Book Review: Craig Thomas’ Winter Hawk

Nader Elhefnawy
5 min readMay 17, 2024

By 1987 Craig Thomas had been putting out his thrillers annually for a decade — by which point most genre authors working at such a pace are getting less innovative, and more likely to repeat themselves. Thomas’ Winter Hawk was certainly consistent with that tendency to repetition. A second sequel to his 1977 thriller Firefox, it once again had Western intelligence officials alarmed by a Soviet aerospace breakthrough threatening the global balance of military power sending Mitchell Gant sneaking into the Soviet Union on a mission taking advantage of both his flying skills and his Russian language skills in which he is expected to escape the Soviet Union in a stolen Soviet aircraft. In its repetition of earlier themes Winter Hawk, one might add, reused elements of other non-Mitchell Gant, but still “Aubreyverse,” work, specifically the plot of Thomas’ earlier and less well-known novel Snow Falcon (1979), in which, just as in this book, the civilian leadership of the Soviet Union is making a historic arms control agreement with the West and a Soviet military establishment firmly opposed to the concessions the agreement entails is plotting to sabotage it with a grand display of Soviet military power — with the power struggle inside the Soviet establishment, down to the activities of the Soviet counter-spies looking to stop the subversion, comprising as great a part of the narrative as the doings of the Western agent who is the story’s hero. (There even seems a parallel in the titles, both of them two-word titles which are the names of birds of prey, with the first word in their name specifically evoking the coldest season of the year.) The difference here is that the Soviet military’s stroke will not occur on Earth, but in space — Thomas in this book seizing on the then-fashionable theme of the Strategic Defense Initiative a year before Clancy’s The Cardinal of the Kremlin and Dale Brown’s Silver Tower with a scenario in which the Soviets plan to have in orbit a constellation of laser-armed battle stations able to completely neutralize the West’s strategic capability.

The result is a much more “big picture”-oriented, and lengthy, narrative than either the original Firefox (tightly focused on Gant’s sneaking into the Soviet Union to steal the titular jet in the first half, and in the second flying his stolen plane out), or the 1982 sequel Firefox Down (a combination of man-on-the-run story and salvage job) — the book at 525 pages in the original hardback edition nearly twice the length of the first (288-page) Gant novel.

Meanwhile, as might be guessed from the sheer mass of the book, the number of years which Thomas had been writing, and for that matter the precedent on his more relevant preceding works (like, besides Snow Falcon, 1981’s submarine thriller Sea Leopard), the result is less than perfectly even. Like many a maturing author Thomas increasingly inclined to prolixity, and indeed became prone to overwriting, in this case to the point of producing unnecessary incidents, written up lengthily. Exemplary of this is an early episode in which the transport aircraft delivering the two Hind helicopters that Gant and his colleagues will be using in the mission (entering Soviet-controlled airspace by way of Afghanistan, they are supposed to pick up a defector with key intelligence about the Soviet military space program from a safe house outside its great complex at Baikonur) runs into trouble far short of the launch point for the mission in Pakistan. It serves no purpose plot-wise, laying no groundwork for anything that happens later, and mainly ends up dragging things out by throwing an additional obstacle in the heroes’ way, one which further suffers from lacking the dramatic interest of enemy action. (One can say for it is that it helps establish how when faced with problems of that kind Gant displays considerable independence, daring, practical ingenuity, though in fairness that becomes apparent in more dramatic ways soon enough, so that again, Thomas fails to justify its inclusion.) At the same time, if some bits are unnecessary other elements that seem necessary appear to have been left out — with Thomas’ relation of the Soviet side of the intrigue not so much drawing to a conclusion by the story’s close as stopping after Gant’s fate has been made clear. (What ever happened to KGB Colonel Dimitri Priabin after the dramatic events earlier in the book, and the two preceding it? We never find out here.) One wonders about other aspects of the continuity, too, with, even as Thomas makes heavy use of some aspects of the prior books (like Priabin and his desire for revenge against Gant), others are totally neglected. (In this Aubreyverse novel not a word is spoken about Kenneth Aubrey, or British intelligence and its role in Gant’s prior missions; while we also do not hear a word about the Firefox fighter Gant risked his life to steal and the revolutionary engine, stealth and neural control technologies, let alone see a single Firefox in the air as Gant crosses through so much of Soviet airspace with the Soviet air force determinedly hunting him down.)

One may also add that Thomas’ research into his subject did not seem to get much more thorough over the years. (To cite one of the more obvious failings here Thomas seems to think that helicopters carry air search radars as a matter of course, and includes them in models of helicopter where they are most certainly not installed as a matter of course — and that aircraft radars as a matter of course provide the 360 degree coverage provided by ground-based radar.) However, from the standpoint of pure reading experience it may be more important that Thomas did get better at sustaining suspenseful scenes, and writing spectacular action, as simply the distance between the first and second Firefox novels shows (the aerial battle opening the second book far outdoes anything in the first), while if Thomas can be very good with the on-the-ground part of the adventure, he also benefits from keeping Gant in the cockpit of his aircraft for as much of the adventure as possible. Those early troubles getting the helicopters into place apart, just about everything to do with this part of the story works, and works well, with, if one does not nit-pick the technical details, Thomas here second to none at bringing together technology and aerial action with a measure of literary flair — and this extending to characterization, with it mattering both that Mitchell Gant is far more compelling than the Jack Ryans and others who headline most techno-thrillers, and that in characterizing the Soviets as well Thomas by this point has come a long way from the Cold War caricature of the Soviet figures on which he earlier relied to present them as actual human beings leading human lives. The result is that while this book remains an action-adventure-oriented thriller first and foremost Thomas manages to wring some human drama out of his premise. His strength on both scores means that in spite of its shortcomings Winter Hawk actually proved to be the strongest of the three Mitchell Gant novels overall-and one of the richer and more robust works to come out of the techno-thriller genre’s ‘80s-era boom.

Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.