Review: Destiny In The Ashes

Destiny In The Ashes

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William W. Johnstone’s Destiny in the Ashes is the 32nd (!) book in the series. Released near the end of Johnstone’s life, there are legitimate questions as to whether it’s the work of Johnstone the person or “Johnstone”, the pen name used by his niece and an army of ghostwriters behind ironclad NDAs since his death. I will only say that it reads like the real Johnstone and certainly isn’t any better than anything unambiguously written by the real Johnstone.

It took over ten books for Jerry Ahern’s Survivalist to stop being truly post-apocalyptic. It took Johnstone less than one. Instead it was focused entirely on societal commentary, if the commentary came from a pretentious, incoherent redneck.

The “plot” of this book is a Middle Eastern terrorist is striking the “US” run by the EVIL LIBERAL GUN GRABBERS, and they are forced to call upon Raines in the Great People’s SUSA Utopia for help. Raines steps up, in part with lectures about the inferiority of helicopters for troop insertion compared to HALO jumps. Naturally, the Americans go in with helicopters and get killed, while the Rebels HALO drop with ease.

The “military action” in this book (and the whole series, I must add) is legitimately strange and not just poorly written. It would be one thing if, by accident or design, it involved unrealistic and overly cinematic action. There’s some of that, but there’s also hunched strategy sessions that just make no sense and end in Mary Sue stomps.

The conclusion of this book involves an effortless jaunt out to Iraq in a passage that reads like a far worse version of a Chet Cunningham SEAL Team Seven novel. This continues the trend made far earlier in the series when Johnstone ran out of domestic “punks” for Raines to kill and had to send him abroad to get more.

The writing is terrible, the pacing is only somewhat bad, the plotting is terrible, and the characterization is extra-terrible. Yet, if it makes sense, the Ashes series is genuinely and distinctly terrible. A horrendous writer got a conventional publisher to produce and distribute literally dozens of his picture-book war stories and become successful enough that he endured as a “Tom Clancy’s” -esque brand name. That’s what makes it stand out.

Front Defensive Operations

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From the Heavy OPFOR Operational, here is a picture of a front-sized defensive operation. My first thought upon seeing it and counting the divisions, besides any political concerns, is – “Does NATO even have enough forces to break through it without a huge amount of technological superiority”?

This particular diagram is something of an idealized best case, as the front has both a second-echelon tank army to counterattack and several independent divisions as “combined arms reserves”. But still. I’d have to ask…

  • How much of a force multiplier are the initial belts (which were expected to be overrun?)
  • How much of the artillery and missile forces can survive and fire effectively on the attackers as they approach?
  • Most importantly, what’s the overall context?

 

 

Review: The Delian Cycle

The Delian Cycle

The quality of Kenneth Bulmer’s “Delian Cycle” of Dray Prescot novels (I got the omnibus edition) can be described in this anecdote. I dove straight through all 27 Survivalists with ease. To get through the five individually shorter Prescots took me considerably more effort. The question is…. why? I know I’ve explained my frustrations in my review of the second installment, but they deserve elaboration. After all, it’s not like I’ve had objections to reading similarly shallow cheap thrillers before.

The biggest reason is the prose, which is incredibly overwrought. It’s very hard to get through and takes away from whatever feelings the action might generate. Bulmer is seemingly never satisfied to use one paragraph to describe something when he can use three, and throw in another made-up word or ten while he’s at it. Still, if I can read Mike Lunnon-Wood, I can read him.

Then there’s the action, which labors under the horrendous prose and is just so constant that it becomes mundane. This is another reason, and it’d be a perfectly good reason. After all, cheap thrillers need to be good with action. But the action still isn’t the worst.

Another issue is the setting. The worldbuilding consists of nothing but throwing out so many names that the omnibus needs a giant glossary at the end, yet all it accomplishes is the creation of a sword and planet theme park, with the “exotic” names and airships and places being pushed so hard they lose any appeal. But it’s not like a bad setting is an absolute turn-off in a genre that depends on execution.

No, I think the biggest problem is the artificial nature of it. The books always involve Prescot getting teleported in and out by the MacGuffin People Star Lords. To use so blatant a setup would be bad, but what makes it worse is that they’re written in a kayfabe “Prescot has narrated this on cassette tapes to Alan Burt Akers [Bulmer’s pen name]” style. What turns this from a gimmick into a flaw is that the tapes are used as get-out-of-trouble cards where-not infrequently during a dramatic moment-Bulmer will just say “and then the tapes are missing, but Prescot clearly got out of it”.

