Review: The Seventh Secret

The Seventh Secret

One of those “just a little bit more highbrow than the mushiest mush” popular fiction authors, Irving Wallace had The Seventh Secret as one of his later books. This is an entry in a subgenre that can best be described as “HITLER LIVED!”, the kind of “secret history” book that embodies a trope that probably started the moment the war ended.

This book has a lot of detail that’s basically higher-brow versions of “I know the exact designation of a Scud TEL”. It has Wallace’s reputation for sleaze come across as well. While this sort of thing is common among cheap thrillers, it’s a little bit worse here. Yet the book manages to flow well in spite of these, to his legitimate credit. It also has surprisingly good buildup.

Yet the book ultimately comes across as, weirdly, both too bizarre and too mundane at the same time. Part of this is the very premise. Part of it is a comparative lack of action, with only a handful of humdrum fight scenes. The biggest part, and one that takes away from the effective buildup, is that there really isn’t that much of a villainous plot, expecting the audience to take “HITLER LIVED” as awe-inspiring enough by itself. Still, this was a satisfactory book.

Review: Red Army

Red Army

So I actually haven’t done a formal review of Ralph Peters’ masterpiece Red Army on this blog yet. I think I should, because well, it’s my clear choice for “best conventional World War III book of all time.” It has fewer competitors for that title than I originally thought when I first read it, but still manages to stay above them.

The story of a conventional WW3 in 198X, the book jumps between the perspectives of various Soviets as they carry out the war. One of the best “big war thrillers” at managing the viewpoint jumps, it never feels awkward or clunky in that regard. The characterization is very good, especially by the standards of the genre. And it works very well at avoiding an excessive focus on technology.

Of course, Peters has the Soviets win, and thus deserves extra credit for going against the tide. At the time the book was published, there was a (justifiable) sense of increasing triumphalism. Having them win and win handily was a good move. Especially since it doesn’t come across as being done for cheap shock value.

There’s a few sour parts. While the viewpoint jumping is good, the two messages of “humanize the Soviets” and “show how they can beat NATO” sometimes don’t work well, especially as the latter means characters done just to explain things (granted, as someone who’s read the translated Voroshilov Lectures and similar materials for fun, I understand it in ways a casual reader at the time almost certainly wouldn’t). There’s criticism of how the Soviets advance too fast, which is valid but which I consider a mild issue, no worse than Team Yankee’s similar problem with lopsidedness. My biggest complaint is how the situation is set up to let the Americans almost entirely off the hook for NATO’s defeat.

But these are small problems at most. Red Army is an excellent book, and I have no problem considering it my favorite “Conventional WW3” novel of all time. And it has one of my favorite book covers ever.

A Thousand Words: Red Dawn

Red Dawn

The 1980s classic invasion movie, Red Dawn is a strange beast. While it rightfully ranks up there with Top Gun as one of the most iconic and remembered movies of its generation, I found it had some fundamental issues. And no, it’s not anything dealing with the actual premise.

The production values are very good. The acting is, at the very least, sufficient. Yet the movie’s biggest problem is its conflicting tone. There’s two types of invasion stories, what I call “grim invasion” and “pulpy invasion”. Grim invasion is what most of the original invasion novels were, while pulpy invasion is something out of, well, guess.

Red Dawn sort of awkwardly teeters between elements of both without really settling into one or the other. While not a deal-breaker for the movie, it sours it somewhat and leaves me with the feeling that picking one type, likely pulpy given the concept, would have made for a better story. That being said, the film is still well worth a watch.

Review: The Hunt For Red October

The Hunt For Red October

This is it. The book that started it all. The book that turned Tom Clancy into a juggernaut. It’s time to review The Hunt For Red October. How is it? In short, it’s well-ok?

What I can say about this tale of a loose super-submarine is that it doesn’t really pass the “if this had been published a year or two later by a different author, would it still be as popular as it was?” test. Many works of fiction are so good on their own terms that they’d succeed in that goal. This isn’t. If it had been written by someone else later on, it’d probably be barely remembered as a middle-of-the-road technothriller.

The novel itself isn’t bad by any standards, but it still has all of the issues that would drag Tom Clancy down later on. It’s just those are in a smaller and more manageable form. There’s some bloat, but it’s manageable here. There’s a few too many subplots, but they’re manageable here. There’s the bias, but it’s manageable here. You get the idea. It’s easy to see why it could be a success in its time, but with hindsight, and with me having read other technothrillers before it, I don’t find it that impressive.

It’s also a little dated. Some of it is technical issues that are understandable and minor (for instance, a western author could be forgiven for getting the type of reactor in an Alfa-class wrong). But some of it is the general “wow” factor, again that would have made them a lot more impressive to someone at the time than to a post-Gulf War reader for whom advanced military technology is familiar. This is of course an issue with all of his books and with technothrillers in general. However, it is not an issue with the lavishly-produced, well-filmed movie.

