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.

Review: Vortex

Vortex

Jon Land’s third novel, Vortex, is easier for someone like me who’s already read many books to review. This is because this is where the writing finally clicks. This is where Jon Land goes from “out-there thriller author” to “Jon Land.”

For all that The Doomsday Spiral and The Lucifer Directive were out-there, this manages to one-up them with its tale of cosmic manipulation, a conspiracy that threatens the universe (yes, the universe), and psychic powers. The foot is on the crazy car gas pedal and it never leaves. From here, it’s just a short step to the “majesty” of Blaine McCracken.

Review: The Second Voyage Of The Seventh Carrier

The Second Voyage Of The Seventh Carrier

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The Seventh Carrier series by Peter Albano continues in its next installment.

There, the plotline that takes up the rest of the series begins. As Japan and the rest of the world get to grips with the existence of the Yonaga and its aged but living crew, a haywire killer- satellite system launched by the Chinese begins immediately destroying anything with a jet or rocket engine. Then Kadafi (of all the spellings of the Libyan dictator’s name, Albano uses this one) buys up a bunch of WWII surplus equipment and launches a campaign against Israel. Suddenly a carrier with old propeller fighters is a valuable asset, and it sails into battle again.

Most of the issues with the first book remain. The characters are all national stereotypes, and now there’s more nations to stereotype. The premise is goofy and turns into an excuse to have another slugfest with World War II weapons (which include surface warships as well the carrier and aircraft).

In spite of this, the action is good, as long as one considers the kind of book that it is. Yet I felt a sinking feeling in me (pun partially intended) when I read it. See, this is the second book in an eleven book long series. I’m not sure I want to read that many of Albano’s adventures.

 

Review: The Lucifer Directive

The Lucifer Directive

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This early Jon Land thriller, his second published novel, has all the hallmarks now familiar to me after reading literally over a dozen of his books. In The Lucifer Directive, a young college student gets a wrong number call that changes the fate of him and the world. What makes this book relevant to the original goal of Fuldapocalypse is that the evil plot involves triggering a (nuclear) World War III.

It’s very hard to review a lot of books by the same author in the same style – even if it’s a style one enjoys. And this book, while a little clunkier than some of Land’s later books, still does his “escalating craziness” gambit very well.

In fact, think one of Land’s biggest strengths as a writer, besides his sheer over-the-topness, is his skill at that kind of plot “buildup”, for lack of a better word. Granted, it’s it’s not done in the most graceful way. Yet it works, and works very well.

Review: Marching Through Georgia

Marching Through Georgia

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For a while, SM Stirling’s Draka series was a lightning rod for controversy in the online alternate history community. So I wanted to see how these tales of a continent-spanning slave empire fared as books, minus the controversy over their “plausibility”. Fittingly, I started with Marching Through Georgia.

As the paratroopers jump into the Caucasus, there are anachronistic assault rifles and Vasilek-style automortars against Kar98ks and MG34s. There are the equivalent of postwar MBTs with gun stabilizers. Now it’s not quite the most exaggerated “Vietnam technology against a WWII army” some people have claimed and the Drakan characters are certainly challenged, but it’s unmistakably clear that the Drakans are better than the Germans they’re fighting, that they have better equipment and are better fighters. The deck is clearly stacked and the “These are author’s pets” alarms are clearly ringing. So I could see why the backlash came.

In literary terms, the prose is functional even with a lot of clunky exposition to establish how the timeline diverged (a problem hardly unique to it). There are worse stories out there. The biggest problem is that the Draka themselves aren’t just unsympathetic, they’re uninteresting.

Although to be fair, this never really rises above the level of “slam-bang action war story with even more sleazy titillation thrown in”. In fact, it got to the point where I felt that all the effort expended in (not unreasonably) critiquing its plausibility seemed like punching down.

