4 out of 4 stars
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Sub-Sahara is a military action thriller by Ethan Arkwright. Rebecca Grainger and her team of archaeologists are exploring ancient ruins buried in the sands of the Sahara Desert. Radio communication from her base warns her of an approaching "super hurricane" with winds of up to 250 miles per hour. With only hours to find shelter and few viable options, she and her crew head deeper into the structure below the sand, terrified they might end up buried or suffocate when their oxygen runs out. Once the storm passes, they find a way out, discovering most of the sand outside blown away by the intense winds. Beneath it, previously hidden, is an ancient city built around a shiny silver pyramid, the likes of which they have never seen. Once Rebecca informs billionaire Sir Henry Stratton of their find, he calls in a few favours, dispatching a team of soldiers to secure the energy source that is emitting strong radiation from inside the pyramid. The unit, led by former British Army major and SAS captain James Cavill, flies out toward the site in a Russian Antonov, accompanied by civilian scientists Kate Edwards, Chris Watkins, and Matt Hayden. But the word is out, and Cavill's team are not the only ones hastening to the Sahara. Also in the race are the military of both Niger and the US, along with other private teams like themselves, highly trained mercenaries ready to kill Cavill and his team on sight...
Arkwright's prose was neatly edited and easy to read. For example: "Cavill came in sight of the people in the rear of the plane. There was an expanding bright light as the back door went down. The wind swirled in the confined space." Another example of strong, intelligent writing was when a character got shot and "looked in confusion at his chest and the blossom of red that was flowering around his heart." This was a great description of the spreading blood from a gunshot: simple and elegant. The story was compelling right from the start, with plenty of fear, tension, and excitement. Its short paragraphs and chapters made it a quick, addictive read. The plot moved forward at a hectic pace, making for an action-packed book with plenty of surprises for the protagonists, few of which were good. People regularly died in genuine combat situations, which were powerful and gripping to read. Arkwright's approach to the random unpredictability of military violence was also realistic, with casualties on both sides, which meant I genuinely didn't know who would and would not survive.
The gritty realism of Sub-Sahara was a genuine strength. In addition to the planned mayhem of the mercenaries involved, the plot also included a few "chance" events that caused issues for Cavill's team and the archaeologists they found at the pyramid. None of the events depicted struck me as far-fetched, and character behaviour seemed just as authentic and believable. The reactions of the archaeologists to the dire situation of the approaching storm were, as expected, confusion, anger, and fear. This fear also manifested itself in occasional black humour, such as when Rebecca Grainger asked for suggestions on how to avoid the storm and someone said: "Make a big bowl of Kool-Aid." In addition, characters of certain nationalities fit expected speech patterns, such as a Russian pilot whose English missed off articles like "a" and "the," as in: "We are small company." The dialogue from the soldiers and civilians was also realistic. Similarly, the actions of Cavill and his team were thorough and professional, including checking identification for anyone else arriving on site. Also, though they were "the good guys," they were also, as soldier Cornell told Kate Edwards, trained killers. Arkwright made it clear that to mess with these men or jeopardise their mission would make anyone an instant target.
The author included a countdown timer at the beginning of certain chapters, quoting hours, minutes, and seconds "to Endgame." This gave a real sense of impending doom and had me looking forward to the climactic scenes, anticipating either a huge battle between opposing forces or the unleashing of something insane from inside the pyramid. If anything, I would have liked to see a few more instances of this countdown timer to further build the tension; it only appeared sparsely throughout the book. Arkwright's research for this book appeared spot-on, too, with a clear knowledge of military equipment, weapons, and tactics. The last scenes were strong with some genuine twists and ingenious work by certain characters to reach their goals. At around 300 pages, this book was also a good length, particularly with it packed full of action scenes. I'm sure some people would argue the case for a romantic subplot or similar, but there was honestly no room or time for one. Frankly, it would have seemed patently ridiculous for two characters to get together amid the extremes of all the blood, sand, and small-scale military battles, where it was hard enough just to survive.
Sub-Sahara had a few minor typographical errors, usually a single missing word, but not enough to drop its rating. I found nothing else to dislike about this book, and therefore award it 4 out of 4 stars. It was a quality story in every respect: action, intrigue, realism, research, and strong characters. I knew it was a 4-star book from early on and my opinion did not change in the slightest. I truly believe that anyone who likes action thrillers, particularly military thrillers, will love this book. Those with an interest in archaeology may also enjoy it; just be aware that, due to the extreme nature of the story, it does contain profanity and a lot of strong violence. Other than that, it's a ripper of a tale which I can't recommend highly enough.
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