James Ronsone and Matt Jackson’s Project 19 is an alternate history story about a far more severe Gulf War. In it, the Soviets, eager to disrupt the world’s oil supply (and thus raise the value of their own products) have more or less openly supported the Iraqis with piles of modern equipment and trained pilots. Thus they charge full-force down the Arabian Peninsula, and the squash of the historical war turns into a frantic struggle instead.
The very designation of this book (and its series) is a matter of question. It’s an alternate history “big war thriller” for certain, but even though not designated as such, I feel it deserves the term “World War III”. Yes, the location is different and so are some of the participants. But I see a giant conventional Soviet-American conflict and know only one thing to call it.
As for literary quality, it’s a little awkward. On one hand, the characters are Steel Panthers cutouts who exist to stand around in conference rooms or operate military equipment with cameras strapped to their heads so that the reader can see them. And the prose, well, sometimes it comes across as even clunkier than what I’ve read in the Kirov series. That is no small feat. Finally, while the technical inaccuracies are never more than mild, something this infodumpy has no right to get details like “Chinese T-62 copies” (which never existed) wrong.
But on the other hand, this is an extremely hard genre to write well. I’d even go so far as to say that “big war thrillers” are arguably the hardest type of fiction to write well. They’re certainly tougher and require far more balancing than normal action hero or small unit stories. What Ronsone and Jackson want to do is make a broad scope telling of a very different war. And here they succeed. It comes at the expense of a lot of other things, but this book succeeds in its main goal.
Apart from that dichotomy, I could have a few more nitpicks about the plausibility. The Soviets couldn’t supply an external country with high-end tanks without either stripping their most essential forward forces or diverting a year or two’s worth of factory production. Even there, advanced tanks didn’t grow on trees. The speed at which the Iraqis advance is more than the ideal distance of a successful operation, much less the imperfect, generally slow military that they were. But all these can be handwaved aside in the name of wanting to provide a challenging opponent, which is where this succeeds. I particularly like the US military being placed in a position where it doesn’t have total air control right away.
So in conclusion, this book has many virtues and flaws. Though not the best example of its subgenre, it’s nonetheless readable for fans of Larry Bond and the like.