I maintain a weird curiosity for the series, but it’s not very good.

An Old Story Draft Of Mine

So, a long time ago I had this idea in my mind. Now, granted, I didn’t know how to proceed from there, but it was this idea I had in my mind. Maybe it could still work as a very short story by itself.

I’ve talked before about “Steel Panthers Characterization”, derived from this:

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Basically, in Steel Panthers, a unit has a nationally appropriate name and rank applied to it. Being otherwise interchangeable, this means nothing else in terms of characterization.

I came up with the term “Steel Panthers Characterization” to describe situations when characters were not just underdeveloped, but seemed to exist solely to put a certain piece of military equipment into action.

Fortunately, just as there were many, many fewer “Big-War Thrillers” than I’d thought, there are equally as few Steel Panthers Characters. Yet as a formative experience, this introduction stuck in my mind.

Basically, there would be a pilot in a two-seat, side-by-side aircraft, like an A-6 (as in the illustration) or an F-111 or an Su-24. It would dive in, release its weapons, and fly away on a routine mission.

Suddenly, the pilot would realize something wasn’t right. He looks at the other crewman, clad in his flight suit. Lifting up the visor, the pilot sees absolutely nothing underneath it. Same thing with the gloves and sleeves. Unnerved, the pilot simply ejects. His fate would be left ambiguous in a short story, but in a longer one he would become one of the characters.

What’s soured me on the concept is that I’ve felt it’s not only too harsh a critique, but also too inaccurate of one, given how few works really sink to that level. And the ones that do either make up for it in some way or are just unfairly easy targets. But still, the draft of the pilot’s story is something I feel I should share.

 

Weird Wargaming: Payday

Payday: The Heist

The focus of this Weird Wargaming is the game series that started off as an obvious homage to classic heist movies and became a struggle against a world-controlling super-conspiracy that ended with confronting an evil dentist in a cave underneath the White House.

The Payday Gang themselves are more customizable, and their opponents shouldn’t be too much of a problem to come up with. Bulldozers have heavier armor, cloakers are stealth and possibly melee-based, tasers use electricity, and shields should be obvious. Not all of the specials are suitable for all kinds of rules, so use common sense.

The big issue is choosing between “hard” and “soft”. In “hard” mode, there’s at least a pretense of grounding, everything has to be stealthed if possible, and even loud heists are, by definition, short. In soft mode, closer to the game, the gang massively outclasses its opponents individually and can take on gigantic waves of people. All this depends on the rules and the theme, but Payday certainly offers a lot of chances.

 

Review: Deep State

Deep State

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Jack Slater’s debut, Deep State , is a very zig-zaggy book. It features super-operative Jason Trapp (another action hero name for you) as he foils the same kind of “attempted American coup” plot that has been going on in cheap thrillers since Seven Days in May. Despite its title, it’s not really that political, which was a pleasant surprise.

This book has one of my cheap thriller pet peeves front and center-when the writer repeatedly goes “this isn’t like the movies” but then has the characters do ridiculous stuff anyway. This is why the book goes up and down so much. It wants to go “THIS IS SERIOUS AND NOT MOVIE-LIKE” but then has Trapp doing incredible things. It also has a few extraneous characters, a villain contrivance so powerful it needs a heroic contrivance to compensate, and manages to hit a few too many genre notes (although that could just be me having read waaaaaaaay too many of these kinds of books).

In spite of all this, the fundamentals are good enough (barring the “this isn’t like the movies, he just does incredible things in an un-cinematic way” dissonance) and it flows well enough to make all of that forgivable. This is still worth a read.

Using Paratroopers

One of the biggest problems with using paratroopers besides the limit on airlift, and why they’ve just been high-readiness/at-least-theoretically higher skill infantry in real practice, is the cost-benefit with their operations. This is very tricky.

The Practical Reasons

Apart from situations where there just is no other way to move in quicker (ie, over bodies of water/other gaps), airborne landings, particularly on a very large scale, have faced the issue of either being unnecessarily risky and complicated for the task at hand or simply being too weak to accomplish anything (especially in a situation where everyone has a lot of heavy forces).

