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The Minotaur by Stephen Coonts Doubleday 436 pages, $19.95.
TOM CLANCY'S best-selling high-tech/spy novels have inspired many emulators, of whom Stephen Coonts is inarguably the best. If this weren't clear after Coonts' "Final Flight" and "Flight of the Intruder," all doubts are removed by "The Minotaur," his new suspense effort.

A smooth meld of aerial thriller and international espionage, it's a cleverly conceived, cunningly executed story about the U.S. Navy's attempt to develop a stealth attack bomber and a Soviet attempt to steal the plane's secrets through a network of mole agents within the American defense establishment.

Coonts brings to his novels the highest credentials, more impressive even than "insider" Clancy's. Unlike Clancy, Coonts was "there" -- in the cockpit of Navy bombers over Vietnam, learning firsthand about men at war, sky combat and the design and performance of military aircraft. His service career also acquainted him intimately with the Navy establishment, and clearly exposed him to a great deal of information about the machinery of military intelligence.

All this internal knowledge would count for little, however, were Coonts not blessed with a storytelling magic. His narrative ability, particularly in the flying sequences, is stunning.

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