Review: The Vengeance Of The Tau

The Vengeance Of The Tau

The first Blaine McCracken book to stumble, The Vengeance Of The Tau is an interesting case study in how a series can lose its mark while still remaining good. This still has all of Land’s strengths and weaknesses.

Where it goes wrong, besides just having big shoes to fill, is in the revelation of its MacGuffin. While Land is normally great at slowly building up and finally showing what ridiculous premise the book has as its foundation, here he implies something incredible and reveals it to be more lame and mundane. This isn’t just the final gimmick turning out to be something less than Land’s most out-there, it’s an example of going backwards that he almost never does in other books.

This, combined with somewhat less crazy set pieces, makes this lesser in comparison to McCracken books that came before and after it. In a vaccuum it’s still Jon Land, and it’s not even the worst book in the series, but there are definitely better ones.

Review: 38 North Yankee

38 North Yankee

Ed Ruggero’s debut novel, 38 North Yankee, tells the story of an American infantry company in a Second Korean War. It has its issues, but works a lot better than his later book, Firefall. That had a ridiculous setup it didn’t need. This is more grounded and plausible.

Ruggero’s legitimate veteran status both gives the book a degree of verisimilitude and makes it diverge too often into Herman Melville territory.  Most of the “box checking” elements are done right. There are viewpoint characters but not too many. There are things that realistically go wrong. Unlike John Antal’s significantly worse Proud Legions, he doesn’t overemphasize the important of the main character’s unit. This is one of the most grounded “big war thrillers” I’ve read.

However, it also has the weaknesses of being grounded. The viewpoint jumps and the over-detail (including maps) clashes with the fog of war inherent in such thing. And by aiming for the plausibility it does, it sometimes stumbles into the trap of “military action can be written in a plausible or engaging/exciting way , but it’s very hard to do both.” It’s a problem that neither writers of truly serious fiction nor Mack Maloney have, but which something of this nature does.

That being said, none of these are deal-breakers and the book is very much worth a read. It might be the best Second Korean War novel I’ve read, even more than Red Phoenix.

Another (but similar) opinion can be found on the Books That Time Forgot blog.

Review: Drakon

Drakon

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The fourth book in the Draka series, Drakon is the story of the Draka utterly triumphant, having bioengineered humanity into master and servant subspecies-in one universe, with only the descendants of those who escaped the “Final War” to stand against them. Too bad homo drakenis Gwendolyn Ingolfsson got sucked through a wormhole experiment into the then-present. She plots to take over the world for the Draka, with only a strange cast of people from multiple universes to stop her.

This isn’t really alternate history, even in the most fleeting sense. It’s pure cheesy science fiction, a “fight the Terminator-Predator-Amazon” story. Drakon is as sleazy as it’s cheesy, with Stirling never missing a chance to throw in a lurid detail. And while it works as a turn-your-brain-off “51% book”, there are some legitimate and serious flaws.

First, it doesn’t have, say, Jon Land’s sense of buildup. Too much is revealed too fast, and the residual baggage of the alternate history background burdens it even more. Second, the conclusion is an utter clunker. That is to say, it’s a simultaneously confusing and rushed mess of escalation that ends with a contrivance and ridiculously obvious setup for a sequel that understandably never came. Third, the only interesting character is Ingolfsson herself, and even she could be done a lot better.

Take away the fandom controversy and the legitimately distinct (however dubious) alternate history that made up the first three installments, and all you have is, as I’ve said before, tawdry fiction that, while not unreadable or unenjoyable, wouldn’t really stand out.

Review: Red Phoenix

Red Phoenix

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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

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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

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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

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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.