Review: Forgotten Ruin

Forgotten Ruin

A lot of books are what I call “median 51%”, middle of the road stuff that’s perfectly fine to read but which can be hard to actually review well. Then there’s Jason Anspach and Nick Cole’s Forgotten Ruin. I can hardly think of a better example of a “Mean 51%” book. The means a work of fiction that does some things very well and others-not so much. This kind of book can both be disappointing and engaging, and perfect to critique.

Since its magic-vs-technology, fantasy-vs-firepower conflict is music to my ears, I knew I had to check it out. So how was it?

From the start, it’s written in first-person, which I consider suboptimal for thrillers. But this isn’t a deal-breaker. A lot of the characters are one-note stereotypes and the main narrator comes across as a macho ass. But that’s not a deal-breaker either.

The bigger dichotomy comes from the worldbuilding and action. To be frank, the worldbuilding doesn’t live up its potential. It puts its modern military heroes in a fantasy world, but then does nothing but stuff it full of generic fantasy creatures. And the contrivances needed to set it up range from “oh, this political reference is really hamfisted and likely will age quickly” to “OH COME ON!”. (What a coincidence the main character is a linguist who just happens to be able to speak all the right languages, which are variations of existing human ones!)

Then there’s the fighting, which is of course the centerpiece of this kind of book. I’m also of two minds on this. On one hand, at times it reminded me of artificial Payday 2 assault waves where masses of enemies just keep charging forward into superior firepower, which is not a good thing. But on the other, there were instances of cleverness and, more importantly, the setup was evenhanded. As I’ve seen way too much fiction where the “primitives” are just tomato cans for the “awesome modern armies”, this was a welcome change.

While I had mixed feelings about this, its premise is good enough and well executed enough to make me want to continue. And it’s the kind of book I really enjoyed thinking about and writing about. And that alone makes it worthwhile to me.

Review: Vati

Vati

R. M. Meluch’s Vati is a short story originally printed in the Alternate Generals anthology and since republished as a standalone ebook. It’s an alternate history with the divergence being Werner Moelders surviving and getting the wunderwaffe into service. Of course, the war still does not end well for Germany, with the Allies turning to something that makes a very, very big boom.

Although written before The Big One, and with likely no cross-pollination, I can’t help but think of Vati as “TBO done right”. Less rivet-counting technical accuracy to be sure, but a far more concise and far more literary way of illustrating the same point-“give the Germans their wunderplanes and see what good it truly does them.” Even without comparisons, this is well worth a read.

The Monster Rocket

I give you the Type 762 rocket launcher, a fairly old and obscure Chinese self-propelled artillery piece. This is well, if you combined a FROG, a TOS-1, and a Giant Viper all into one platform, you’d get this.

From its stated (as always, take with a grain of salt) statistics, it has a pair of very short range (around only a kilometer!) thermobaric rockets (like the TOS-1), that are huge at 425mm diameter (only somewhat thinner than the FROGs) and which are primarily meant for clearing minefields (like the Giant Viper). Although with a rocket that big, I’m guessing that it’ll “clear” more than just land mines in the area it hits.

Truly an oddball.

A Thousand Words: Two For The Money

Two For The Money

2005’s Two For The Money stars Al Pacino and Matthew McConaughey. It is one of the few movies about sports betting, and perhaps the only movie in recent history about sports betting “handicappers” who sell pick advice, or, as they’re known more derogatorily, “touts”. As someone writing my own fiction about touts, I knew I had to watch this film. What did I think about it?

First the plot. McConaughey is an injured college quarterback who goes from playing football games to predicting them. Pacino is a super-tout who values in his skill. The movie chronicles their rise and fall. It’s a classic, predictable narrative. Al Pacino does the stereotypical “Al Pacino Hamfisted Role”, but he does it well. His co-star is more erratic, and not in a good way.

Beyond that, the biggest issue I had was how it misrepresented touts. Now, I was fully expecting and prepared for sports-movie exaggeration (for instance, the way the main character’s picks zoom from great to poor so quickly and consistently). But this goes beyond that, treating the handicappers as sincerely trying to get the right pick and sincerely caring about the outcomes of the games. In reality, nearly all touts don’t.

They make referral deals with sportsbooks, meaning they have a vested interest in their customers losing. They will either cherry-pick or outright lie about their records to make them seem more impressive. And, most notably, they will pull the infamous “give half the callers one team and half the other” trick so that 50% will be ‘winners’. You get the idea. Honestly admitting to the inevitable losing periods doesn’t attract business. Neither does advertising the highest realistic win rate, which less knowledgeable people (ie, the people who’d fall for touts at all) would not consider impressive compared with “79% WIN RATE IN THIS CFB SEASON!”

