Review: The Delian Cycle

The Delian Cycle

The quality of Kenneth Bulmer’s “Delian Cycle” of Dray Prescot novels (I got the omnibus edition) can be described in this anecdote. I dove straight through all 27 Survivalists with ease. To get through the five individually shorter Prescots took me considerably more effort. The question is…. why? I know I’ve explained my frustrations in my review of the second installment, but they deserve elaboration. After all, it’s not like I’ve had objections to reading similarly shallow cheap thrillers before.

The biggest reason is the prose, which is incredibly overwrought. It’s very hard to get through and takes away from whatever feelings the action might generate. Bulmer is seemingly never satisfied to use one paragraph to describe something when he can use three, and throw in another made-up word or ten while he’s at it. Still, if I can read Mike Lunnon-Wood, I can read him.

Then there’s the action, which labors under the horrendous prose and is just so constant that it becomes mundane. This is another reason, and it’d be a perfectly good reason. After all, cheap thrillers need to be good with action. But the action still isn’t the worst.

Another issue is the setting. The worldbuilding consists of nothing but throwing out so many names that the omnibus needs a giant glossary at the end, yet all it accomplishes is the creation of a sword and planet theme park, with the “exotic” names and airships and places being pushed so hard they lose any appeal. But it’s not like a bad setting is an absolute turn-off in a genre that depends on execution.

No, I think the biggest problem is the artificial nature of it. The books always involve Prescot getting teleported in and out by the MacGuffin People Star Lords. To use so blatant a setup would be bad, but what makes it worse is that they’re written in a kayfabe “Prescot has narrated this on cassette tapes to Alan Burt Akers [Bulmer’s pen name]” style. What turns this from a gimmick into a flaw is that the tapes are used as get-out-of-trouble cards where-not infrequently during a dramatic moment-Bulmer will just say “and then the tapes are missing, but Prescot clearly got out of it”.

I maintain a weird curiosity for the series, but it’s not very good.

Review: The Suns of Scorpio

The Suns Of Scorpio

sunsofscorpiocover

A while ago on Fuldapocalypse, I reviewed the first of Kenneth Bulmer’s Dray Prescot “sword and planet” novels, Transit to Scorpio. That was at least somewhat fun. The second novel, The Suns of Scorpio, is less fun and more pretentious. And after only one book, the novelty of the setting has definitely worn off.

The setting is about a continent wide and a millimeter deep. This wouldn’t be such a problem if it was supposed to be mundane (ie, a world with a convenient near-endless supply of mobsters for Mack Bolan to kill) but it’s intended to be “exotic” and “awe-inspiring”. What it comes across as is nothing more than a literary version of the kind of trashy sword and sandal movie you’d see on Mystery Science Theater. By trying to be more than it is, the setting turns into less than it is.

Of course, the setting and concept are all secondary to the execution in this kind of work. And here it fails even more crucially. Bulmer’s prose is ridiculous without being ridiculously fun. To call it purple would be an incredibly horrific understatement. Yet it really isn’t that exciting. It should be, but it isn’t, since Bulmer just overdoes everything. Especially the descriptions.

To top it off, The Suns of Scorpio ends on a cliffhanger that brings the artificiality of the setting to full force. I’ll just say that after reading this, I knew why the sword and planet genre declined so much in popularity.

(As an aside, with 52 entries completed before Bulmer’s death, Dray Prescot is one of those individual series that far outstrips the entire “conventional WWIII” niche in terms of quantity).

Review: The Third World War, August 1985

The Third World War: August 1985

hackettcover

John Hackett’s Third World War was, even more than Red Storm Rising, the book that started off the subgenre this blog was founded on. Thus I figured making it my first review of 2020 was an appropriate milestone.

This is incredibly hard to review. I was initially very dismissive of this book when I read it. And in an isolated “spherical cow” sense, I still feel that way.

Compared to Team Yankee, Red Army, Chieftains, and even RSR itself, it offers very little in terms of literary quality. It’s dated (there’s a reference to Abrams as “XM1s”, which is kind of like calling T-64s “Object 432s”). It’s a mixture of straight “pseudo-history” and clunky, sometimes dubiously written vignettes, all stuffed together awkardly. It has, with the Birmingham-Minsk “trade”, one of the worst examples of plotnukes ever. The whole thing is a political lobbying document in the shape of a novel.

