The Devil’s Waters

  • David L. Robbins
  • Thomas and Mercer
  • 441 pp

On a freighter off the coast of Somalia, a pirate encounters more than he expected when he finds an Air Force para-rescue team on board. Reviewed by Tom Young

Reviewed by Tom Young

When Air Force para-rescuemen fast-rope from a helicopter to the deck of a freighter off the coast of Somalia, they expect a routine mission. An engine explosion has hurt two sailors, and the para-rescue jumpers, or PJs as they are called, represent the nearest medical help. But soon the PJs, based in Djibouti, find themselves facing piracy and international intrigue.

Too often, military thrillers depict unbelievable heroes vanquishing cardboard villains. Not so with The Devil’s Waters by David L. Robbins. Robbins, who teaches creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Honors College, has drawn his characters with the craftsmanship of a literary novelist.

One of the PJs stays behind on the crippled freighter Valnea to watch over a badly burned sailor. In the meantime, a Somali pirate chief, Yusuf Raage, plots to capture the ship. Raage takes the job at the urging of a Muslim militia leader, and only after he is on board does the pirate learn that the vessel is carrying super-sensitive cargo. The para-rescue team gets orders to free the Valnea within hours — or the U.S. military will blow it up, along with their colleague and all the hostages.

In the hands of a less skilled author, the pirate Raage would become a soul-less demon. How much empathy can one have for a pirate? However, Robbins sets his heroes against a thoughtful adversary who lives by his own internal set of ethics. Raage does not hesitate to kill when he wants to make a point. But he spills no more blood than he feels is necessary, and he harbors intense loyalty to tribe and family: “Yusuf considered his own two cousins and his clansmen, waiting. He knew their poverty because he’d shared it, and he’d ended it.”

Using the ticking clock and life-and-death stakes, Robbins keeps the tension high throughout. Amid the action, he provides descriptions that border on poetry: “Far below the rail, in the faint light, phosphorus twinkled in the foaming wake.” Note the alliteration. An author does not just toss off a line like that; he puts some thought into it. He respects his readers enough to give them his best effort.

Robbins also takes care with the motivations of his PJs. Though para-rescuemen hone their combat skills to a fine edge, they self-select into a job that is about saving life, not taking it. Robbins’ main characters, like their real-world counterparts, kill when they must, but they do not relish it.

In the book’s acknowledgments, Robbins describes how he researched The Devil’s Waters. He sailed on a freighter, visited para-rescue units, even traveled to Djibouti. His hard work paid off with an accurate portrayal of PJs and their missions. Insiders, however, will note some minor errors. One of the main characters holds the rank of “first sergeant.” That is an Army rank. In the Air Force, first sergeant is not a rank but a job title, and that job can be held by noncommissioned officers in the grades of E-7, E-8 or E-9. Also, on occasion Robbins refers to PJs generically as “soldiers.” In military lingo, a soldier is someone in the Army. A para-rescueman is a PJ, an airman, perhaps even a commando, but not a soldier. Those glitches take little away from an otherwise well crafted novel.

Readers of The Devil’s Waters will lift off on the thrill ride they expect of this genre. But they will also get nuanced storytelling, and they will learn about a corner of the U.S. military not often portrayed in fiction. The publisher bills the novel as a “USAF Pararescue Thriller, Book 1.” That, of course, implies the beginning of a series, and Robbins is off to a good start.

Tom Young is the author of the novels The Renegades, Silent Enemy and The Mullah’s Storm, all set in the Afghanistan war. His newest novel, The Warriors, will be published in July 2013. Young is an Air National Guard veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and a former writer and editor for the broadcast division of the Associated Press. Visit his website at

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