Review: The Yakusa Tattoo

The Yakusa Tattoo

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Jerry Ahern’s turn into (sort of) hardboiled detective fiction, The Yakusa Tattoo, is something.

Ahern has the stereotypical Hardboiled Vietnam Vet Police Officer being tasked to go to (a stereotypical) Japan for a secret mission. Cue a plot with everything from a Hunt For Red October-style super-submarine to lots and lots of ninja fights. What were you expecting from someone who wrote a 27-book centuries-long epic with Hitler’s corpse as a MacGuffin in one of the books?

The prose is – not exactly the best, to put it mildly. There are the huge descriptions of guns and holsters (although thankfully a Detonics only appears once). There are characters talking in gigantic blocky paragraph-speeches. There are perhaps a few too many fight scenes for the sake of fight scenes.

And yet it has the same “I’m not holding anything back” charm that the Survivalist series at its best had. I mean, it has ninjas and Cold War spy plots. And where else can you get a hardboiled Chicago officer storming an ancient castle?

Review: USA Vs. Militia Series

USA Vs. Militia Series

Ian Slater’s USA vs. Militia series is one of those bizarre footnotes in military thriller writing that I just had to check out in full. A while ago, I reviewed Battle Front, which is actually the third installment. Having since read all five books, now I can give my opinion on the entire series.

I described Battle Front as “This book is about 5-10% crazy goofy, and about 90-95% dull tedium.” In short, this is applicable to the entire series, particularly the last two books. These involve more pedestrian hunt-the-MacGuffin plots with small unit heroes that serve as a perfect example of “Captain Beefheart Playing Normal Music Syndrome”. The most bizarre part is a general personally leading this formation, and it has all of Slater’s numerous writing weaknesses without the appealing strengths. If it consisted of two books with action somewhat below the Marine Force One line, I’d have barely given them a second thought.

But the series is more than that.

At its best, you have ferocious fights between the federal army and militia in technicals with add on “reactive armor” (Slater is, to put it mildly, not the best with terminology). You have Abrams’ deploying from C-130s. And of course, you have preternaturally well-organized and numerous militia romping through the country. To try and make them viable, Slater turns every federal commander and soldier who isn’t Mary Sue Douglas Freeman into hopeless bumblers. It’s still badly written in actual practice save for some bizarre prose turns Slater uses, but the novelty is still something.

There’s two more distinctive elements. The first is the politics. Now, normally you’d expect a book about a second American civil war to be monstrously political. This, surprisingly isn’t. Or at least it feels oddly detached, coming from an Australian-Canadian having to look across the border through a distorted, second-hand lens.

The second is a complaint I’ve heard a lot about Slater’s World War III series, and which I saw firsthand here-he has absolutely no concept of continuity. There are references to the Third World War, references to the Gulf War, jumping references to real events that happened before the book in question got published, contradictory historical references, and no real sense of overall progression. The series ends on a strange half-conclusion, with the out-of-universe reason for its stoppage obviously clear from its publication date of December 2001.

This series occasionally can be an interesting curiosity, but it’s a mere curiosity without much substance.

 

Review: First Clash

First Clash

firstclash

Kenneth Macksey’s First Clash stands as one of the most detailed books about a conventional Fuldapocalypse. Its “plot” can be summarized in one sentence as “a Canadian brigade group fights a Soviet division in the opening phases of World War III.”

This is not a conventional novel by any means. It’s openly stated to be a training aid with a lot of “controlling factors”. Even without that admission, it’s very, very obviously a “how-to guide for facing an attack as a Canadian mechanized brigade, from top to bottom”. This leads to a few issues because a lot of situations have to be included for the sake of training.

Some of the parts from the Soviet perspective are a little iffy. Even accepting that it’s a Cold War piece written by a westerner, they come across as a little too “Asiatic Hordesy”. Also for the sake of training, assuming the worst case about one’s opponent feels to me like the better strategy.

