The video game Violence Fight is a very, very strange game. It’s also very, very bad. One of the pre-Street Fighter II arcade fighting games, this Taito “masterpiece” only stands out for two reasons.
The first is its “story”, where, in the 1950s an underground fighting tournament is popular among (exact words) “mafia, reckless drivers and general businessmen.” This is a 1950s that includes a World Trade Center, a wannabe Mr. T, and multiple tigers for the player to fight. It’s weird, but this is an old video game, so it’s a little less weird in context. The second is the bizarre effects that occur with a hard blow, like “GOGON” and “BOGOON!”.
Otherwise, it’s not very good. The controls are multi-axis but bad, like Pit Fighter, another dud from the same time period. The graphics aren’t bad for the time, but that’s pretty much it. It’s a weird period piece and that’s all.
I decided to finally do it, reading a book by a super-famous author. James Patterson’s Black Friday (original title Black Market) is a thriller of financial and physical chaos. It’s also a book that’s (as far as I can tell) genuinely his and not simply a “James Patterson’s” book with his name on it.
The chapters tend to be very short, in a style I already knew about from secondhand talk of his writing. I generally don’t mind short chapters, and he was not the first author to use them, but somehow they didn’t fit here. I think it’s a combination of them and a ton of shifting viewpoint characters that make the whole thing just look disjointed and sloppy.
And then there’s the tone, which is this constant plodding of Deep, Dark Seriousness. The jarring differences between that and the inaccuracies, particularly surrounding firearms, is astounding. This isn’t (just) having guns work on action movie logic or making mistakes like calling an SKS “automatic” and not knowing which airborne division has an eagle as its symbol. It isn’t even having a character use an American-180 for no discernable reason except the “it’s an exotic gun I’ve heard of” factor.
This is references to “machine gun pistols” (Exact words). This is talking about how submachine guns weren’t used in city fighting due to their high rate of fire (er…), and a gun that combines ridiculously effective silencing (even by cheap thriller/action movie standards) with implied heat seeking bullets. Said gun is only used in a single scene. It’s bad, even by the standards of someone who’s read a lot of cheap thrillers.
The plot feels like an absurdist jumble of cheap thriller cliches. There’s a super-conspiracy, lots of cutaways, and everything from international terrorists to crazy veterans. But with the tone and janky pacing getting in the way, it’s not the kind of book where you can enjoy the excess. There are a lot better books, even mainstream thrillers, out there.
A rightful classic, HMS Ulysses is, in my opinion, the greatest naval action novel of all time. Author Alistair MacLean, a veteran of the Royal Navy in World War II, could draw on a lot of personal experience, and it shows in this masterpiece. People who know their naval history can look at the obvious parallels between the actions of the book and the ill-fated Convoy PQ-17 (which MacLean served on), but that doesn’t change its effectiveness.
The way MacLean sets a tone is hard to describe, but he succeeds brilliantly. The travails of the convoy, in no small part thanks to the PQ-17 historical experience, are both dramatic and plausible-seeming. The feat of squaring the circle cannot be applauded enough. Historical military fiction, at least to me, has had the issue of “it’s going to be either realistically dull and un-dramatic, in which case I’ll read a history book that makes no pretense at narrative, or it’s going to be exaggerated, in which case I’ll read a cheap thriller that doesn’t have to be bound to an existing war.”
This avoids both of them by throwing one (plausible) German threat after another at the convoy and emphasizing the wear and tear the climate and stress imposes on the sailors. I cannot recommend this book enough.
Robert Ratcliffe’s Red Hammer 1994 is a tale of an alternate nuclear World War III in the early 1990s. The feared regression to authoritarianism takes place in post-1991 Russia, and its leader proceeds to launch a nuclear strike on the west. Cue a big picture, wide-scope look at everything from bombers to silos to submarines to, yes, conference rooms.
The characters feel just like they’re just there to operate military equipment instead of being actual characters. The plot is basically “have a nuclear war that stays mainly counterforce and thus only mauls civilization instead of wrecking it totally, and show every part of it in set pieces”. The grounded and frequently realistic (at least technically) nature of the book is somewhat admirable, but works against it when questionable moments like a giant force of super-Spetsnaz in the continental US emerges-or for that matter, the basic plot happening at all. The ending is incredibly abrupt (and not in a plausible Dr. Strangelove way) and the most positive elements are some of the set pieces themselves.
This is what it is. If you like technical detail and want to see Herman Melville’s Story Of A Moderate Nuclear War, you’ll like this book. But if you want a solid narrative, this isn’t it.
Jim Heskett and Nick Thacker’s Primary Target is not the deepest story, nor does it have the most plausible premise. Basically, circumstances lead to assassin Ember Clarke having to participate in a trial by combat, fighting off other assassins trying to kill her over the course of several weeks.
However, in spite of this setup, it’s well done. Yes, it has the “this isn’t a movie but I do super stuff anyway” gripe I’ve seen far too often, and its premise deserves action far more bizarre and over the top than what actually occurs. But the book remains a solid cloak and dagger thriller.
Granted, I’m not the biggest fan of such novels, but I still like variety. And this is cloak and dagger done very well.
Telling the story of National Guard soldiers and their families during a 198X Fuldapocalypse, Burke uses some plot devices I’ve thought would have worked, like using fictional unit designations. He also aims for characterization and doesn’t hesitate to show the duller parts of military life. The result is something that tries to be something fuller than just tanks exploding…
…With an emphasis on tries. A lot of the high-level military details are anachronistic and in some cases outright “off”. The most jarring example to me was how the Soviets would focus on NORTHAG (which would be true) and thus do nothing but special forces operations in the American sector at the beginning of the war (which would not be). The action suffers from the same rough prose as the rest of the work and sometimes devolves into listing armaments in full.