Take a decent-at-best war romp story with an inherently pulpy nation, add in a bunch of BISEXUAL AMAZONS, and for good measure, toss in some of the  understandable “commercial alternate history” tropes like “there’s still people and events the readers will recognize despite the point of divergence being centuries ago”. Now think-would something like that really stand up to massive, gigantic scrutiny over its plausibility? Would you even expect it to?

A Thousand Words: Iron Eagle

Iron Eagle

Time for a nostalgia piece from my past. I watched Iron Eagle a lot on DVD when I was younger. It is an amazingly stupid and stupidly amazing action aviation movie that is incredibly 1980s.

So, a fighter pilot is shot down over “Libya” and his son, with the aid of a fellow pilot, “acquires” a pair of F-16s to rescue him, causing a massive number of explosions in the process. Because the actual US Air Force was not exactly keen on sponsoring a movie where kids can steal F-16s, the filming was in Israel, with Kfirs playing the role of “MiG-23s.”

The movie’s gotten a lot of understandable comparisons to Top Gun which I think are off-base, and not just because Iron Eagle was actually released before it. Top Gun is a very “Tom Clancy” movie, an idealized story that still has a fig leaf of grounding. Iron Eagle is a very “Mack Maloney” movie, something that just goes “Prepare film for ludicrous speed” and never looks back.

So yeah, there’s a lot of explosions, an F-16 that never runs out of ammunition, an F-16 that lands on a convenient runway in the film’s climax, a water treatment plant that stands in for an oil refinery, the politics you’d expect from an 80s action film, buildings exploding after getting hit with individual Vulcan rounds, a convenient in-universe excuse to play the (excellent) soundtrack at every opportunity, and so much more.

There’s a reason why I watched it so much, and it’s not because the acting was Oscar-worthy. This movie is classic ridiculous 80s fun.

Review: The Eighth Trumpet

The Eighth Trumpet

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Fresh off the first Blaine McCrackens, Jon Land introduced fellow super-agent Jared Kimberlain for a similar absolutely bonkers thriller. The Eighth Trumpet not only has offbeat fight scenes, it also has a plot centered around an, uh-Jerry Ahern-ian grasp of geography. By this point the formula has solidified, especially with the Hulking Strong Sidekick Protagonist who fights the dedicated Hulking Strong Antagonist hand to hand during the climax.

That being said, it manages to out-McCracken even some of Land’s other books with how ridiculous-and fun- some of the set pieces are. It’s not that much different “plot”-wise from many of Land’s other books (at least to someone like me who has actually read a ton of them), but it definitely has a huge spark of “WOAH!” in it, making it very worthwhile.

Review: The Doomsday Spiral

The Doomsday Spiral

Some content creators have first works that are rough around the edges. Some start off strong and get weaker. Some, like Billy Joel in the psychedic-progressive-just-a-keyboardist-and-a-drummer Atilla, are vastly different from their subsequent and most famous pieces. So I decided to read Jon Land’s first novel, The Doomsday Spiral, and see where it fell.

The book roars out of the gate as Israeli super-vigilante “Alabaster” must stop a plot by the Palestinian “Red Prince” to neutralize the Americans so that they can deal with the Israelis later (the Red Prince must have gotten his lessons in target priorities from the Red Storm Rising Politburo). This could have been a middle-of-the-road “shoot the terrorist” novel. It wasn’t.

By Jon Land standards, fighting a giant man with a chainsaw (as happens in this book) is pretty tame. By normal thriller standards, especially the kind of thrillers I call “supermarket novels”, it’s delightfully out there.

I saw pretty much every plot device used in subsequent Land novels. The superpowered main character. The over-the-top ridiculousness of it all. The conspiracy-in-a-conspiracy. The inevitable action scene against a particularly tough level boss antagonist. An overall feeling of swinging back and forth between “awesomely stupid” and “stupidly awesome.” I’d say it’s formulaic, but when part of the formula is “ridiculous stuff happens”, it doesn’t feel so bad as long as Land can deliver. And here he does.