Review: Hunter Killer by David Poyer

World War with China explodes in Hunter Killer, David Poyer's powerful, all-too-believable novel about how the next world war might unfold.

This novel is full of movement and the chaos of wartime. As a result, it’s difficult to write about, but at its most basic, it follows the storylines of five people: Dan Lenson, Admiral, USN; Teddy Oberg, POW and Navy SEAL; Cheryl Staurulakis, Commander, USN; Hector Ramos, recruit/Marine, USMC; and Blair Titus, military advisor, Washington, D.C.

The book opens with Captain Lenson being summoned to a Naval command bunker on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The United States is at war with China. Country after country is falling to the People’s Republic, and the U.S. has had some crushing losses—including the vaporization of an entire U.S. Battle Group by a nuclear warhead.

Poyer adds some insider humor to the opening scene with a little inter-service swipe at the Army, “Dan nodded to Army personnel—they tended to sulk if ignored in passageways—but didn’t to Navy or Air Force unless they greeted him first.” Poyer’s series, after all, celebrates the Navy and Marine Corps. Oohrah! But I digress.

At this initial meeting, Dan receives a temporary promotion to admiral and is given command of a joint U.S. and South Korean naval force. He’s tasked with clearing a path through the Pacific Ocean to keep channels open for the execution of U.S. battle plans and supply chains. The Pacific is crawling with Chinese submarines, and enemy warplanes are close at hand as the U.S. fleet and her allies limp along.

After leaving Pearl Harbor, Dan chooses to lead his new task group from aboard his old ship, the USS Savo Island, which is now captained by Dan’s former executive officer, Cheryl Staurulakis. When we first meet Staurulakis, she’s inspecting the progress of repairs on the battle damaged Savo Island. She’s wearing smart glasses that flash repair updates in the lenses as she looks at various repair points on the ship. This is just the first of many high-tech tools Poyer includes.

There are some riveting battle scenes that show just how physical, bloody, and horrifying modern naval warfare is. Yet, much of modern naval warfare is no longer driven by “the brawn of burly ammunition loaders and the sharp eyes of gunnery officers.” Instead, “Networked algorithms would fight this battle at speeds no human could match.” 

Indeed, I didn’t understand much of the technical terminology of the great nautical battle scenes, but that did not take away from the tension that Poyer creates.

“Building up to peak power,” Wenck said. “We’re gonna synchronize pulses, ten hertz, then vary the PRR and see if we can set up a harmonic.”

Dan wasn’t sure what that meant, and didn’t care. He was more worried over the fact that they were deep in the danger area, yet hadn’t made a single contact, or glimpsed as much as a periscope.

Even if the admiral doesn’t know what some things are, we readers just need to strap ourselves in for a thrilling read from the capable mind of Mr. Poyer.

The closest storyline to Dan’s is that of his wife, Blair Titus. She is a military strategist in Washington, D.C. At the opening of the novel, she’s coming off of a failed political campaign. Her storyline gives a behind-the-scenes look at the work done by lawmakers and military leadership to monitor current battlefield situations, respond to developments, and create long-term strategies. With modern warfare, the stakes are high and climbing higher all the time. Due to China’s recent nuclear strike, the world itself is at stake. As Blair says to one incredulous person at a briefing:

“Every war brings technologies forward,” Blair told him. “Bombing aircraft were a fantasy in 1913. Atomic weapons were science fiction in 1939. Now, instead of teams of human hackers or code breakers, we’ll have two massive programs locked in combat in cyberspace. And whichever wins, I’m sorry to say, may determine the course of this war, whatever we do on the ground.”

From the high stakes of commanding a fleet at sea and higher-level strategy in D.C., there are two ground-level storylines that are just as engaging.

The first is that of Navy SEAL Teddy Oberg, who—along with some fellow inmates—escapes from a brutal POW work camp at the beginning of the novel. Much of his story is about the trek he and his mates attempt through the mountains somewhere near the China-Afghanistan border. Teddy’s experience, no doubt, sets up what will be some ISIS-related action in the next Dan Lenson novel.

The second ground-combat storyline is that of Hector Ramos, a former chicken-factory worker who is forced to enlist in the Marines. He’s apparently an undocumented worker. Hector’s story stretches from the chicken factory to boot camp on Parris Island to a turd-shaped island somewhere in the Pacific that the Marines are sent to take.

The action of each storyline is enhanced by gender issues that are presented in situationally appropriate ways. It’s obvious that writers who want to create realistic modern military novels cannot ignore gender issues as the U.S. military continues to grapple with ensuring women and LGBT members are treated with respect and equality. It’s great to see a character like the high-ranking Commander Cheryl Staurulakis have the full confidence of her superiors, but it's also awkward to read about a Navy SEAL fantasizing about roasting a female guard’s breasts.

Overall, there are shades of hope in this novel for gender and LGBT equality. In one scene, when Hector and his buddy are lining up to get off base for liberty, they start talking with two fellow Marines. At first, he can’t decipher their gender:

Hector felt awkward not knowing how to address him, or her. Or, wait, “them,” Coreguage had said. She could be gay. Or transgender—there’d been some transgender recruits at Parris Island. But they were all marines, and they got acquainted while they stood in line, and pretty soon it was understood they were going to be libo [liberty] buddies.

It was refreshing that this lack of clear gender assignment ends up not being a big deal. It’s exciting that Poyer not only presents the latest in weaponry but also attempts to portray the social and personnel issues that the military is currently working to better.

I’ve been looking for a new-to-me nautical thriller, and David Poyer’s Hunter Killer hits the spot. It’s a fast-moving novel with no tidy plot resolutions—the hatches are left wide open for most of these characters to step into the next book in the series.

Read an excerpt from Hunter Killer!


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Chris Wolak is an avid reader of crime fiction, history, and classics. She writes about books at and is the cohost of the podcast Book Cougars. You can also find her on Twitter @chriswolak.


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