And yet, this is perhaps the most context-affected book I’ve ever read. To someone like me who treated the Heavy OPFOR Tactical as casual reading and has seen many, many primary sources, it’s not novel in any way. To someone of that time period, especially someone who wasn’t an analyst, it definitely would be. The nature of this book makes its novelty even more essential than normal, due to its shortcomings.

Hackett’s Third World War has a few interesting scenes, like the chapter detailing how the general public saw the war. It deserves credit for being the first out of the gate. While I originally thought that it was a bad influence on later books of its type, a more thorough reading of the “big war thriller” subgrene reveals that it really wasn’t.

That being said, to a modern audience, it’s still really nothing more than an even more dated version of The War That Never Was, with all the baggage you might expect from it. It’s a very important historical piece and is worth a read for that alone, but it hasn’t aged well.

Review: The Death Merchant

The Death Merchant

Joseph Rosenberger’s Death Merchant is one of the most notorious men’s adventure series of all time. Its reputation is such that I had to check it out, starting with the first volume.

The adventures of psychotic super-assassin Richard Camellion start off on a mixed note. Like the Destroyer series, the Death Merchant (for understandable business reasons) had to start off with a conventional “shoot the mobster” plot that has little in common with the crazed excesses the later books reached.

That being said, Rosenberger’s writing er, “eccentricities” are definitely on display en masse here. Long and weird descriptions of gore, over-detailed action scenes, and more, including an erratic prose style with lots of exclamation points, “grace” the pages of the book as Camellion slaughters his way through.

Rather than sink into the middle of the pack, the initial Death Merchant at least stands out due to its writing style. Whether or not it’s in a good or bad way depends on your tastes.

Review: The Kidnapping Of The President

The Kidnapping Of The President

Charles Templeton lived a long and involved life which involved everything from newspaper editor to author. His debut thriller, The Kidnapping of The President, was  later made into a William Shatner movie.

Adam Scott, the President, goes off to campaign in congressional elections in New York City. A pair of South American revolutionaries with an armored truck are there as well, and…. look at the title. Then the cabinet, a scandal-hit vice president, and the perpetrators all race against time, as the plot twists and turns.

This book wasn’t exactly breaking new ground even at the time, and it has issues. Issues like the grounded and genuinely researched deep infodumps clashing with the inherently strange premise (which is even mentioned in-story). Issues like the few action scenes, when they finally happen, being dry and questionable.

And yet it flows well in spite of the “look how much I researched” exposition, works acceptably as a read to pass the time on a dreary, snowy day, and does what a cheap thriller needs to do. The novelty of a “a prominent Canadian media figure wrote a cheap thriller about the American president being kidnapped” helps it stand out, but this book works even beyond that.

Snippet Reviews: October 2019

The Press Gang

Kenneth Bulmer (as “Adam Hardy”) wrote the Fox series of age-of-sail adventures in the 1970s. The Press Gang is marked as being the second in the series in the modern Kindle format, but it was the first actually printed (chronological vs. publication order?).

In any case, the tale of George Abercrombie Fox is not the best one to ride across the waves. Bulmer’s prose, which I recognized from the Dray Prescot books, isn’t the best, and the setup is this weird hybrid of cheap thriller and Herman Melville “this is what an age of sail ship is like”.

The Enigma Strain

Nick Thacker’s first book in the Harvey Bennett series of thrillers, The Enigma Strain is a solid thriller, if a 51% one. The book features the titular park ranger and a CDC scientist as they fight to stop a plot that involves an ancient, exotic disease and multiple nuclear bombs.

On one hand, it’s in the awkward uncanny valley that plagues a lot of cheap thrillers. It’s clearly too ridiculous to be realistic, but it’s not bombastic enough to be the gonzo silly thriller that it deserves to be. On the other, it’s still competent enough to be a passable, fun reading experience, and that’s what cheap thrillers are supposed to be.

Review: The Other Side Of Midnight

The Other Side Of Midnight

midnightcover

The time has come for Fuldapocalypse to broaden its horizons once more. Now reviewed is Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side Of Midnight. This is in the kind of fiction genre best described, for lack of a better word, as the “romantic epic”, or maybe “romantic suspense.” How do I even begin to unpack this tale of scheming women, world war (well, technically), and romantic drama?

Well, the plot itself focuses on the romantic entanglements and schemes of four people throughout decades. Noelle Page, a French beauty who schemes. Catherine Alexander, an innocent midwestern American. Larry Douglas, a boorish but handsome pilot. And tycoon Aristotle Onassis  Constantin Demeris.

