The Red Line
The Red Line by Walt Gragg is a recent WWIII book that happens to have been one of the few in the timeframe released by a mainstream publisher, Penguin Random House. However much I may criticize the actual book itself, the perseverance of its author, continuing for decades until he finally achieved the all-too-rare dream of such a publication, deserves nothing but praise.
As for the book itself, it would have been a routine (by my standards) cold-war-hot thriller with a few ups and downs. However, one thing made it either worse or better. That would be the way it was modernized.
The path of the war is mostly following the understandable formulas-infodumps, viewpoint characters, a few plot-nukes, NATO winning, the drill. However, the only real twist isn’t formulaic-in a bad way.
There’s some rivet-counting, and it doesn’t quite match the smooth flow of Peters’ Red Army in terms of removing almost all exact designations, but it’s not quite that bad. And yes, there’s the Conference Room Infodumps, which are out of place in what’s generally a low-level story.
What the “rivet” descriptions illustrate is how dated a lot of it is. I don’t fault writers for writing what they’re familiar with. But this is supposed to be a modern story, and the way it’s handled, well, see below.
Oh, oh, boy. This book was, by its author’s own admission, originally written just after the Cold War, and initially imagined during it. But, at some point it was decided to make it “modern”. In practice this means nothing but changing the names of a few platforms to things like “Su-35s”, “T-90s”, and “F-22s” in a very shoved-in way.
What really made even the zombie sorceresses go “we’re gonna do what?” was the political backstory, engineered to turn the clock back to 198X while keeping things “modern” (quotes deliberate). The well-run trope of Russia turning red again is used, but that isn’t the weirdest and craziest part of the backstory. That goes to Manfred Fromisch.
So, the restored Red Russia tries to reclaim East Germany using street provocations, then Fromisch, a neo-Nazi leader and, according to the text itself, “evil man of no more than five feet”, tosses the Communists out of East Germany with his followers and, as a result, becomes a shoo-in for chancellor in the next election with an 80% approval rating. This angers the Russian (or is it Soviet) premier, who then plots the invasion of Germany. Cue the tanks.
The backstory combines the worst “set up World War III” parts of Cold War technothrillers with the most ridiculous contrivances of post-USSR technothrillers. While it doesn’t dominate the book, it’s still there in an embarrassing way.
So, with this background and scotch-taped “modernity” in mind, how’s the substance beyond the ridiculous backstory?
It’s alright. The prose is a little too flat-certainly far from being the flattest or dullest I’ve seen, but still a little flat. The characters, beyond the red and brown supervillains, aren’t that well developed. As for the action, I’ve seen better but also seen worse. Likewise for the pacing, which has the “big story in one small self-contained book” problem I’ve seen too often with other technothrillers.
Gragg has repeatedly said in interviews that he wrote the book as an anti-war novel. While I can definitely see that intent in the story, I feel it doesn’t work in that sense. At best, it falls victim to the “Truffaut effect” of trying to balance a sincere message with exciting action and not succeeding. At worst, the whole goofy supervillain backstory sabotages the message big time.
I’m not the most qualified to judge the small-unit actions, because I’ve read so many of them, but they have the same “not too good, not too bad” issue. This, of course, puts them in the category of merely decent. But decent is better than bad. It’s not unreadable and has its moments.
The Only Score That Really Matters
If you want a somewhat gritty cheap thriller involving tanks exploding in WWIII and/or want to take in the so-bad-its-good backstory and “modernization”, you could do worse than this book. Just don’t think of it as a modern story, and treat the “modern” unit names as typos the zombie sorceresses manipulated into the page, and it can work as a good enough time-passer.
But that backstory…