Review: Red Phoenix

Red Phoenix


Larry Bond’s Red Phoenix, telling the story of a second Korean War, is something I’ve struggled with for a while but now, after a lot of other books read, have the words to successfully describe. In short, it’s the Marine Force One of “big war thrillers”.

Every archetype of the small genre is there. The shifting viewpoints from top to bottom. Going into every part of the theater. And so on. And they’re executed with enough skill to not be bad, but not enough to be truly memorable or standing out.

What does stand out, and which I also have a more nuanced view of than I used to, is the long intro setting up the war. I’ve thought it, from a literary perspective, to be less than ideal. It’s taking a huge amount of effort to set up something the reader already knows will happen.

But from a plausibility perspective, given the massive unlikelihood of a Second Korean War even at the height of the north’s power, I can forgive it for putting in the effort to set up a situation where it could happen. It’s certainly better and less ridiculous than Cauldron at any rate.

And what else is there to say? This is very much a “if you like the genre, you’ll like this book. If you don’t, you won’t” kind of novel.

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.


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: The Valhalla Testament

The Valhalla Testament


I knew what I was getting into when I got the book. The Valhalla Testament is a Jon Land novel starring New York Giants running back (!) Jamie Skylar as he travels to Nicaragua to investigate and foil a very Jon Land-ian supervillain plot.

This book hits every Jon Land note. Trained attack crocodiles, double-crosses, double-double crosses, a plot that veers between “amazingly stupid” and “stupidly amazing”, “.60 Caliber machine guns”, and, in my personal favorite plot twist, an antimatter facility that not only gets blown up, but whose containment procedures as described were so terrible that it probably deserved to get blown up.

By its author’s ridiculous standards, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of some of the Blaine McCracken novels. But it’s still a good cheap thriller that very much has the spark Land at his best possesses.


Review: Cold Allies

Cold Allies


Patricia Anthony’s debut novel Cold Allies is a distinctive book. But it is not exactly distinctive in a good way.

First, there’s two awkward plots. One plot is the surrealist tale of blue alien orbs that suck people in. The second plot is a sort of “World War III” where an “Arab National Army”, fleeing the drought and famine of an ecologically devastated world, invades Europe. There are (even by technothriller standards) a ton of shallow viewpoint characters who are constantly being shuffled around, taking out what little coherence might have existed.

The war plot is one of those weird cases where one might think the biggest issue would be the book being too political. And yes, a lot of the characters are shallow stereotypes, seemingly contributing to it. But it’s handled just totally matter-of-factly, kind of like Dark Rose or Ian Slater’s USA VS Militia series. For the alien plot, it crosses the line from “surreal” to “pretentious” pretty handily. This book is little but a bizarre novelty.


Review: Dead Simple

Dead Simple


The ninth book in the Blaine McCracken series, Dead Simple marked a point where it took a very long hiatus afterward.

It’s easy to see why. This book devolves into “Captain Beefheart Playing Normal Music” in a way that no previous Blaine McCracken book did. McCracken is, in the early parts, treated as aging and vulnerable-a problem both in terms of thematic dissonance and how he’s back to his old self instantly when the climax happens. The moments of whimsy and craziness that make the series so amusing feel half-hearted at best. The storyline is closer to a mundane “shoot the terrorist” than any previous McCracken, the MacGuffin is the least interesting and most bland in the series to date, and its historical-treasure subplot felt awkward and out of place, like it was trying too hard to follow the exact path of a Clive Cussler novel.

If this was in isolation with a new hero named, I dunno, Bruce McDowell, I’d have considered it a decent, slightly eccentric, run-of-the-mill “51% thriller”. But in comparison to its gonzo predecessors, it can’t help but fall short. Leaving the series buried for over a decade before a fortunate revival might have been for the best if the alternative was to stagger on into mundanity, losing everything that made Blaine McCracken fun and distinctive to begin with.

