Review: Fire Ice

Fire Ice

The novel Fire Ice holds a great deal of importance to me. It was, without a doubt, the first real “cheap thriller” a young me read. This makes it hard to truly judge its literary quality. After all, young me saw the name Clive Cussler on the cover and didn’t know at the time about how the “co-author” system worked, so I assumed it was all him (which had the thankful effect of leading me to earlier Cussler books that were indeed all his own).

With its big locales, action, and high-stakes plot with a Russian oligarch and a supervillain scheme, this has all the ingredients a Cussler thriller and a cheap thriller in general needs. Certainly, for one’s first cheap thriller, you could do a whole lot worse than that. While my reading habits are such that another cheap thriller probably would have taken its place, I still owe Fire Ice a lot for getting me into them.

A Thousand Words: Shadow The Hedgehog

Shadow The Hedgehog

It’s time to recall a “fond” game from my childhood, the “classic” Shadow the Hedgehog, where a cussin’, gun-totin, “awesome” cartoon animal runs around. The 3D Sonic games have a bad reputation that I don’t think is entirely deserved. After all, for all the bad camera tricks, erratic controls, and other stuff I’ll get to, I managed to beat and unlock the Final True Canon Route on both this and Sonic Heroes. So they weren’t unplayable bad.

Just bad. Although there was the question of just why they were bad and how they got that way. I’m indebted to the Geek Critique series for finally offering a plausible answer-instead of just staying with the “run through the stage” levels and gradually ironing out the issues across games, Sega seemed insistent on adding all sorts of gameplay modes that just diluted them. They had the excuse to just ditch these here with only one playable character, but no. To get all but pretty much one route, you have to go through maze levels and search levels.

The second is that the game setting felt more and more and more like a bad fanfic of itself. Adventure 1 started the process by having it take place in a semi-realistic world, and the process just snowballed and snowballed until it finally (aided by a jump in graphics that only enhanced the uncanny valley) reached its “maximum” in the later Sonic 2006. For the subject of this review, come on. A have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too experience where you have cartoon animals but also GUNS and SOLDIERS and EXTREME ALIENS is exactly what an “edgy” fanfiction writer would make. (And I don’t know what it says or means, but Nintendo’s core games have almost never had this tonal problem).

This is made slightly worse by there not even being any attempt to smooth out the tone. Would it have been that hard to leave the cutesy-est characters like Amy and Charmy behind and try to make the enemies look at least a little “semi-realistic”? I mean, one of the final bosses in this “edgier” game is a giant slot machine.

The stages range from linear and somewhat fun to nightmares like the aptly-named “The Doom“. Even the better ones are made worse by the need to constantly replay them in order to get the true ending. As for having to redo the bad ones-well, that’s about as “fun” as you’d expect.

And, in conclusion, the silly tone is one of the few parts that actually made some internal sense. At least it had an intended purpose. Very little else does. Who thought a game series built on speed needed mazes? Who thought it needed to have every single franchise character, regardless of if they fit the tone or not? Who thought the padding needed to be this awkward? The 3D Sonic games were sometimes talked about as if they were total failures, which isn’t true or fair, especially for the earlier ones. But their bad reputation is deserved.

Review: Magestic Book 1

Magestic Book 1

Geoff Wolack’s Magestic (the spelling is deliberate-it’s a code phrase in universe) is a gargantuan work about a time traveler going back to hopefully change his own apocalyptic time. The first entry is split into 18 volumes, which is still enormous by normal standards, but looks a little less so to someone who’s read a 27 and 54 (and counting) volume series.

Anyway, this is extremely ambitious in concept but less effective in execution, at least as of now. The actual writing is a little crude and jumpy, but I’m willing to let it slide for the time being. The bigger problem is how it handles time travel. The main character keeps predicting events and benefiting from them without any butterflies as of yet. Thus it comes across as bland.

The concept-which reminds me a lot of Asimov’s Foundation- is good enough and the core writing adequate enough for me to continue with the series. If disruptions and challenges do emerge, it’ll look much better. But as of now, the series doesn’t feel like it started on a good note.

Review: No Mercy

No Mercy

John Gilstrap’s debut in the Jonathan Grave series, No Mercy, is very much a “grocery store book”. In fact, I first learned of this series after seeing a later book by him in-a grocery store. That being said, not all grocery store books are bad.

This is, in fact, one of the best thrillers I’ve read in a while. Sure, the plot and characters are nothing out of the ordinary for thriller novels, but the execution of Jonathan Grave and his adventure is fantastic. From the opening rescue sequence, I was impressed by the quality of the action. It’s not perfect. The middle drags just a bit. But it’s fantastic nonetheless.

The action is so good that, even though I saw some of my usual quibbles, I brushed them aside effortlessly. From the opening to some unconventional-yet-effective scenes in the middle to a gigantic battle ending, this was a tour de force. No Mercy was the kind of opening act that deserved to bring about a large book series.

Review: Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction

Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction

Bradley Mengel’s Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction takes on the task of trying to catalogue many, many cheap thrillers. Mengel uses the term “serial vigilante” to describe what many call “men’s adventure”, and what would in many circumstances be labeled “action hero” on this blog. It’s an impressive feat.

Most of the book is lists and descriptions of various series’ in this subgenre. It’s a self-proclaimed encyclopedia, so its descriptions are broad and not deep. Interestingly, it provides page counts. Though a little dated thanks to to its 2009 publication date, this book has nonetheless been an invaluable resource for finding obscure series.

Review: Air-Mech Strike

Air-Mech Strike

The book Air-Mech Strike holds the origin of the infamous “Gavin” nickname for the M113. It’s also extremely dated and, for the most part, badly written. This is a very 1990s book, despite being published in the early 2000s.

