Review: Day of Wrath

Day of Wrath

The time has come to review another Larry Bond book, 1998’s Day of Wrath. Now, I was a little reluctant to do it because of a small meme I have where I joke about how few Larry Bond novels I’ve actually covered on the blog. Oh well.

It’s one of the biggest examples of “Captain Beefheart Playing Normal Music”. The plot is simple enough, as Col. Peter Thorn and Agent Helen Gray take on a super-terrorist plot by a wealthy and fanatical Saudi prince. As far as cheap thrillers go, you could do worse. In total isolation, this would be a middling, slightly above-average thriller book.

But it comes in the context of Bond’s writing style. Day of Wrath has all the weaknesses of it I’d noticed in Bond’s other books. The biggest is an extremely long and extremely predictable opening act, something I noticed in Cauldron, Red Phoenix, and to a lesser extent in Bond-contributing Red Storm Rising as well. This, along with a bit of clunkiness and the dichotomy between “wants to be realistic-sounding” and “has the main characters doing ridiculous action hero feats”, drags it down slightly.

The real problem with this book isn’t that it has Bond’s weaknesses, or that the weaknesses are more prominent than his others. It’s that it doesn’t take advantage of his strengths. This is a “shoot the terrorist” thriller that could have easily been written by one of the many, many other writers in that genre. The plot centers around the not-exactly underused MacGuffin of nuclear bombs. Bond’s ability to write large conflicts is simply never used at all.

Given how rare that type of fiction is, having Bond make a “big war thriller” with the stereotypical Middle East Coalition opponent who used their oil money to fund the production and procurement of various super-prototypes would at least be more distinct. It would be something that a more knowledgeable wargamer could do legitimately better than a “normal” thriller author trying to do such an ambitious tale.

Instead, he ends up like the weird musician doing a standard pop song-not technically bad, but merging with the pack instead of standing out. Putting him against tougher competition, his weaknesses become more apparent. It’s like having Eddie Van Halen for a song and, for whatever reason, not having him do a guitar solo of any kind. Yes, it’s music and the talent is obviously there-but you know it could have been so much more memorable.

Review: Fallen Soviet Generals

Fallen Soviet Generals

Aleksander A. Maslov’s Fallen Soviet Generals is a long, detailed, historical list of how general officers died in World War II. It’s a book I’ve mentioned before on this blog, but it deserves a full review of its own. Because the subject is interesting to me (for some reason), I enjoyed the book in spite of its obviously morbid topic.

This has the weakness of a dry history book. It’s not very lively or engaging for someone not into the subject matter, and it’s not helped by the book both being originally written in another language and being translated/edited by David Glantz, a legendary historian whose prose is nonetheless sometimes, er, flat. But it also has the strengths, meticulously categorizing how, where and when every single Soviet general died in the war.

The topic is interesting to me because, especially to an American (the US lost only twenty generals in World War II, less than a tenth the Soviet total) used to technology where they theoretically should be at less personal risk, the loss of a general officer seems like a strange aberration. Yet it clearly wasn’t, and there are many conflicts where it would be. Even for conflicts of a different technological type, Maslov’s book remains an excellent resource for how and why general officers could die in battle.

A Thousand Words: Waterworld

Waterworld

Guns N’ Roses November Rain is widely recognized as the final, out-with-a-bang entry of the musical niche known as the “power ballad.” Kevin Costner’s infamous Waterworld kind of feels like the movie version of this. Of all the movies labeled the worst ever, this deserves it the least in hindsight-though it’s perhaps fitting, since critics never cared much for hair metal anyway.

The plot and setting make no sense, and the acting is nothing special, barring Dennis Hopper’s typically hammed-up villain. But what this movie offers is spectacle. Before CGI truly came along and money became tighter, the huge practical effects epic had to have one final giant push. And in the form of the evil ski-jumpers, hamfisted environmentalism (from a movie that had to make a giant, inevitably polluting, artificial island in its production), and piles of (oil-burning) pyrotechnics, it succeeded.

This movie can’t really be considered “good”, but I had a lot of fun watching it.

Review: The Ninth Dominion

The Ninth Dominion

The second, and as of now last book in the Jared Kimberlain series, Jon Land’s The Ninth Dominion is a par-for-the-course crazy ridiculous action-adventure book. By the standards of classic Jon Land novels, it has some issues. While it doesn’t help that its immediate predecessor was arguably his most ridiculous (in a good way) novel yet, there’s issues beyond this.

It’s a little less crazy. Beyond that, the biggest issue is that it doesn’t take full advantage of its almost Batman-esque premise of the craziest and most dangerous serial killers escaping. The prose and pacing are a little below Land’s height.

That being said, it still has all the strengths of a Jon Land thriller, and I still enjoyed it significantly. By the standards of more mundane thrillers, it’s quite goofy indeed. Its flaws are not deal-breakers by any measure, and there’s no shame in falling slightly short of a very high bar.

Review: I Jedi

I, Jedi

Michael Stackpole’s I, Jedi may be my favorite Star Wars novel ever. It’s also a book that has absolutely no business being as good as it is. After all, Stackpole is a writer who isn’t the best prose-wise and tends to take game mechanics literally. Corran Horn, his protagonist, is the ur-example of someone parachuting their own Mary Sue into an existing franchise. The first part of the book uses the same plot as a book by the infamously subpar Kevin J. Anderson.

And yet, it somehow works brilliantly. Part of it is that Stackpole’s writing is in better form than usual, in everything from starfighter battles where Corran fights his old teammates and can sense their thought processes to everyday life on a backwater world. Another part of it is that by being small-scale and comparably low-stakes, it manages to actually make the universe look bigger and more wondrous.

Stackpole’s epic might be helped along by the other books of the time, which tended to have a random ex-Imperial using the superweapon of the week and an inappropiately small number of Star Destroyers to threaten the entire galaxy. But even on its own, it works. It embodies the “distant vista” principle, restores a sense of awe, and just succeeds as a story in its own right.

A Thousand Words: Revolution X

Revolution X

What happens when you take a pair of has-beens fading rapidly from relevance and merge them together? You get Revolution X, an arcade light-gun shooter starring a past-its-prime Aerosmith. The plot is simple-save Aerosmith from a bunch of people in yellow gas masks who’ve outlawed fun. You do so with a gun that fires CDs as well as bullets. Yes, it’s that kind of game.

The gameplay is mostly simple-fire at the hordes of enemy goons on your screen, put more quarters in when they inevitably kill you, repeat as necessary. Two of the later levels make this worse by trying to be more complicated. One, a maze, is simply annoying. The other, a time-sensitive mission where you have to completely destroy a bus before it reaches its destination, is considerably more aggravating.

By the time of its release, Aerosmith had long since fallen from the heights of their popularity, and with more powerful and smaller consoles just coming out, arcades would soon follow. This game is one of those weird novelties that can only happen at a specific time.

Review: The Mongol

The Mongol

The final Casca book credited to Barry Sadler (regardless of its actual authorship-according to some stories I’ve heard, it was a manuscript found after his death), The Mongol is a 51% book in a 51% series. The “which period of history should we put Casca in a theme park version of” wheel stopped at “Genghis Khan” this time.

The good news is that compared to previous flops like The Trench Soldier and The Samurai, this book is significantly better. The bad news is that, like every other Casca book, it’s still melodramatic pulp historical fiction that does almost nothing with its supernatural premise. For a quick read, one could do a lot worse. Yet there isn’t really anything to recommend it ahead of the first two Cascas either.

Thus it’s perhaps fitting that a middling series ended (for a time) on such a middling note.

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.