It could be that the Soviet advance had to be imperfect to give a single brigade with Leopard Is and M113s a fighting chance and present a tactical situation other than “they fight a desperate defense but are then overrun rapidly”. I would have cut the “enemy perspective” parts entirely and only showed what parts of the Soviets the Canadians could directly see.

This brings me to my second critique, which is that there’s a lot of detail, likely at an outright unrealistic level that hurts a book that’s otherwise rock solid in that regard. This is understandable as an “after action briefing tape recap” approach, but it doesn’t help with the rest of the book. Like The War That Never Was, this is one specific type of book, and if you don’t like it, this just isn’t for you.

I wanted to like this more than I did. I knew what it was setting out to do, and it accomplished that, but it’s a very niche, slightly dated book. I still think The Defense of Hill 781 manages to speak most of the same messages in a format that’s more readable.

Soviet Planned Rates Of Advance

This covers a variety of ideal/aimed for Soviet advance rates, citing translated primary sources when possible. The actual ability to meet these rates in practice would depend greatly on circumstances. All figures are in kilometers per day.

_ _ _ _ _ _

Late 1940-mid 1950s (conventional): 25-35 infantry, 40-50 tank armies [Front Offensive Operation, 1974]

Late 1950s (nuclear): 45-60 [Front Offensive Operation, 1974]

1960s (nuclear) 60-70 [Front Offensive Operation, 1974]

Late 1960s (conventional): 35-40 [Front Offensive Operation With Conventional Weapons, 1969]

1970s-80s (Europe): 40-60, 30 (Southwest Theater, Mountainous) [Voroshilov Lectures, Front Offensive Operation, 1977 ,  Heavy OPFOR Operational]

1970s-80s (China, other weaker opponent): 70-100 [Voroshilov Lectures]

1990s-2000s (conventional, GENFORCE-Mobile): 30-40 (optimistic), 20-30 (optimistic, poor terrain) 15-20 (modest) [Generic Enemy: Mobile Forces]

Review: The Lost Codex

The Lost Codex

The third OPSIG Team Black book, The Lost Codex manages to sink lower than the first two-by a considerable amount. The bulk of the actual book is the most bland, clunky thriller against the most bland, generic terrorists imaginable, falling straight into the trap of being too “normal” to be bombastic but too exaggerated to be truly realistic.

This time, profiler Karen Vail is close to being a main character, and is handled in the worst possible way. She’s Miss Infodump and Miss Dragged Along Because The Plot Demands and , finally, Miss Action Heroine all in the same book.

But the icing on the cake is a barely connected bit of Dan Brown-style “secret religious history”. This is only linked to the “shoot the terrorist” plot in the thinniest, clumsiest way, and adds essentially nothing save for giving the book its title and a chance to sell it as being like Clive Cussler. It’s not. It’s worse. A lot worse.

 

Review: Master Of The Game

Master Of The Game

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Sidney Sheldon’s Master of the Game is, on paper, the story of Kate Blackwell, an heiress to a South African diamond fortune-turned international conglomerate. In practice, Kate herself is only a supporting character.

First is a pulp-historical thriller as Kate’s ancestor makes his diamond fortune. Then it’s Kate herself and her son. Finally, and taking up most of the book, is the saga of Kate’s granddaughters, Eve and Alexandria. The feud can be described as the vicious, wicked, and evil Eve constantly attempting to kill the stupid and clueless Alexandria so that she can take all the family fortune for herself.

Like a lot of Sheldon’s other books, this throws in Big Historical Events (the Boer and World Wars) almost as an afterthought to make it look slightly “sophisticated”. The rise of Kate herself, which was the biggest reason I got the book, is too simple and too rushed. This is another one of Sheldon’s gimmicks-dress the book up in the trappings of a legal/business/political struggle but use that as the backdrop for a lurid soap opera.