See, this book is very much a cheap thriller at heart, but it’s what I call a “gilded cheap thriller”. Most of the other stuff from the period I’d have reviewed on this blog is obvious, open, blatant, unashamed, sleaze-pulp. This is that in substance, but it’s wrapped in a tiny fig leaf of “sophistication” and “grandeur”.

It has the trappings of a literary epic that travels across time and place. There are descriptions of places, chapters marked by the passing of time, and narrative statements. All of which serve to bookend one scene of sleazy romance novel cliches (really, even someone like me could instantly spot almost all of them) after another.

The question that went through my mind after I finished was “was this intentional”? Was it a case of Sheldon’s pretensions exceeding his literary skill? Or was it knowingly making something that deliberately sleazy yet slightly, visually “respectable” enough for people to buy it without guilt? My very strong feeling is the latter, given that the author was already experienced in show business long before he wrote novels.

Well, whatever it was, it worked at selling lots and lots of books, especially this one.

Review: God Of Death

Casca: God Of Death

casca2cover

So I figure I should mention the best Casca book in my eyes. That would be the second, God of Death. By some accounts in the confusing internet tangle of rumor and whisper surrounding the series, it’s the last book Sadler personally wrote. I have no knowledge or evidence for any of this being true or not, but figure I should mention it.

In the book itself, Casca sails with the Vikings and ends up in pre-Colombian Central America. Then he gets his heart cut out-and puts it back in what should have been the defining scene of the series. Cue many of the Casca staples. The doomed romance, the “exotic” historical eras, and the lack of strict accuracy.

What makes this Casca stand out is that it actually runs with the supernatural qualities and the immortality gimmick in a way that many of the later ones simply don’t. It could be that the series was still fresh and new, or it could be that the vagueness of this time and place gave Casca more breathing room than a more documented one where he ultimately has to stick to history. Whatever it is, God Of Death is one of the few books where Casca’s premise lives up to its potential.

Review: Lone Wolf-Night Raider

Lone Wolf: Night Raider

nightraidercover

The book Night Raider is the first entry in the Lone Wolf series of “shoot the mobster” vigilante novels, written by famed sci-fi author Barry Malzberg under the pen name “Mike Barry”. The novels have the reputation of being…. something. I’ll put it that way. And that reputation is deserved.

What Malzberg himself admitted in an interview and essays was both that: A: The Lone Wolves were churned out quickly for the money to ride the “shoot the mobster” bandwagon and B: When he read an Executioner book prior to writing the Lone Wolf, he didn’t like it. You might think this had a negative effect on the series, and you would be right.

The book itself is the most generic 70s vigilante “be wronged, shoot the mobster” plot. I could guess everything if I’d only read War Against The Mafia. I could probably even guess everything just from secondhanded knowledge of the genre. The biggest, and arguably only divergence is how much of a lunatic the main character is (which is very much intended).

But it’s executed (no pun intended) in this almost avant-garde blocky stream-of-conciousness infodump style that joins Mike Lunnon-Wood’s lush “just keep going and talk it out, describe it out, but calmly” and Bob Forrest-Webb’s “I never met an exclamation point I didn’t like!” prose in the “weird style for a cheap thriller” club.

In many ways, the thoughts and controversies surrounding this series are better and more interesting than the books themselves. Night Raider itself, thanks to its origins, just has all the all the weaknesses of both artistic and commercial fiction. It has few of the strengths of either.

 

Review: Transit To Scorpio

Transit To Scorpio

scorpiocover

Though published close to fifty years ago, Kenneth Bulmer’s Transit to Scorpio was already almost an anachronism when it was released. Much of what we now know as “science fiction” and “fantasy” was once unified in a type of genre following in the footsteps of the legendary John Carter of Mars, one known as “sword and planet”, involving Earthmen traveling across exotic worlds and fighting with blades.

This book fits that category to a T. 18th century sailor Dray Prescot is transported to the planet Kregen around the star of Antares, where he proceeds to be rejuvenated and made near-immortal, only to be cast loose as he disobeys his masters to aid a beautiful woman, Delia. Cue a book of “planetary romance” (another name for the genre) in every definition of the term.

Transit to Scorpio has a lot of prose that’s sadly familiar even to someone like me who’s only read a bit of the style of the day, being both overwrought and clunky. It also has a plot setup that’s familiar, with almost all of the “science fiction” elements being used to set up the plot and little more. In spite of this, it’s not bad, particularly by the standards of the genre.