Review: The Eleventh Commandment

The Eleventh Commandment

It’s time for Fuldapocalypse to turn to another author of high sales but low reputation, British writer, politician, and convicted criminal Jeffrey Archer. Even though a lot of Archer’s books, from their descriptions, come across as the type of work I call the “pop epic” (ie, Sidney Sheldon), CIA thriller The Eleventh Commandment looked like a grocery store cheap thriller. In fact, it looked so much like a grocery store cheap thriller that I felt a bit of trepidation-would this be nothing but a Marine Force One with a more well-known author’s name on the cover, forgettable mush?

The answer is “kind of.” Its realism, or lack thereof, comes from simply adopting a different baseline. It wants to be a serious cloak and dagger story, which makes every inaccuracy and contrivance more glaring. Furthermore, the prose is very blocky, the pacing slow, and despite seemingly high stakes on paper, it doesn’t feel that way in practice. At least it’s not too long, but it’s just dry and clunky.

The result is something that feels like it has all the weaknesses of a cliche cheap thriller, but few to none of the strengths. Whatever Archer could write, this kind of novel is not it.

Review: Generic Enemy: Mobile Forces

Generic Enemy: Mobile Forces

So now it’s time to do a formal review of an OPFOR document. While an unusual choice, this one I believe is the most interesting, as it’s both a description and a sort of prediction. A 1990s British document made available via their version of the FOIA law fairly recently, the Mobile Forces is my favorite OPFOR publication, and not just due to its massive size.

First, I have to say the obvious thing quickly: This is a field manual written in field-manualese, not anything that’s meant to be any kind of literary work. That being said, its comprehensiveness is something.

Like most OPFORs, it’s an idealized Soviet-style opponent. Unlike most OPFORs, especially the American Heavy OPFOR, it doesn’t just present that (even with post-1991 hindsight/sources) but also tries to look ahead, in this case towards a “hybrid” model that Russia at the time tried and, for obvious reasons, largely failed to actually adopt until decades later. A two-tier force exists, the “Basic” and “Mobile” forces.

The Basic Forces are arranged in traditional Soviet style, only with some differences-special premade forward detachments, a few other organizational changes, and, most importantly, many divisions having only three rather than four regiments at paper strength. The Mobile Forces, meant to be the cream of the crop, use the same “Brigade-Corps” organization that the Soviet tank forces in World War II used.

The Mobile Forces have permanent combined-arms battalions (while still eager to make ad hoc task forces if need be). Their brigades have a large number of battalions under their command. The document goes into massive detail as to how these two types of forces are meant to fight and work together.

There’s also a few changes.

  • The intended rate of advance slows down. Whether this is because of better artillery/enemy mobility/etc… or because the original rates were too optimistic is a good question, but it’s there.
  • Tactical use of nuclear and chemical weapons, while obviously not removed, is de-emphasized, simply because “conventional” weapons have gotten better.

As one of the best OPFOR pieces, this is well worth a read to enthusiasts, wargamers, and the like as a study of a “futuristic” yet still recognizably Soviet force. I’ll admit I’ve taken more than a little inspiration from it for my own writing, simply because of the effective, distinctive, two-tier military it portrays.

Review: Planeswalker

Planeswalker

The second novel in the Magic: The Gathering “Artifacts Cycle”, Lynn Abbey’s Planeswalker is a strange book that succeeds in one way but seemingly fails in its main goal. Where it succeeds, at least to me, is in one of its main characters.

Xantcha, a woman who was created by the technomagic horror plane of Phyrexia as an infiltrator, but who grew to have (mostly) free will of her own, steals the show. I’ll admit that the notion of an artificial almost-but-not-quite human is a fascinating one for me, and Abbey succeeds at portraying her well, certainly better than Urza himself.

Part of the problem is that the rest of the book consists of clunky pushes towards one middling set piece after another. As good as Xantcha’s story is, it gets in the way of the main plot. Furthermore, having the numbers routinely get big – ie “A THOUSAND YEAR journey” actually makes the experiences seem smaller and more mundane. Thus one big part of the book is better than the whole. But that part sure is good.

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.

Review: The Brothers’ War

The Brothers’ War

One of the big games in my childhood was Magic: The Gathering, a fantasy card game with a surprisingly deep and varied backstory. Having encountered some parts of the backstory when I was younger, I turned my attention recently to The Brothers’ War, a novel by author Jeff Grubb.

The plot features brothers Urza and Mishra as they grow up and turn against each other, eventually leading opposite sides in a war of techno-supernatural contraptions. While passable, the prose isn’t the best, and the descriptions of large events take precedence over character development. The book is also about a third longer than it should have been. I kept seeing more repetition than I felt was necessary, and this comes at the expense of a rushed finale.

Still, you could do worse. The setting is a genuinely interesting one that takes fantasy tropes and builds on them, and while it could have been better, the writing could also have been done more poorly than it was.

