Proud Legions is a book featuring another Korean War, the second of two feared “major theater war” locations in the 1991-2001 period. Its author, John Antal, had written several “choose-your-own-COA” ones beforehand and composed extensively for Armor Magazine. That combined with his own tank experience in South Korea made me eager for the book. I instantly thought of comparisons to Tin Soldiers, another armor-veteran composed book that ranks as one of my favorite post-1991 thrillers. How would it stack up?
We get the usual supervillain opponents and the usual equalizer gimmicks-in this case, super-EW that scrambles all the high-tech doodads and “S-300s”. The action also hops around between a lot of viewpoint characters, but no worse than other technothrillers.
I was reminded a lot of Team Yankee here. Normally this would be a very good thing, as Team Yankee is one of my favorite cheap thrillers of all time. However, this reminded me of one of the weaker parts of Team Yankee. Namely, the “Herman Melville for tanks” part complete with long detailed descriptions of what a tank unit commander would do, followed by a map illustrating the action-to-come in case we missed it.
And while it can get overly detailed in places, it can also get vague and/or inaccurate. For instance, part of its explanation for the lack of air power is the North Koreans having a huge number of “S-300” missile systems, something they have only acquired recently in real life. The problem wasn’t that they got them earlier, it was that they were treated like tactical systems running with the field forces instead of the operational/strategic ones they are.
They come across as being treated like SA-6/11/17 style battlefield SAMs from their description. While not that big a deal, I still noticed it.
For most of the book, the zombie sorceresses don’t need to work beyond the usual limits of the genre. Yes, the foes are abnormally belligerent, yes, their scramblers potentially work a little too well. But both of those are easily justifiable for literary reasons.
What I felt was the most contrived part of the book had to do with the protagonists. Antal seemed to be working harder than ever to make the hero and his unit supremely (and probably unrealistically) relevant. This was especially true of the climax, where plotnukes are the least of its problems.
The characters and plot are serviceable by cheap thriller standards. I didn’t get much of a feeling out of them, but I wasn’t expecting to. The action on the other hand, is both good and problematic.
The good part is that it’s fast-paced and visceral. There bad parts start with it possibly being a little too gory for its own good. This isn’t to deny that war is brutal and gory, it’s just that I found the contradictions between “gore, grime, and oh this is horrible” and “look at the Abrams go! It made a company of BMPs go boom boom!” a little jarring.
A bigger one is straining to make a battalion of M1A2s more relevant by itself to the conflict as a whole than it probably would be. Team Yankee, however (over?)effective its protagonists were, was not trying to have a single company win World War III on its own. In Tin Soldiers, the “it’s all we got” protagonist force felt at least somewhat more justified in being decisive. So they’re at the main junction to prevent a super-breakthrough.
And-they perform a leadership strike at the end. It’s not “they went all the way up to Pyongyang.” It’s “The marshal of the North Korean army, who’s staged the coup and started the war, has moved south to take personal command of the decisive battle, and they’re there to fight against him.”
What makes this still more problematic is the location. Tin Soldiers was in perfect tank country against a mechanized opponent that had just a bit of effects. This is in more closed terrain against a lesser-equipped enemy. Seeing them deal with constant masses of infantry and artillery in an asymmetric battle would be more interesting than the (realistic, if better-case) scenario in the actual book where they smash up an enemy tank brigade that has far inferior equipment, but then that one battalion wouldn’t be as decisive as Antal clearly wanted it to be.
Having spent four paragraphs criticizing the action, I want to end this section on a more positive note. When there is close-in-infantry action, as opposed to the plot-action or Abrams’ destroying everything, it’s written very well. I especially liked a scene where someone in command of dozens of the most powerful armored vehicles still has to fight with a pistol at one point. It’s actually realistic-one time the colonel commanding a “Thunder Run” into Baghdad in the 2003 Iraq War had to do just that.
The Only Score that Really Matters
I’m being harder on this book than it deserves. It’s still a good read for anyone who wants a tank-exploding cheap thriller. The problem is that my expectations were higher than they probably ought to have been. There was Antal’s pedigree as a nonfiction tank writer, and I think that both it and the effectiveness of other novels by people with similar-but-lesser credentials made me think it’d be better.
It’s still readable, good for a first prose novel, and by the standards of cheap thrillers overall is effective. But it has issues, and those issues aren’t just that Harold Coyle and Michael Farmer left some big shoes to fill.