The impression I’ve gotten is that anything bigger than a company-sized landing force is dicey, and anything bigger than a battalion is really, really dicey. Yes, if everyone had giant Mi-26 sized helicopters and/or the landing forces had mechanized equipment of their own (ie, BMDs/Sheridans) it would help, but only somewhat.

The Literary Reasons

On the other hand, the literary reasons for big airborne operations are obvious. Just look at Band of Brothers, to say nothing of considerably more obscure works of fiction that range from Marching Through Georgia to Northern Fury H-Hour.

  • They’re big and dramatic all by themselves.
  • Because they’re often centered around (seemingly) important targets, it makes the actions of the protagonists look bigger.
  • Because airborne forces are inherently limited, it means drama can be maintained against a seemingly weaker opponent (a pretty extreme example of this is Marching Through Georgia, where the Draka are otherwise utterly superior to their opponents and paratroopers against a panzer force are the only way to have something even slightly even).

Review: The Trench Soldier

The Trench Soldier

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This is the 250th post on Fuldapocalypse. I could write about the undeniable fear living a hundred miles from a pandemic epicenter. I could write about how the blog has been one of the few high points during an unsatisfying life ridden with mental health issues even before the crisis,

But instead, since there’s enough gloom out there already, I’m going to write about a bad Casca book. And The Trench Soldier is very bad. And unlike The Samurai, which had Casca just plopped inside an essentially unrelated adventure, this has him front and center. It’s bad in a criticize-able way. While trying to find the true authorship of the Sadler-fronted Cascas is essentially impossible, the talk has been that he did not personally write this. Whoever did, well, they failed-but failed amusingly.

The Casca Formula I saw after just a few books is in rigid force here. Take a historical period-World War I, in this case. Plop Casca in it and subject him to the most stereotypical pop culture set pieces of that era, from charges into machine guns to poison gas. Have him meet the appropriate historical figures, in this case Immelman and a young Herman Goering. Utterly fail to explore any element of his character, or I should say any potential element of his character, because his character doesn’t really exist or stay consistent at all.

What makes The Trench Soldier special is that it goes above and beyond the usual. Events that took place throughout the war are stuffed into a few months in 1914. There’s a ridiculous scene where Casca battles a Zeppelin. If the whole series was full of this over-the-top craziness, I’d think a lot more highly of it. Sadly, it’s not. The historical inaccuracy can be summed up by him defending the Maginot Line at Verdun in 1914.

It’s not a good book, and it’s rare that even a bad example in a series puts every single one of its flaws in the forefront. But this is what The Trench Soldier does. It somehow manages to take all the Casca weaknesses and amplify them while keeping the very small number of strengths. And that’s strangely impressive.

Review: The Vengeance Of The Tau

The Vengeance Of The Tau

The first Blaine McCracken book to stumble, The Vengeance Of The Tau is an interesting case study in how a series can lose its mark while still remaining good. This still has all of Land’s strengths and weaknesses.

Where it goes wrong, besides just having big shoes to fill, is in the revelation of its MacGuffin. While Land is normally great at slowly building up and finally showing what ridiculous premise the book has as its foundation, here he implies something incredible and reveals it to be more lame and mundane. This isn’t just the final gimmick turning out to be something less than Land’s most out-there, it’s an example of going backwards that he almost never does in other books.

This, combined with somewhat less crazy set pieces, makes this lesser in comparison to McCracken books that came before and after it. In a vaccuum it’s still Jon Land, and it’s not even the worst book in the series, but there are definitely better ones.

Review: Black Sea Terror

Black Sea Terror

Eric Meyer and Todd McLeod’s SEAL Strike: Black Sea Terror is a short story. The story of SEALs preventing a shipment of S-400 missiles to Syria, it reminded me of Chet Cunningham’s SEAL Team Seven novels. Or rather, it reminded me of a hypothetical Chet Cunningham SEAL Team Seven novel that was shrunk to a fifth of its size to fit in a magazine.

The S-400 system itself is treated as a multirole missile that’s somehow incredibly dangerous on its own (and no, it doesn’t have any kind of different warhead) instead of just being a high-end SAM. The action is just passably good enough, in a “small bag of potato chips” way.

In fact, a “small bag of potato chips” accurately describes the entire book. It’s tiny, insubstantial, and not truly “good” by any measure, but it’s still quite “edible”.