Review: The Trench Soldier

The Trench Soldier

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This is the 250th post on Fuldapocalypse. I could write about the undeniable fear living a hundred miles from a pandemic epicenter. I could write about how the blog has been one of the few high points during an unsatisfying life ridden with mental health issues even before the crisis,

But instead, since there’s enough gloom out there already, I’m going to write about a bad Casca book. And The Trench Soldier is very bad. And unlike The Samurai, which had Casca just plopped inside an essentially unrelated adventure, this has him front and center. It’s bad in a criticize-able way. While trying to find the true authorship of the Sadler-fronted Cascas is essentially impossible, the talk has been that he did not personally write this. Whoever did, well, they failed-but failed amusingly.

The Casca Formula I saw after just a few books is in rigid force here. Take a historical period-World War I, in this case. Plop Casca in it and subject him to the most stereotypical pop culture set pieces of that era, from charges into machine guns to poison gas. Have him meet the appropriate historical figures, in this case Immelman and a young Herman Goering. Utterly fail to explore any element of his character, or I should say any potential element of his character, because his character doesn’t really exist or stay consistent at all.

What makes The Trench Soldier special is that it goes above and beyond the usual. Events that took place throughout the war are stuffed into a few months in 1914. There’s a ridiculous scene where Casca battles a Zeppelin. If the whole series was full of this over-the-top craziness, I’d think a lot more highly of it. Sadly, it’s not. The historical inaccuracy can be summed up by him defending the Maginot Line at Verdun in 1914.

It’s not a good book, and it’s rare that even a bad example in a series puts every single one of its flaws in the forefront. But this is what The Trench Soldier does. It somehow manages to take all the Casca weaknesses and amplify them while keeping the very small number of strengths. And that’s strangely impressive.

Review: Howling Wilderness

Howling Wilderness

The sourcebook Howling Wilderness sets the basis for the remaining North American setting in Twilight 2000.

I feel that in an isolated spherical cow world, the North American modules of Twilight 2000 should have been a different setting, something like “Apocalypse 2000”. It would probably be a good idea to alter the rules so that the out-there adventures can be a lot more viable. But theme alone would be enough to make the switch.

There’s two literary problems with actually keeping it and the original European setting part of the same universe. The first is the creative regression. The European setting is a clever way to square the circle of “Ok, we want you to be in the army but we also want you to be able to run free. We’ll make this post-apocalyptic, but not too post-apocalyptic, since we still want there to be tons of those tanks around.” There are still flaws, and not just the impossibility to balance dark struggles for survival, rivet-counting crunchy gaming, and traditional RPG adventure that all appear in the rules.

Enter this, where the setting is more of a traditional post-apocalyptic one. North America has been crushed by a mega-drought and everyone has withered down. This leads to the second problem, which is how this led to gimmicks. It feels like the setting should be doubling down on the “grim survival” element, but then an individual sourcebook has a submarine plot right out of Jerry Ahern’s Survivalist, making things more muddled than ever.

I don’t blame GDW for releasing new content out of business necessity. I also think that, given the flexibility GMs have for actually running games, the negative effects of any official supplement are inherently limited. But I still feel that, like how the Survivalist jumped the shark post-timeskip, Twilight 2000 also jumped post Atlantic crossing.

Review: The Awakening

The Awakening

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The tenth Survivalist book, The Awakening is when the series changes significantly. Having spent centuries in suspended animation to ride out a world-consuming fire wave underground, the Rourkes now emerge to take stock of the changes and aid the space-launched Eden Project as it prepares to return. John Rourke ages his children by selectively thawing and refreezing them so that they can be the same age as the adults when they wake up, and they emerge into a world where human life still exists.

This book, if I had to reedit/adapt the Survivalist series, probably wouldn’t even exist at all. I’d probably fold the recovery and the Eden Project return into an epilogue to Book 9 at worst and a few extra chapters at best, and then conclude the series there. But in actual history, the books were selling enough to continue and Ahern finally had the ability to make them more and more science fiction-y.