The “Gavin” name is a little more forgivable in this context because it’s meant to refer to a heavily modified and upgraded M113 instead of just the stock vehicle itself. The problem is that the authors want to have their cake and eat it too-they want an existing vehicle to fill the “medium motorized” infantry role out of legitimate concern that a big procurement wouldn’t happen in the post-USSR budget crunch, but also want a lavishly upgraded one. Yes, they give supposed cost figures, but I’m still skeptical (to put it mildly).

There are huge lists of TO&Es, to the point where I could probably just say “read the book itself” if I was doing a Weird Wargaming on the “air mech strike force”. There are piles and piles of 1990s NETWORK SMART WEAPON BUZZWORDS. There’s a utopianism that goes far beyond the reasonable arguments to mechanize existing airborne forces.

This is only backed by lopsided and unconvincing hypothetical case studies with absolutely no effort to “stress-test” the proposal. There’s a cakewalk in Central Asia against ragtag (conventional) opposition, a Kosovo intervention with pushover Serbs that might have been understandable before the actual war, but which feels like it would turn into the next Market Garden with the knowledge of their abilities gained after it, a Second Korean War where a risky deep attack is brushed aside as succeeding in one paragraph, and a Kuwait defense scenario that rightfully argues it’d be better than a footbound “speedbump”, but doesn’t examine how much better.

Ultimately, it just comes across as being enthralled by a certain type of theoretically possible toy. This is the land warfare equivalent of arguing for an air doctrine built around flying aircraft carriers, a naval doctrine built around submarines of various sizes, or any other gimmicky weapon that could be technically buildable.

Review: Seven Up

Seven Up

It kind of goes without saying that I’m not in author Janet Evanovich’s target audience, and neither is a Stephanie Plum novel the kind of book I was expecting to review at the beginning of this blog. But Seven Up itself and the story behind how I read it is worth it.

Though the seventh book in the series, this was the first tale of the wacky New Jersey bounty hunter that I read. When I read the back cover blurb, the implication was of a thriller. This was wrong. When I started reading the actual book, it felt like it was going to be a duller one about family drama. This was also wrong. I got one of the biggest pleasant surprises I’d ever read.

When I finished the book, it turned to be a hilarious, fast-moving, laugh-out-loud goofy novel of pure fun. Really, despite its initially slow start, I had a great time with it. To be honest, it reminded me of The Simpsons at its height, which is always something that humorous fiction should aspire to. While I’ve heard the series has grown stale since then, Seven Up itself is extremely fresh and enjoyable.

Review: Undeclared War

The Home Team: Undeclared War

The first book in the Home Team series of thrillers, Undeclared War boasts another one of those amazing cheap thriller hero names. In this case, it’s Ted Reaper, SEAL turned vigilante out to stop a -ready for this?- terrorist. Unfortunately, the main character’s name is the only distinguishing feature about it.

This is one of the most generic “shoot the terrorist” books there is. It wants to have its cake and eat it too concerning realism, which leads to a bizarre situation where the preparations are handled in realistically drudgerous detail, yet the actual action manages to somehow be both out-there and dull. The whole “we’re scrounging vigilantes but hey, we get rare and exotic weapons from our convenient connections” contradiction doesn’t help either.

The lists of weapon descriptions get excessive even by the standards of the genre. I don’t know what I should have expected from a mid-2000s thriller, but this deserves a pass.

Review: Tiberium Wars

Command And Conquer: Tiberium Wars

The Keith DeCandido novelization of Command and Conquer: Tiberium Wars was widely denounced upon release. I was there on Spacebattles, and I saw the critiques. I read it, and I agreed.

If the book itself was in an original setting, it would be forgettable and bland, a spacesuit commando Marine Force One with a Mary Sue protagonist. The only real quibble would be extremely rapid procurement of new rifles. But as it stands, it doesn’t gel well with the Command and Conquer game. At all.

There might be a mitigating factor in that I’ve also heard that DeCandido got background material for “Tiberium”, the cancelled C&C FPS project and based the book of of that, which would explain some things like the abundance of rifles. However, whatever the circumstances, this is a book to avoid.

Review: Lethal Tribute

Lethal Tribute

A 2000s SuperBolan, Lethal Tribute tells the story of the Executioner as he fights a group of Hindu cultists with cloaking devices and their stolen nuclear weapons. By this point, Mack Bolan plots had long since devolved into “cheap thriller mad libs”. With the books being published at such a fast pace, it’s hard to imagine how they couldn’t have ended up that way.

That being said, this book is one of the better ones, by later Bolan standards-which may not be saying much. It still amounts to little but an overstuffed jumble of action scenes and very much feels (understandably) rushed. It still has the issue of its plot being so shallow (even by cheap thriller standards) that it needs filler. It still has the strange generic feeling that managed to last across different authors in the series. And it still manages to be both over-descriptive of weapons and sometimes inaccurate, listing two different calibers for the same helicopter gun on one page.

But the premise here is at least more out-there than just a plain “shoot the terrorist” novel. Some of the set pieces, from tank attacks to hallucinations, get crazier than usual, a silver lining of a weird “cheap thriller mad libs” result. The filler isn’t quite as obvious or clumsy as it’s been in some other Mack Bolans. Finally and most importantly, the Executioner himself is portrayed as a lot more vulnerable than he is in some other installments. The Gold Eagle Bolans are not what I’d recommend to action readers-they’re very smooth, disposable, mass-produced, measured and forgettable artificial thrillers from the Harlequin assembly line. But in comparison to some of the others, Lethal Tribute still looks just a little better.