Fortunately, it has the ridiculously melodramatic saga of the twin sisters, starting with Eve’s “Agent 47 meets Pinky and the Brain” assassination attempts and ending with a climax where one twin poses as the other (gee, I didn’t expect that).

This book is obviously trash, but I can’t help but like it. For a start, it’s not the product of ineptitude-this is from the hands of a skilled showbiz writer who knew how to play to the popular crowd. Second, it gets so cliche and so lurid, it actually becomes fun in a “really?” kind of way.

Weird Wargaming: Draka

Draka

Ah, the snakies that took up so many internet arguments about alternate history. I’ll be talking about the Eurasian War Draka here.

Equipment/Organization

The relevant military appendix describing the organization of the Drakian military is here

The Hond III tank has been a little exaggerated based on its 120mm gun and general advanced technology compared to its opponents. It’s gotten compared to a Chieftain or even Abrams, but the actual descriptions make it more like an upgunned Centurion or armor-slimmed IS-3/T29 – but available en masse in 1942. It has a gyro-stabilizer for the main gun. The most anachronistic part is actually its 1200 horsepower engine, which resembles that of a T-80U (!).

The “Hoplite” APC used by the Citizens is vague in the actual books, but I can draw a conclusion from it being based on the-if the Hond is a Centurion, the Hoplite is the equivalent of the Nagmashot Centurion-APC.

Even the Janissaries outclass World War II armies. There’s reference to BTR-style “Peltast” wheeled APCs, and them being motorized at all already puts them at the level of American World War II divisions in terms of equipment.

The Jannissary organization is more vague. If in doubt, use the classic “triangular division with an attached tank battalion/regiment” or follow 1950s Soviet motor rifle divisions (being referred to as “motorized rifle” is unlikely to be a coincidence). Their exact equipment is more vague besides the APCs and lots of towed guns, but my hunch would be using World War II equipment that’s both outdated compared to the early postwar equivalent and more geared for infantry support.

(My personal fanon is something like the Nahuel tank-something you could kitbash with older equipment and keep the plants running without getting in the way of the citizens).

Proficiency

The Citizens rank among the best in the world, their training a combination of Sp-, oh wait. They’re still really good, and even the Janissaries seem “only” as good as the Soviets at their best. Yes, it’s like having Kawhi Leonard and Shaquille O’Neal on your basketball teams.

Citizens should be high-proficiency across the board. Janissaries should either be slightly lower or just played more stiffly. If in doubt, play the Citizens as a top-line Western-style army and the Janissaries as a top-line Soviet-style one.

Other Notes

-There’s been a lot of attempts by other people to make the Draka more “realistic”. I’ve come to dislike this. What does making the Honds upgunned T-26s instead of upgunned Centurions really add? You want your supervillain empire moving across World War II, you should get it in all its glory. If putting this against an actual WWII army is the wargame equivalent of a fighting game final boss, so be it.

-For a more “fair” fight, put them against a 1950s Cold War army. But still…

A Thousand Words: Command And Conquer Generals

Command And Conquer: Generals

EA’s 2003 real-time-strategy game Command And Conquer Generals was a fixture of my childhood. Along with Advance Wars, it was one of the two “bottom rungs” on the complexity ladder of getting me into wargaming. (From there came Fleet Command and Steel Panthers: Main Battle Tank, then came Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations and the rest is history).

In gameplay terms, it has the same benefits and flaws all RTSes do (A “turtle/murderblob” singleplayer, a “chess boxing” multiplayer that’s utterly different from single-player) and the specific issue all C&C-style RTSes have (infantry are weaker than they should be because vehicles can run them over). And, through no fault of its own, it has the awkward turn of the millennium “the graphics are 3D models, but they’re not the best 3D models” effect. It arrived at kind of the tail end of that, but still.

