dilapidated cruise ship for salvage. However, due to the stormy conditions, the tug is forced to jettison the cruise ship, condemning it’s skeleton crew to a watery grave.

Four years later, a prisoner is trying to escape from some kind of terrifying underwater base. Someone on the outside is providing help from a distance, but the prisoner barely makes it out of the airlock alive. However, the swift ascent to the surface gives him a severe case of the bends. Luckily though, help is nearby and he is bundled onto a vehicle before his pursuers find him.

Meanwhile, Kurt Austin – special projects director for the US National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) is in Australia attending a dull conference at the Sydney Opera House. Coming up with an excuse, he manages to sneak out.

Although Kurt plans to spend the day on the beach, he meets a mysterious woman outside the Opera House. As they talk, Kurt notices a speedboat on the river nearby heading towards them. Not only that, it is being chased by a helicopter. Someone in the helicopter is shooting at the boat. Needless to say, Kurt springs into action and the story begins to get going…Oh, did I mention that this description only covers the first thirty pages?

One of the first things that I will say about “Zero Hour” is… wow! This is a thriller novel!

It’s a brilliant modern equivalent of 1990s action movies like “Broken Arrow” (with maybe a few hints of “Die Hard” too). It has all of the sweeping drama and high-octane thrills of a Matthew Reilly novel, but with much better writing. It is as gripping as a good Lee Child novel, but with a much larger special effects budget and faster pacing. It is the kind of book that begs you to binge-read it. And this is never a bad thing.

Modernity and the addition of a co-writer have worked wonders for this book. Normally, I’m sceptical about co-writing, but it has worked here! Not only is the writing much snappier than the old 1970s Cussler novel (“Iceberg”) I read a few days earlier, but the characters are a lot more well-written too. In addition to this, Cussler has matured well as a writer and his co-writer has obviously spent quite a while honing his craft too.

Although you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation here, the cast of characters all have decent personalities, backstories and motivations. They seem more like very well-written movie characters than two-dimensional cartoon characters (unlike in “Iceberg”).

Likewise, although Kurt is the hero of the book, he’s nothing without a team of allies (including a couple of familiar characters like Pitt and Sandecker).

Earlier, I mentioned that this novel reminded me of 1990s action movies and this is one of the reasons why. One of the things that made 1990s action movies so great is that they often relied on teams of characters, rather than individualistic superheroes. This lends the story a greater degree of realism and allows for more complex and interesting drama too.

Another thing I love about 1990s action movies is that they are imaginative. Since they couldn’t use the Cold War or the War on Terror for topical inspiration, the writers had to come up with creative storylines. And, although this novel is from 2013, it fits into this tradition perfectly. Although I don’t want to spoil anything major, I’ll just say that the underlying story of this book would be right at home in a Pierce Brosnan “James Bond” film or in a Hollywood action movie from 1996. And this is awesome.

The novel’s settings are absolutely spectacular too. Not only do we get to spend time in rural and urban Australia, but there are also islands, sci-fi horror novel-style secret bases and treacherous seas too. All of these places are used for spectacularly thrilling set-pieces – with the best probably being an utterly gripping “Die Hard”-style scene set on board a train.

And, yes, “Die Hard” is a good comparison to make. Because one of the great things about this novel is that the characters often have to rely on their brains rather than on their guns or fists. Seriously, many of the best and most thrilling scenes in this novel aren’t when Kurt is punching or shooting someone, but when doing such a thing isn’t an option.

Not only are these scenes an intriguing puzzle for the reader (eg: “How will Kurt get out of this alive?”) but they also allow for some of the novel’s funniest moments too (such as one involving a NUMA vessel intercepting a cargo ship). Seriously, anyone can write about gunfights or fistfights, but it takes a lot more skill to thrill the audience by putting the characters in situations where these aren’t practical.

And, yes, the novel occasionally has a few contrived moments. But this doesn’t matter since you’ll be so swept up in the story, that you’ll probably just shrug them off because you’ll want to know what happens next. And, yes, even though this novel does seem like an elaborately constructed theme park ride or a symphony performed with mechanical perfection, this doesn’t matter because it is fun.

All in all, this is basically all of the great action movies of the 1990s in book form. It’s an incredibly fun modern novel that is better than many multi-million dollar films. It is a textbook example of a thriller novel performed to perfection. It’s the sort of thing that demands to be read in blissfully exhausting two-hour chunks, with some old-school heavy metal music playing in the background.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

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