Because of this, it comes across as being like a somewhat worse Chieftains-a tale of a conventional World War III that’s ambitious, but erratic and unpolished in execution.
One of my theories about Harry Turtledove is that, for all times he’s been labeled “the master of alternate history”, he never had the most enthusiasm for the genre. It goes like this: Turtledove wanted to write Byzantine/Eastern Roman-themed fantasy, but after Guns of The South, alternate history became the money-making niche that he was stuck in. Turtledove would be neither the first nor last writer to have their most successful fiction be considerably different from the type they actually wanted to write.
Or maybe he did have enthusiasm for the genre, but didn’t have the mindset needed to really take advantage of it. Or maybe the nature of alternate history and needing to appeal to a generalist audience who doesn’t have the most knowledge of history forced him into a corner. Whatever the reason, The Man With The Iron Heart symbolizes the weaknesses of his style vividly.
The plot is simple. Reinhard Heydrich survives, gets the Werwolf resistance movement up and running, and launches a horrifically hamfisted/anachronistic Iraq War analogy. In reality, the German populace at large had no stomach for continued resistance, and the Allies, who came close to turning Germany into a giant farm, were prepared to crack the whip. The Werwolf plan was doomed from the get-go by the scarce resources and infighting that was baked into the Nazi regime from day one.
The execution of the book is done just as clumsily and clunkily as the setup. Much of Turtledove’s writing has the problem of what I frequently call the “technothriller without technology or thrills”, and this is no exception. It uses the “alternate history as a genre format” where there’s a big-picture, broad-viewpoint look at the situation and changed world. However, if the changed world is nothing but an unrealistic and worse, uninteresting analogy, that format is the worst possible.
Alternate history is a very divided genre. There are a lot of reasons for this, from the vague nature of what it even is to the different desires of different fandoms to how it’s frequently not considered advantageous to label a work as such. But that the “mainstream” end often consists of books like this doesn’t help.
Maybe there’d be more overlap if someone really did extensive research, made it more character focused, and kept it feeling substantially different while providing still noticeable but far more subtle commentary. Instead, Turtledove wrote this book, which I do not recommend.
Stephen Kinloch Pichat’s A UN ‘Legion’: Between Utopia and Reality is a very inconsistent book. This may be due to its subject matter, which involves the various proposals for a UN standing army, proposals made since before the formal United Nations Organization even existed.
About half the book, at least figuratively, is written in a particularly bad form of “academic-ese”. I had trouble getting through it and I read long dissertations for fun (seriously). Even if unintentional, the problem is that the political obstacles to such a force are so obvious and so easily explained that any long statement will become unfulfilling.
That being said, the other half of the book is a concise, well-written, and well-sourced example of various proposals. They come in two categories. The first is a gigantic “World Army”. The earliest proposals, made during World War II, fit this category, with numbers that seem big to a modern reader but weren’t back then. “World Armies” frequently were capped by a standing high-readiness force (think the 18th Airborne Corps or maybe the USMC/VDV).
The second is a smaller and more theoretically practical “UN Army”, a comparably small force designed for specific contingencies. One of the most detailed examples, which Pinchat describes, is the ‘Vital Force’/’UN Legion’ proposal amounting to several brigades of light to medium troops. Others amount to similar versions of the same thing-something that can conduct most normal peacekeeping missions, but without the ad hoc nature of existing setups.
I’m a little reluctant to recommend a book that sinks to such lows, but it’s still a good resource. It’s just a bit of a shame it’s not better laid out, but this is an academic history and the text is still good when it counts.
The initial book in J. Robert Kennedy’s James Acton series is The Protocol. This secret history conspiracy archeology thriller comes at sort of the tail end of my reading binge of this “genre”. Having read a lot of them, I’ve returned to more conventional cheap thrillers and have moved on for now.
This book embodies the reason why. A 51% book with an ancient mystical MacGuffin and super-conspiracy is still a 51% book if it has middling, mundane action. Especially if the MacGuffin itself is an unoriginal ripoff (as this is-I’ll just say there was an Indiana Jones movie that had the same kind of artifact and leave it at that). Just because something seems more outlandish than the blandest “shoot the terrorist” novel on paper doesn’t mean it comes across that way when actually reading it.
I’m not against ancient bizarre MacGuffins and super-conspracies in the slightest. But just having them doesn’t make them the equals of the best thrillers any more than using a similarly shaped bat makes one equal to a baseball Hall of Famer. It’s a lesson I’ve learned throughout my binge, and this is a good, even if not the most pointed, example of that.
The first book in a long series, Bob Mayer’s Area 51 (originally published under the pen name “Robert Doherty”) is a “secret history” flying saucer thriller story. By itself, it’s a decent enough 51% book. What brings it down is, weirdly, the plot. Oh, there’s a few technical inaccuracies like having F-16s be around in 1970 and putting them on aircraft carriers, but the real issue I found was structural.
What my binge of Cussler-esque “find the ancient MacGuffin” books has taught me is that premise alone doesn’t make for a good read. And this is definitely the case with Area 51.
Here, there’s two problems with the alien technology. The first is that it’s too powerful in context. Not only does it function as a convenient plot enabler and deus ex machina, but it basically turns the entire book into watching a tale of the aliens. And that tale is dull and cliche. The second problem is that flying saucers don’t embody majesty and secrecy, but rather goofy Plan 9 From Outer Space kitsch.
The result is that the book is little but a throwaway curiosity.