But what I think is most interesting is the tone. Beyond just the stereotypes and the “it’s ripped from the headlines, honest” parts, there’s some “iffy” parts. China has double-barreled megatanks but its infantry don’t even have AKs. F-117s are stealthier than F-22s because they’re stealth fighters, duh. It’s very much a “pop culture war” from the early 2000s.

Review: The High Frontier

The High Frontier

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The High Frontier is the de facto ending to the The Big One series. The end of the Easy Mode Cold War is, for most intents and purposes, the end of the main published series. And, like The Sum Of All Fears, it’s a good stopping point.

This entire franchise has the slight misfortune of bad context for me. You can see why and what in the entry for the main series. That being said, while The High Frontier may not be the worst book ever, it still stands out only for its plot “novelties”. What plot novelties?

Well, for this individual book, there’s, among other things…

  • A very cheap shot at the Space Shuttle program right off the bat, where the Columbia disaster occurs right after the Challenger disaster. It’s actually semi-realistic in a rivet-counting way. The second post-Challenger mission had foam hit the heat-shield and barely survived, and the Space Shuttle program’s many, many issues are well-known. But the narrative intent is obvious.
  • Exposition where the Chipanese [yes] antagonists lament the inferiority of their military compared to the (awesome) Americans.
  •  The Chipanese campaign in Vietnam, featuring the equivalent of the Soviet general secretary personally running into Afghanistan to command forces there and then getting killed.
  • In said campaign, there are so many names of historical Vietnam War figures that I couldn’t tell if it was just bad naming or the real people (who’d be much older, and in some cases, dead.)

 

Finally there’s the climax, the biggest missed opportunity in the whole book. Having read The Sum Of All Fears makes it look even worse than it did when I first read it. Here’s an opportunity to foil the plot by showing restraint in the face of apocalyptic provocation-and instead it’s the equivalent of having the protagonists stop the nuke from going off in the first place.

Then the book ends with Ronald Reagan asking about the Seer and one final infodump about the nature of the unaging mutants with catlike eyes who serve as combination plot devices, Mary Sues, and ways to not have to create more characters. Of course they happen to stop aging at convenient times, have an ability to sense other long-lifers, are disease-resistant but not immune, and it took as long as it did for one person to find them out. Hmmm….

The book itself is par for the course for the TBO series, which is to say, it’s substantially below-average. Yes, a lot of its negative reputation comes from the gauntlet-throwing and internet drama accompanying its initial release. Yes, it doesn’t look quite as bad in context when compared to the worst of either internet alternate history or post-1991 technothrillers. Yes, a lot of its flaws aren’t unique to it.

But it’s still clunky, hopping around characters and events. It’s still flat, with characters being either Mary Sues, placeholders, or strawmen.  The worldbuilding is still ridiculously stacked in favor of the Americans. The action is still either bland and one-sided or extra-bland. The stiff dialogue in this book (and in the whole series) is distinctly bad, even by the standards of low-end fiction. It’s still just not good.

Snippet Reviews: January 2020

New year, new set of snippet reviews.

Return of the Ottomans

Return Of The Ottomans is a clunky “Big war thriller” only distinguished by its premise. Turkey invading Bulgaria is more conceptually interesting and the action isn’t the worst in a nuts and bolts way, but jumping viewpoints and Steel Panthers Characterization at its worst bring it down.

The Fires Of Midnight

The Fires of Midnight is the last of the classic Blaine McCrackens, before Dead Simple knocked the series off course. While I now knew the formula in great detail, it doesn’t change that the formula is a good one-and that it includes an excellent finale in an excellent place.

Sword Point

I wanted Sword Point, Harold Coyle’s second novel, to be good, and it still ultimately is. Yet it has this awkward feeling of a one-hit wonder musician trying to make lightning strike twice. The same formula and theme is there, and it’s not bad. But it just doesn’t have the kick the initial installment has.

It’s still tanks going boom in a solid, flowing way. And the Middle Eastern setting is distinct. But it’s just missing something.