Book review: Skull Dance by Gerd Balke

A new thriller examines the reality of the Cold War and the subsequent "process" of de-nuclearisation…

When a region is de-nuclearised, are the WMDs destroyed as people are led to believe or are they just used to turn another region nuclear?
Can a terrorist organisation hold a nation hostage; to the extent it would be willing to launch a nuclear attack to save itself?

Are the WMDs of one country a threat to itself instead of protection?

Should the defence personnel of a country follow orders from their superiors blindly, irrespective of the consequences?

Gerd Balke asks and answers all these questions in his first-class thriller, Skull Dance.

Christian Ramsdorf is an East German military man who has seen life on both sides of the Berlin Wall.

He has a loose affiliation with the British secret service. With the collapse of Soviet Union, he becomes a freelancer, using his knowledge in military armaments to make ends meet in the new global economy and finds himself thrown into an Indian prison when his smuggling plans fail.

His cellmate for several years is Kumar, an Indian who makes Christian introspect on his life and his job.

Just when Christian manages to escape prison, re-join Kumar and things in his life seem to settle down, the British secret service re-activates its contact with Christian for it needs him desperately.

The United Kingdom is held hostage by terrorists - it can either nuke another country or be nuked. What does Downing Street, British military and Christian do?

Sweeping from the blazing, colourful desert inhabitants of Rajasthan, India to the arms brokers in the numbing cold of Siberia, from the panicked prime minister's Office in London to the distraught, confused British officers of the nuclear submarine in the Indian Ocean, Balke weaves a web of intrigue, humanity and suspense that makes you wonder - Will ordinary people find it in themselves to do the right thing when threatened with destruction?

Gerd Balke passed away before his book, Skull Dance, was published.

Born in post WW2 Germany, he was an engineer-author who had travelled the world and eventually fell in love in Hong Kong and settled down. He was one of the founding members of the Hong Kong Writers' Circle and has other novels to his credit.

Balke was a pacifist who had a license to handle explosives!

Though fictitious, what is unique about this mesmerizing book is that the scenario he presents is very real and wholly passable for today's world.

It is insightful and the perspective is both refreshing and startling. What would you do if you were faced with such a threat? Would you be willing to kill innocent millions of another country to save your own people? Would you be even willing to contemplate such a situation let alone answer the question?

The tone and style of the book can at best be described as humanitarian in nature. There are no bad or good guys in the story but real people faced with difficult choices and the readiness to do anything to survive. It is completely unlike anything ever written before by the likes of Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Robert Ludlum or Irving Wallace.

Considering the present muddled global scenario, Skull Dance delivers a startling dose of reality to all of us who have a "problem is out there" mentality.

Does democracy really mean anything when you have a virtual gun held against your head? Aren't stated policies of "no negotiation with terrorists" just for mass consumption when the head of state is forced to choose between killing several innocent millions of another country so that he can save his own country? Are we really safe in a nuclear world?

According to Balke, most of us would rather choose not to know as it helps preserve our own perceived moral high ground and state of blissful ignorance.

But the author challenges us to introspect whether this is the state we would really want to be in for eventually we are all responsible for the atrocities committed in our name by our elected representatives.

Before judging others, Balke suggests we judge ourselves first and hopes our humanism and compassion will triumph over our reactive instinct to survive.

Skull Dance is not only a fast-paced suspense thriller but a haunting book rooted in realism.

Through this book, the author manages to live on.

If you plan on reading just one book this year, this should be it.