Review: Day Of The Delphi

Day Of The Delphi


Despite being the sixth in the series, Day Of The Delphi is actually the first Blaine McCracken book I’d heard of. How had I heard of it? Well, it’s quite a story. Shamus Young, one of my favorite video game commentators, had listed it as one of his least favorite books ever. Naturally, this piqued my interest and I found the greatest thriller protagonist name ever. A little later, I heard the name “Blaine McCracken” again, got The Omega Command, and never looked back.

As for Day Of The Delphi itself, it’s excellent-by Blaine McCracken standards. The previous entry, The Vengeance of the Tau was still good, but it suffered from having the first disappointing central gimmick in the series. McCracken returns to form in this ridiculous epic.

The tone of this book (and the whole series) can be summed up by a scene disappointing to me. The disappointing scene did not involve any inconsistency, by now routine super-gambits, or laughably inaccurate designations of weapons. All those are in the book, but they aren’t the disappointing part of it.

No, the disappointing scene was a fight in a slaughterhouse that failed to take advantage of the potential to use live cows as weapons. McCracken uses the ramrod to kill an enemy. It needed more “battle cattle”. Other than the lack of battle cattle, this was a ridiculous Blaine McCracken spectacle extraordinaire. Yes, even by the standards of other books in the series.

It doesn’t have a MacGuffin that’s weird, but it makes up for by having an incredibly ridiculous (the plan of this book’s super-conspiracy ranks as dumb even by the standards of Blaine McCracken super-conspiracies) main plot. Some might reasonably think that’s bad. To me, I view it as part of the fun.

Review: SEAL Team Seven Direct Action

SEAL Team Seven 4: Direct Action


The SEAL Team Seven series, however much I enjoyed the first installment, is not the kind of series where reading every book in order is the most appropriate. So I decided on Direct Action for two main reasons. The first is that the summary seemed a little interesting. The second is that it’s the first book after original author William Keith was replaced by another writer under the “Keith Douglass” house name.

So, Lt. Blake Murdock (it’s not quite Blaine McCracken but it’s close) has to lead his SEALS into Lebanon to destroy a plant producing counterfeit American money, fighting Hezbollah and the Syrian Army in the process. The prose is a little clunkier and the action somewhat more extreme than the first book, but it’s still a good cheap thriller.

In fact, this book manages to have its cake and eat it too in a good way. It manages to have its SEALS scything their way through enemy fighters, soldiers, commandos, BMPS, and helicopters while at the same time throwing semi-plausible bits of “friction” in their path to make them earn their mission-and not without loss.

A part of me has “glass half empty” thoughts where I think “what if the big-name technothriller writers did a slightly higher-brow version of this instead of clunking along with an increasingly obsolete Cold War thriller model?” and lament what wasn’t. But another part of me has “glass half full” thoughts where I can just enjoy this well-done cheap thriller for what it is.

Snippet Reviews: August 1-11 2019

It’s time for more snippet reviews.

The Omicron Legion

The fourth Blaine McCracken book, The Omicron Legion continues Land’s style of ridiculous plots, quadruple-crosses (yes, I’m using that word), and BLAINE MCCRACKEN action. If you liked the past Blaine McCracken books, you’ll like this a lot.

The Mercenaries: Blood Diamonds

This Peter Telep (under a pen name) novel would be a routine 2000s thriller if not for one thing-the dialogue. It’s ridiculously and constantly crazy. This wouldn’t be too big of a deal if the actual story was goofy to match, but it’s supposed to be a serious tale of weary mercs in the southern African wilderness.

While it at least it stands out a little because of that, this book really ought to be focused around a Macguffin giant magical diamond that can power a super-deathray, not a stash of normal ones.

Terror in Taos

One of the Penetrator novels, Terror in Taos serves up all the 1970s “vigilante vs mobsters” action one could possibly want. By the standards of the genre, it’s very good. The action, which includes hero Mark Hardin storming a desert castle, is good. There’s even a bit of semi-mystical Native American stuff that makes it even more ridiculously over-the-top and fun (yes, it could easily be tasteless and offensive to a modern audience, but this is a 70s action novel-what did you honestly expect?).