I’ve talked before about Michael Farmer’s Tin Soldiers on my main blog, and his debut thriller pictures a regional war quite different from a Fuldapocalypse. But it’s worthy of a detailed review for two reasons. One is that it, published in the early 2000s, remains a picture-perfect example of the tropes of post-USSR technothrillers. Another is that it, although hardly flawless, is by and large an example of how this can be done right.
Tin Soldiers, sadly, manages to be both divergent and cliche at the same time. A rejuvenated Iraq is making another go at Kuwait, and the first line of defense is the main character’s comparably small unit.
What makes this interesting is how it follows the classic “balancer tropes” mentioned here almost to a t. The American forces present are small at first, and the Iraqis have sneaked-out satellite footage and, more importantly, advanced Abrams-busting ammunition for their tank guns. The “crisis overload” is also there to a degree with a small subplot about a rapprochement with Iran that goes nowhere and ultimately is handwaved away.
Political shenanigans are there and “make up” for being less important to the plot by being horribly written. So is a shoved-in “save the helicopter pilot damsel in distress” subplot that rivals even the capture scene in Chieftains for being out of place. Perhaps fitting for a genre on its last mainstream legs, Tin Soldiers manages to fit the formula exceedingly well.
This isn’t too bad in terms of rivet-counting. There are mostly familiar platforms, so there’s less need to describe them, and I didn’t feel that bothered by the infodumps that did take place. It’s not perfect and it’s not vague, but somehow most of it flows.
This is a book that has all of the usual technothriller contrivances, all the odds-equalizers, and all the stock characters to set up. And yet the final nuclear-chemical escalation was the only one where I went “come on”.
Somehow it felt like the zombie sorceresses didn’t need to intervene as much as they had in other books. Perhaps using a country that was already suited for a regional conflict as the antagonist made it feel better than say, Cauldron did. Perhaps using an “equalizer scenario” of a stronger enemy force in theater against a limited reinforcement that has been feared since the time of TF Smith works better than some of the goofier ones.
They’re still there, but the zombie sorceress hand isn’t as visible in Tin Soldiers, I found.
The characters are mostly stock. The hero, the supporting hero, the generals, the slightly sympathetic villain, the inept weasel ally, and the politicians. The scenes with politicians on either side are cringeworthy. Farmer’s fictional American president comes across as a figure written as a “bad dude with bad taste” by someone whose cultural clock stopped in 1979.
The low-level characters, while less developed, are at least sufficient for the course of the book. But the real treat is the action itself. Barring the “look at the stealth fighter go” scenes, the final Dale Brown style WMD escalation, and the save-the-girl side-plot, the tank battles are well written. Yes, the book has its share of technological gee-whiz. But it also has more than its share of basic grit, where tanks are very vulnerable.
Also like Team Yankee, a limited theater means that the story becomes more focused and tight.
The Only Score That Really Matters
Tin Soldiers is the perfect example of this category. On paper, it’s got every flaw a military thriller in general and a post-1991 one in particular would have. Its digressions into romance and politics go from awkward to slightly disgusting and offensive. The prose and flow isn’t the smoothest. And yet, in spite of all that, I like this book.
When the tanks get to exploding, it’s at its perfect height. The tank battles themselves are, for the genre, well-done. It manages to maintain a decent scope in those parts, not feeling like it hops around too much and succeeding at the difficult task of making a viewpoint between either “squad in the dirt” or “big picture”. And while it may have just been a happy coincidence, the tank battles against the early T-72s with super-ammo have just the right level of threat, showing that there’s much more to a tank than just how strong the gun is and how thick the armor is.
Tin Soldiers is still a cheap thriller with more than its share of unforced flaws. But it does a lot right, and is one of the best post-1991 “regional war” thrillers I’ve read.
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