The thing is, this movie could be equally dramatic, equally exaggerated, and equally able to pull off the “man’s descent into sleaze” plot if it treated its “handicapping” service in this way. There are a few times when it does get the image right, like its spot-on reenactment of over the top sports betting shows/infomercials. But far more often, Two For The Money misses when it didn’t have to. Which is a shame.

Review: Third World War: The Untold Story

Third World War: The Untold Story

It’s very hard for lightning to strike twice. And in Third World War: The Untold Story, John Hackett tried. He did not really succeed. The problem was that much of the appeal of the original came from being the first out of the gate, whereas by 1982 the zeitgeist had clearly shifted. (An obscure and amusing example comes from the line “World War III is drawing near” in the XTC song Generals and Majors, released in 1980).

While possibly unfair to list the earliest instance of a genre as not having held up well over time, I do believe that Hackett’s work has aged the worst of all the few “big-name” conventional WW3 books. It’s earliest, and it’s clearly meant as an explicit lobbying document in a way that the (still-slanted) other works of that nature did not. And this applies far more to a modestly repackaged version released four years after the original. Because that’s what it is.

This is the book equivalent of one of those “remastered special edition” movie DVD releases. There’s a reason why those, even if the underlying film is sound, do not generate nearly as much enthusiasm as the first, novel release.

Review: The Great Martian War: Invasion

The Great Martian War: Invasion

Scott Washburn’s The Great Martian War: Invasion is a fan-sequel to Wells’ classic War of the Worlds, with the Martians returning for more. There is one piece of bad news about this book and one piece of very good news. The bad news is that the execution never progresses beyond “decent”. This book is very Larry Bond-ish in its big scope, and that’s not always a good thing.

But thankfully, the good news makes up for it. Which is to say that the premise of “Theodore Roosevelt, tanks, and 75mm quick-fire guns against Martian tripods” is such a great one that it only needs a decent execution to be a solid, enjoyable novel. And that it is. The military balance is set up in such a great way, having neither the (deliberate) lopsidededness of either the original or Edison’s Conquest Of Mars.

How can you not recommend a book of this nature to any fan of alternate history or classic sci-fi?

Weird Wargaming: T-64 APCs

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When all you have is a bunch of T-64 tanks, everything looks like it could work with a T-64. As it stood, the independent Ukraine inherited a gargantuan number of those tanks after the breakup of the USSR. As the beginning of the Donbass War showed all too vividly, it had very little else. Since the bureau that designed and the plant that built it were also in Ukraine, then… well, the hammer was even more prominent.

So, there’s the BMP-64, essentially an eastern Bradley on a tank platform. It has similar dimensions and a similar role as the famous American IFV (although a lot more dismounts). Note on the same brochure there’s more vehicles on the T-64 chassis and other tanks fitted with infantry compartments. The latter ones I’ve always envisioned as (at least theoretically) being more suited for a western armored cavalry structure. They can do the same things a tank in armored cav units can do, but they also have a few scouts to dismount when need be.

Then there’s the BMP-K-64, using the tank chassis for a wheeled APC. I find it simultaneously weird, interesting, questionable, and somehow impressive. This would be used like any other Stryker/BTR-style wheeled troop carrier, albeit with its thick front armor taken into account.

These desperation-born oddballs are the kind of armored vehicles I have a soft spot for.

Review: The Night Stalker Rescue

The Night Stalker Rescue

Jason Kasper’s The Night Stalker Rescue is a prequel novella (to a series I haven’t yet read) featuring the mission of saving a downed helicopter pilot in an anti-terror operation in the Philippines gone wrong. Short and cheap, it’s the kind of book that works best as a “literary snack.” And that’s often fine.

This is a 51% snack, but it’s a fun 51% snack. About the only real quibble I had was having the book be written in first instead of third person. I think the latter is better for thrillers because you don’t have to either have a severely limited view or give the protagonist ridiculously good situational awareness. But this isn’t a deal breaker at all.

The fundamentals are sound and the story works. This is a solid “appetizer” that makes me want to read more from its author, and that’s always good news about a book.

Review: The Hungry Dead of Yu-Ching And Other Stories

The Hungry Dead of Yu-Ching And Other Stories

From Sea Lion Press author Paul Leone comes The Hungry Dead of Yu-Ching And Other Stories, a series of horror-fantasy-thriller tales spanning history. From the ancient past to the Cold War and beyond, he brings to life one supernatural confrontation after another. Each story is short but sharp and never wears out its welcome.

I might be biased given the preferred subject matter of Fuldapocalypse, but I liked the “Red Dawn [no relation to the movie], Operation ___” stories the best. It’s very hard to go wrong with Soviet commandos facing extranormal enemies, and I grinned at every word of those tales. Not that the others were bad by any means, but these were my favorite.

In short, this is a very fun collection. I enjoyed it a lot and highly recommend it.