I would say that, like Red Storm Rising, The Hunt For Red October is more of a historical book than an enduring technothriller that can really stand on its own. However, Red October comes across slightly worse in that regard due to being in a bigger niche. While also smaller than I originally thought, the number of technothrillers is still considerably larger than the number of conventional World War III novels.

Snippet Reviews: June 2020

It’s time for more snippet reviews.

The Kingdom of the Seven

There are two things you need to know about The Kingdom of the Seven. 1: It is one of the tamer Blaine McCracken books. 2: It features an evil televangelist building an underground city in an old salt mine.

Sword of the Prophet

The final entry in the Cody’s Army series, Sword of the Prophet is a merely middling book. Though not the worst men’s adventure novel ever, it’s not hard to see why this was the last in the series.

If Tomorrow Comes

A Sidney Sheldon novel about a female con artist, If Tomorrow Comes stands out for its ridiculous character arc. The protagonist goes from being a naive fool to a super-genius very quickly.

A Thousand Words: Violence Fight

Violence Fight

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.

Review: Black Friday

Black Friday

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.

Alternate History World War IIIs

That there are significantly fewer “conventional World War III” books than I thought when I started this blog is something I’ve repeatedly said. But I recently decided to take a look and see just how many (or, to be honest, how few) World War IIIs fit the “tail of the elephant” category of what I first saw online. The criteria were as follows.

  • They obviously had to be mostly conventional World War IIIs.
  • They had to be commercialized, even if only in self-published form.
  • They’re listed by series and not author to prevent long individual series from skewing the results.
  • They had to be unambiguous alternate history. So the 1980s classics wouldn’t count because those are set in a then-contemporary time.
  • They had to take place after 1980. The “just after World War II” WW3s are a different kind of fiction in my eyes.

With that, I got the following rough list.

  • -Harvey Black’s “Effect” series
  • -William Stroock’s World War 1990 series
  • -The Bear’s Claws by Russell Phillips
  • -Northern Fury H Hour
  • -John Agnew’s Operation Zhukov
  • -Brad Smith’s World War III 1985
  • -Martin Archer’s War Breaks Out
  • -James Burke’s The Weekend Warriors
  • -John Schettler’s Kirov series.
  • -Mark Walker’s Dark War series

There’s obviously ones I missed, but still, only ten entries. Ten. For comparison, there’s easily more different authors on the “action hero” tag here (I counted around 17.) It feels both satisfying to see even a general number and a little weird to know that what you saw was something as narrow in scope as Worm fanfiction (even if understandably so).

Review: Agile Retrieval

Agile Retrieval

agileretrievalcover

The SOBs series (officially Soldiers of Barabbas, but like Doom’s Bio-Force-Gun, the real implication is obvious) was a Gold Eagle men’s adventure series of the 1980s. Peter Nealen has cited it as one of the biggest inspirations for Brannigan’s Blackhearts. Agile Retrieval is the eleventh book in the series but the first that I read. Though series house name “Jack Hild” is on the cover, the real author was Robin Hardy.

Having read the successors first, I was on guard for the “having seen those, the original doesn’t seem so original”. This didn’t manifest in a negative way. In part this was because a lot of the elements that were copied were positive ones. For instance, giving the main characters lives outside of the action (we see the wedding and family troubles of the protagonists in the entire first part) makes them more sympathetic and human, unlike the mobster/terrorist killing robots that make up a lot of action-adventure. And in part because this entry, a chase for Nazi Macguffins in Cold War Germany, is a little unconventional.

It’s not really unconventional in a good way, though. The flaws (in particular, the stock villains) are still there, while being a little less action-y and a little more cloak and dagger takes away from the strengths of the formula. The “big, vulnerable team” subgenre of action adventure is, in my opinion, the style that offers the most, and to pull back from it is giving up a lot and not really gaining anything in return. While the structure of the series has many strong points, the structure of this particular book does not. After the opening, it doesn’t manage a good climax and remains slapdash throughout. The pool of cheap thrillers of past and present is so big and vast that I cannot recommend this except for completionists.

 

A Thousand Words: The Hunt For Red October

A Thousand Words: The Hunt For Red October

Probably my first exposure to technothrillers came on the screen, when I watched The Hunt For Red October long ago. The movie is both a classic and, in my controversial opinion, better than the book.

Yes, I said it. The movie distills the essence of the book into one brief tour de force. The main plot is simple enough to distill into screen form without most of the clunkiness that Clancy had even back at the beginning. Yes, there’s more “Hollywood-ism”, but there’s also less of Clancy’s bias.

Technothrillers in general are hard to adapt to the screen because they require a big budget to be effective. In this case, the filmmakers got the budget, got the actors (Sean Connery’s accent notwithstanding), and knew how to separate the wheat from the chaff. The result is one of the best film adaptations of all time.