In West Point cadet lore, a spirit mission is an illegal or unauthorized one that needs to be carried out for moral reasons.
The first novel by Russ, a West Point graduate and Army helicopter pilot, follows cadet Sam Avery on two such missions, 15 years apart. The first is a senior-year prank to steal the Naval Academy’s goat mascot before a football game. The second, deadlier mission is to rescue a fellow graduate who’s been captured by the Islamic State group in Iraq; they have 24 hours to reach him before he’s going to be beheaded. The two connected stories are told in alternate chapters. A key figure in both stories is an upperclassman known as the Guru. At West Point he’s a mentor to Sam and his company, a soldier who flouts authority, listens to the Grateful Dead, and instigates the goatnapping. In Iraq he’s in charge of a humanitarian operation before his capture. The flashbacks follow Sam’s West Point experience, from his “plebe” year as a hazed freshman, through the death of a classmate and his growing commitment to his company. They also explain why he needs to attempt the Guru’s rescue, while the Army prefers to avoid the risk. The West Point chapters prove the most compelling, turning this from a straight adventure story to a deeper psychological study of military school and its rites of passage. The narrative only bogs down in parts of the rescue mission, which reveal more about the mechanics of a Chinook helicopter than most civilians would ever want to know.
Russ proves adept at spinning a fast-moving yarn with believable, three-dimensional characters.