While the Survivalist series was never a “hard” setting to begin with (after all, the nuclear war caused multiple states to tumble into the ocean), here begins an even more contrived setup. There was an underground shelter. And another underground shelter. And another underground city. And an underwater city! It’s very much like a Bethesda Fallout game where there’s a lot of conveniently working stuff laying around centuries after the war, and it becomes a more obvious author’s toy with each new book after this.

(Later there will be a second timeskip that will obliterate the last traces of any post-apocalyptic residue in the setting, but that’s another story)

The actual book itself is more satisfactory Jerry Ahern action, but this is still the time when the series jumped the shark.

 

Review: The Council Of Ten

The Council Of Ten

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Jon Land’s The Council Of Ten is a thriller that starts off with the impression of being overly mundane. Launching with the obvious Miami Vice-inspired tone and location, the book starts slowly and there’s a fear of just being a slightly eccentric drug novel. Thankfully, the super-conspiracy reasserts itself, the Big Burly Bad Guy Thug appears, and soon all is right with the world.

It’s incredibly hard to review a lot of similar books by one author. The Council Of Ten is a little subpar by Jon Land standards. The MacGuffin not living up to some of the more ridiculous ones isn’t really too bad. Worse is that there’s a little too much space devoted to long and comparably mundane fights. But it still has all the wonderful craziness Land is known for, and, after its slow introduction, it never feels like a rote 51% book.

And besides, you’ve gotta give props to a book that has a conference room on its cover.

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: First Clash

First Clash

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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.

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.

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.

Review: Rage of Angels

Rage of Angels

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Sidney Sheldon’s parade of “gilded cheap thrillers” continues in Rage of Angels. This is the tale of lawyer Jennifer Parker and her twists and turns as she tangles with (and beds) powerful politicians and more powerful mobsters.

Now, it’s still a sleazy sow of a cheap thriller that smothers its face in just enough designer cosmetics to appear slightly respectable for those bookshelves. But for all its cliches, it’s considerably less sleazy and considerably more genuine than The Other Side of Midnight ever was.

This helps it a lot, as there’s more focus on the actual substance and less on forced pretentiousness. What this leads to is a virtuous cycle. Being able to dial back on some of the pseudo-splendor means the characters are more interesting, which in turn means that there’s less need for “look at this wonderful exotic place” filler…

The opening act is Fuldapocalypse’s first dip into that lucrative genre-the legal thriller. I know very little about law, but even I know that the cases move way too fast and that certain ones that I’m 99.999999999999999999999999999999% sure would result in a settlement end up in front of a jury so that Parker can win. Yes, I’m utterly and horribly shocked that a book reviewed on Fuldapocalypse is unrealistic. And I’m even more shocked that a lot of the later plot turns out to be contrived.

The later parts, although told in the faux-flowery style I’d come to know from Sheldon’s previous book, actually work better. The ending is rushed, but it’s actually less so than some of the outright pulp I’ve read. Sheldon knew his audience and knew his style, and by those standards, Rage of Angels works.

 

Review: The Circle War

The Circle War

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The second entry in Mack Maloney’s Wingman series, The Circle War remains every bit as ridiculous, if not more so, than the first. If one desires accurate depictions of military hardware, any kind of deep plot, or moral ambiguity, this book is not for you.

However, if you desire a tale of a man named after a fighter aircraft flying his super- F-16 from everywhere from Hawaii to Yankee Stadium, fighting everything from “air pirates” to Mongolian horsemen, and periodically recharging by bedding a beautiful woman jumping right into his lap, this book is for you.

What I like is that there’s absolutely no attempt at making this “realistic”, “plausible”, or “grounded” apart from sometimes getting the equipment names right (but only sometimes). It’s just a continent-spanning parade of goofiness, and that’s not a bad thing at all.