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Onyx reviews: Mutually Assured Destruction by Nancy MacLean

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 2000

An intruder alert at Volk Field, Wisconsin, in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, erroneously caused fighter jets armed with nuclear missiles to prepare to take off. In our timeline, a commanding officer was able to stop the launch. In Nancy MacLean's alternate history, the planes take off, precipitating a nuclear conflict. The Soviet Union and most of the eastern North America are destroyed. China steps in to become the sole world power in the aftermath. The weakened New America is on the brink of collapse from China's blockade.

In 2011, a group of desperate American scientists acquires time travel technology from Japan. Their inaugural mission is to send someone back in time to prevent the events that led to nuclear war. The Chinese, learning of the American plan, send assassin Kuon Ko back to preserve the timeline.

When Agent Ken O'Neil arrives in 1962, the first thing he encounters is a car sinking to the bottom of a river. After his attempt to rescue the driver fails, he awakens in a hospital with a profound case of amnesia. He knows that he is on an important mission, but can remember none of the details.

Ken finds money and an ad for a history teacher position in Mauston, Wisconsin hidden in the lining of his jacket. With this as his only guide, he boards a bus for Mauston, a quaint Midwestern town where news travels faster than electricity and a stranger in town immediately becomes the center of attention. Ken takes a boarding room with an acerbic widow, Mrs. Lacey, and interviews for the teaching position. Partly because he has gained the trust of Mrs. Lacey, the school principal hires him conditionally, in spite of the fact that he has no resume, only one reference and no recollection of his own history.

Ken meets fellow teacher, Lou Jensen, who lost her husband in the Korean War, and the two begin a tentative relationship. Her brother-in-law, Steve, the town sheriff, takes an immediate and strong disliking to Ken, regarding him with the deep suspicion of an overprotective relative, as well as that of a law enforcement officer. Lou's son, Matt, is also concerned about his mother and wary of Ken.

Ken's memory returns to him only in small chunks. He knows that he is out of his normal time element -- his first indication of this is the absurdly low cost for lunch at a local diner. He remembers things like microwaves that have not yet been invented and he knows the words to a song the first time it is ever played on the radio. His mission, though, continues to elude him.

Kuon Ko, on the other hand, arrives in the past without any memory impairment. He knows what Ken is trying to do even though Ken does not. Ko intends to keep Ken from stopping the air launch at Volk Field.

The prologue of "M.A.D." reads like heavy science fiction, describing the events of a failed time travel experiment, but from chapter one onward, the book is a charming suspense story. The developing relationship between Lou and Ken is sweet, funny and romantic. MacLean builds the suspense carefully, creating multi-centered tension involving Ken, Lou, Sheriff Jensen and the Chinese assassin. Ken's anachronistic memories, a cornerstone of any time travel novel, are handled with wit and creativity. The climax is taut and compelling.

Nancy MacLean, a member of the Woodlands Writers Guild, self-published "Mutually Assured Destruction." The book can be purchased via her web site at www.macleanbooks.com or via amazon.com.

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