I’m proud to present another Sea Lion Press review, this one being of the once-infamous The Big One series of alternate history/aircraft novels. The review can be found here. It was a lot of fun to write.
As readers of this blog undoubtedly know, I’ve dipped pretty deep into the small field known as [mostly] conventional World War III fiction. So when I saw an actual new release of one, Evan Currie’s Holy Ground, I felt obligated to check it out. The book is a prequel to an extensive science fiction series, and it shows. It centers around the defense of the island of Iwo Jima, on land, sea, and air.
Honestly, the setting image that came to my mind was “Command and Conquer Generals”. Not in the exact form or in it being an exact ripoff of that game-it definitely is not. But in the general (no pun intended) sense of a combination of sci-fi technology and stuff that’s visible in the obvious headlines/popular culture. Despite nominally taking place several decades in the future, there’s a lot of contemporary fighter aircraft designations. There’s also a lot of “cinematic” stuff, like missile-age aircraft using guns far more often than they realistically should.
Because of these limitations, it doesn’t succeed in being a technothriller. At the same time it’s too comparably grounded to be a Wingman-style pulpy thriller. And even judged purely on its own terms, the action isn’t the best. I want to emphasize it’s not the worst either, but I’ve definitely read better. For me it was a little fascinating to see what a technothriller in the style of a popular science fiction book looked like, but that can’t raise the novel above average on its own.
The second book in Brent Towns’ Team Reaper series, Deadly Intent is one of the best thrillers I’ve read in some time. The action here is almost literally non-stop as the titular force battles against a seemingly never-ending stream of enemies in a battle that spans multiple continents.
The constant action, team-based protagonists, vast geographic setting, and more out-there elements of the plot (to put it mildly) reminded me of one of the Stony Man Gold Eagles. The difference though is that this is done better than the Stony Man/Able Team/Phoenix Force entries I’ve read. The action and narrative flows a lot more smoothly, and the characters feel more developed (in a small sense, but still).
There are times when a book, even a cheap thriller, benefits from slowing down and having lots of buildup. But there are other times when one, like this, benefits from just welding the gas pedal to the floor. This is quite the experience and I highly recommend it.
The Iron Dream
Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream is an alternate history satire of the er, “issues” in lowbrow fiction. In it, Adolph Hitler doesn’t go into politics, instead becoming a pulp science fiction author. The book primarily consists of an in-universe novel involving the manly men of Heldon triumphing over hideous mutants and their masters, the mind-controlling Dominators. Does this remind you of anything?
This book is not subtle in the slightest concerning its message of the er “dubious” parts of adventure fiction. I could feel a tone of “Ok, here’s a very obvious reference? Do you get it? Ok, here’s another one. Get it? And to make absolutely sure that you get it, I’ll have an in-universe epilogue that explains everything”. My own reaction was “I get it! All right, I get it. Seriously- I GET IT.”
Thankfully, it’s quite understandable why Spinrad is so forceful. The stories of people not getting it despite his best efforts speak as to why. But it’s also dated in some ways. First, the type of exact “thud and blunder” prose/story he was parodying is now long obsolete. Second, it’s interesting to see a huge example of something coming not that long after its publication that was both prominent and different from the tone-Star Wars. Star Wars features a multispecies alliance of often-ugly aliens fighting a human-dominated empire. It may be a single example, but it’s the biggest example.
Beyond that, I can still understand and sympathize with the message. It’s one of the reasons why, while not a deal breaker, I tend to not like science fiction that has alien species’ introduced purely to be antagonists. However, I’ll admit it also feels a little like punching down at a very easy and very obvious target.
Nonetheless, this type of satire is very hard to write well. I know this firsthand. Of all the parodies of conventional WW3s I’ve tried to write, all of them I’ve junked as being too inaccurate and/or mean spirited. So Spinrad probably succeeded as best as he could, and the biggest satirical part does come across as him knowing his source material well.
Long Road To Mercy
In another one of those “big name authors that are nonetheless novel to me”, I turned my attention to David Baldacci. Long Road to Mercy is the first in his Atlee Pine series of thrillers starring the titular FBI agent. How is it?
The first thing that caught my eye was how dense and well, overdescriptive, for lack of a better word, the writing style is. It doesn’t feel like it’s the best for a thriller. The second was talking about how built-up and muscular the heroine was. This made me think “this is a justification for her being able to take on bigger men hand to hand”. I was right (although the action scenes are not gratuitous).
As the book progressed, it went from the smaller and more personal tale promised in the opening scene to a very, very rote cheap thriller plot. It even had a climax featuring the most stale “shocking” item in the genre, a nuclear bomb. About the only thing distinctive I can say is that instead of the opponents being TERRORISTS! they were instead part of a CONSPIRACY! Wow!
Of course, cheap thrillers don’t succeed or fail based on concept. They do so with their execution. And the way this is pulled off is-well, something. The words that came into my mind were “decaf thriller”. It’s like it ended up, either accidentally or deliberately, being the kind of book that checks all the thriller boxes, but without too much adrenaline.
So I can understand its appeal to a certain kind of reader, and thus its author’s success. But that nature, mixed with its huge amounts of descriptions that don’t even feel like they were intended as padding, isn’t exactly my cup of tea. Especially since it feels like the wrong kind of thriller for its writing style.
Unmasking The Idol
The film Unmasking the Idol may be the most 1980s action movie ever. And one of the most ridiculous, whatever the decade. The film has ninjas, a trained baboon, “homages” to nearly every popular film of the time, a super-lair, and, as the icing on the cake, a flying pickup truck that looks as “majestic” as it sounds. And an incredibly 80s soundtrack, but you could have probably guessed that already.