Review: The Kamikaze Legacy

The Kamikaze Legacy

A sequel to The Yakusa Tattoo, The Kamikaze Legacy continues to follow hardboiled Ed Mulvaney as he moves to foil another international plot in a stereotypical Japan, this one concerning a deep-sea expedition with sinister motives. This is less the “crazy Jerry Ahern novel mixed with technothriller” of its predecessor and more “crazy Jerry Ahern novel mixed with Clive Cussler-esque technology/ secret history thriller.”

While it still has the strengths and weaknesses of The Yakusa Tattoo (strengths: good ridiculous action and an even more ridiculous plot-weaknesses: blocky prose and a million weapon descriptions), I found that this has a MacGuffin that by all means should belong in a boring “shoot the terrorist” novel, but ends up being just as crazy as the rest of the book. This emphasizes that, especially for cheap thrillers, execution is more important than concepts by far. As for what it is, it shouldn’t be too hard to guess.

This is a very stupid-fun Jerry Ahern book. It’s the kind of book where the mountains of technical inaccuracy and implausibility actually add to the appeal of it all. While it’s not quite as bizarre as its predecessor, it’s still a very fun cheap thriller.

Review: Area 51

Area 51

The first book in a long series, Bob Mayer’s Area 51 (originally published under the pen name “Robert Doherty”) is a “secret history” flying saucer thriller story. By itself, it’s a decent enough 51% book. What brings it down is, weirdly, the plot. Oh, there’s a few technical inaccuracies like having F-16s be around in 1970 and putting them on aircraft carriers, but the real issue I found was structural.

What my binge of Cussler-esque “find the ancient MacGuffin” books has taught me is that premise alone doesn’t make for a good read. And this is definitely the case with Area 51.

Here, there’s two problems with the alien technology. The first is that it’s too powerful in context. Not only does it function as a convenient plot enabler and deus ex machina, but it basically turns the entire book into watching a tale of the aliens. And that tale is dull and cliche. The second problem is that flying saucers don’t embody majesty and secrecy, but rather goofy Plan 9 From Outer Space kitsch.

The result is that the book is little but a throwaway curiosity.

Review: The Fourth K

The Fourth K

fourthk

Fuldapocalypse now turns its attention to Mario Puzo’s The Fourth K. Puzo was most famous for writing The Godfather. In one of his later books, he writes of a fictional member of the Kennedy family becoming president before facing a crisis overload. I was reminded most of Sidney Sheldon’s “gilded trash” with this novel.

So little of it makes sense to anyone really knowledgeable,which makes its supposed prescience backfire. Instead of going “A-ha, that foresaw (vaguely related event) “, I went “Well, in real life (vaguely related event) didn’t happen anything at all like this”.

The political details don’t make sense. The military details especially don’t make sense (Puzo seemed to have no idea how big a “division” of troops would be, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg). But when did not making sense stop me?

The bigger problem comes from the prose. Sheldon’s writing was very simple and flowed freely and easily. This is incredibly blocky and clunky. The plot feels like a badly-flowing sequence of events, and isn’t helped by the “crisis overload”. Imagine House of Cards, The Sum of All Fears, pure sleaze, and a bit of science fiction all jumbled together.

It’s easy to feel the “one man’s descent” storyline that Puzo was sort of aiming for, but there’s nothing to really reinforce it. It just comes across as wandering, vaguely coherent, gilded sleaze.

A Thousand Words: Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Coming on the heels of my last post about beat ’em ups, one of the more interesting examples came from Capcom. The 1994 Alien Vs. Predator arcade game is fascinating. As a game, it has the same beautiful spritework you’d expect from a Capcom game of this time period. Its mixture of enemies is not exactly a bunch of street punks led by a well-dressed man with a gun.

But what the most interesting thing is is that it does what an adaptation needs to do. Granted, in many ways the setting tone is kind of incompatible with the game-you aren’t an outmatched human facing horrific, inhuman monsters, you’re beating up hordes of them en masse. But in terms of the pure essence, it distills all the convoluted lore into one simple goal. Humans reluctantly ally with monsters who sometimes want to kill them against both monsters who always want to kill them and a government/corporate conspiracy foolishly trying to use the latter monsters.

And this is done so well that Capcom could put a bubbly-voiced kounichi in and have it work.

 

 

Review: X-COM UFO Defense

X-COM UFO Defense

Video game novelizations do not have the best reputation. Keeping that in mind, how does Diane Duane’s work on the classic video game X-COM turn out?

The story of X-COM commander Jonelle Barrett running a base in Switzerland, Duane seems interested in making a huge effort to write about everything except fighting aliens. This by itself isn’t too bad. In terms of accuracy, X-COM, particularly the original, is as much about managing resources as it was battling the invaders. In terms of plausibility, no one’s going to be spending every waking moment shooting Sectoids. In terms of characterization, they shouldn’t be automaton spacesuit commandos.

And yet they basically are, for the book is about 95% pure padding. Descriptions of Swiss geography fill most of it, alongside what seems like an obligatory mention of every element in the game. The rest consists of half-hearted “she just looked at the names and wanted to get them over with” battles with redshirts that are every bit as expendable and forgettable as the actual minions one controls in the games. This is one of the most blatantly obvious “I did this for the money with no enthusiasm” books I’ve read.