Besides being very dumb fun in its own right, this movie has special resonance for this blog. It illustrates how by this point, visual media could provide cheap thrills just as well as, if not better than, any book. Stuff like this was the “Tecmo Bowl” compared to the “electric football” of men’s adventure novels. And the “Madden” was yet to come.
The tenth Jonathan Grave book, I picked Scorpion Strike out of the pile because I thought its concept from the blurb-a Die Hard-esque story of the main character’s vacation interrupted by nefarious actors- was the most distinct and potentially entertaining. The bad news was that turned out not to be the case. The good news was that it’s still a good Gilstrap thriller.
After the initial (and, as always, well-done) setup, the supporting cast of the series returns in force. From there it becomes just another Jonathan Grave novel with all the same issues. The mixture of “too serious” and “too over the top”. The elements beginning to repeat too many times. The too-timid hewing to genre conventions (it reached the point where I groaned twice at how rote the MacGuffins were).
And yet it has the good parts as well. The action is still well handled, and here Gilstrap actually dares to kill off a heroic supporting character. If this had been my first Jonathan Grave novel, I think I’d have thought more highly of it, and it’s still a better-than-average cheap thriller.
Iron Legion: Recruit
David Ryker and Daniel Morgan’s Recruit is a military science fiction novel of hugely missed potential. While not an “exact” spacesuit commando book in that its main character controls too high-powered a mech (which is still part of the problem), it’s still one in spirit, especially given the opportunity it has. Which really works against it.
In execution, the prose, while satisfactory, isn’t the best. And it has the usual implausibilities and inaccuracies, including one that jumped out at me of the main character having his emotion crisis and self-doubt during, instead of the more realistic and dramatic after a big battle. But those are forgivable.
What isn’t so much is the opportunity it had, using its in-universe premise, of having the potential to make a story centered around someone who was at the very, very bottom. The main character is initially slated to go into the highest-casualty branch of the Space Military. The most expendable and least glamorous, something legitimately interesting. But nope, instead the protagonist is just so good that he becomes a spacesuit commando instead. Which is a shame. It’s still a passable cheap thriller, but it could have been so much more.
John Antal’s Armor Attacks is essentially a choose your own adventure book about a tank platoon. Created as a training tool, it was originally released shortly before the Gulf War. Thus it provides a window into Fuldapocalyptic tank battles.
The premise is that the Krasnovians (or, as they’re called in the book, the “Threat”-essentially a Soviet-style OPFOR) wants to seize the Middle East, and the Americans (and you) must stop them. While it shouldn’t be fair to criticize what’s clearly just a setup for the instructional vignettes he wants, I should still point out the Melville-esque prose clearly leaves something to be desired. Everyone talks in unrealistically robotic, exact terms. It’s understandable, but I still didn’t really like it in that sense.
At least this doesn’t do what Antal did in his first proper novel, Proud Legions, and try to make the reader’s unit the absolute conflict-defining centerpiece. The low, dirty place of the reader is emphasized, and rightfully so. Which is a good thing, as the actual vignettes/choices are well done.
I was “genre-savvy” enough to make some of the right decisions when I tried a run through of one of the scenarios. Tanks are more vulnerable to artillery than you might think, so don’t stay in one spot too long. Taking on a company of T-72s with a platoon of M1s is totally viable, even with 105mm M1s (I have the feeling that this would have been less intuitive pre-Gulf War). And so on.
However, and this may have been the legacy of The Henry Stickmin Collection and its “failure is just as good and entertaining as success” mindset at work, I also attacked up the middle. It didn’t go so well. In fact, I’d have loved for one of the scenarios to be a “Kobayashi Maru” one where you get wiped out no matter what you do.
The newest digital edition of this book does the orginal one better by showing the instructor’s material used. To me at least this was fascinating and interesting. For anyone interested in tanks of the period, I highly recommend this book.
High Seas Havoc
Data East’s High Seas Havoc is one of the many 1990s mascot platformers. In fact, it was so generic at first glance that when I saw footage of it and wanted to look further, it took some effort to do so. Still, looking at it closely shows some interesting things and some that are very well-done.
The title character, a sailor seal (no, not that kind) has to save the damsel in distress and Macguffin Gem from an evil pirate lord. The opening part is a sort of semi-soft attempt to sort of, maybe a little, come close to Sonic. There’s slopes but not really any mechanics to take advantage of them. The base mechanics are a lot different too-most notably, you have a refillable health bar instead of anything like rings. Then the game gives up on that and goes back to being a completely traditional platformer. It also becomes a lot harder.
Though janky (the main character really needed to be able to use the sword he was shown as having in the box art instead of relying on an iffy flying kick) and having all the issues of a “B-list” game, this is never outright bad. Certainly it’s not a rushed absolute low-effort game like too many other trend-following platformers of this time. And this especially shows in the music. Emi Shimizu’s soundtrack is one of the most underappreciated ever, with my favorite track being “Cold Paradise“.
The level that song plays on, Frozen Palace, is also something to behold. It’s a variant on the typical “mechanical works” level, albeit with freezers and water instead of the usual molten metal. Combined with hovering meditating dogs (yes, really) as some of the enemies, it’s definitely the most unique stage in this game. The rest is more generic, but the graphics are still well done for the time.
There is some undeniable “inspiration” from Sonic and the game is in the same basic field, but it’s different enough thematically and gameplay-wise to not be considered a mere lazy ripoff. Probably the biggest issue besides “cartoon animals” is the gem Macguffin, and that’s small. And did I mention the soundtrack is amazing?