Review: Deep State

Deep State

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Jack Slater’s debut, Deep State , is a very zig-zaggy book. It features super-operative Jason Trapp (another action hero name for you) as he foils the same kind of “attempted American coup” plot that has been going on in cheap thrillers since Seven Days in May. Despite its title, it’s not really that political, which was a pleasant surprise.

This book has one of my cheap thriller pet peeves front and center-when the writer repeatedly goes “this isn’t like the movies” but then has the characters do ridiculous stuff anyway. This is why the book goes up and down so much. It wants to go “THIS IS SERIOUS AND NOT MOVIE-LIKE” but then has Trapp doing incredible things. It also has a few extraneous characters, a villain contrivance so powerful it needs a heroic contrivance to compensate, and manages to hit a few too many genre notes (although that could just be me having read waaaaaaaay too many of these kinds of books).

In spite of all this, the fundamentals are good enough (barring the “this isn’t like the movies, he just does incredible things in an un-cinematic way” dissonance) and it flows well enough to make all of that forgivable. This is still worth a read.

Review: Black Sea Terror

Black Sea Terror

Eric Meyer and Todd McLeod’s SEAL Strike: Black Sea Terror is a short story. The story of SEALs preventing a shipment of S-400 missiles to Syria, it reminded me of Chet Cunningham’s SEAL Team Seven novels. Or rather, it reminded me of a hypothetical Chet Cunningham SEAL Team Seven novel that was shrunk to a fifth of its size to fit in a magazine.

The S-400 system itself is treated as a multirole missile that’s somehow incredibly dangerous on its own (and no, it doesn’t have any kind of different warhead) instead of just being a high-end SAM. The action is just passably good enough, in a “small bag of potato chips” way.

In fact, a “small bag of potato chips” accurately describes the entire book. It’s tiny, insubstantial, and not truly “good” by any measure, but it’s still quite “edible”.

Review: The Gambit

The Gambit

Take a stilted first novel, add a difficult genre, and you have Brad Carlson’s The Gambit. This tale of Iranian plots and the Americans out to stop them reminds me of, if anything else, an even rougher version of Gavin Parmar’s Unseen Warriors. The problem is that technothrillers are harder to do right than small unit thrillers. I don’t want to be hard on the author. This is a first novel, I know firsthand how much effort writing any kind of long fiction is, and everyone has to start somewhere. But I have to be hard on the book.

There’s the clumsy prose, but there’s also the awkward pacing. There’s the action that falls well below even the standards of Marine Force One, but there’s also a ton of conference rooms and really rote instances of military equipment doing its thing (I hesistate to use the term “action” for the scenes describing it). There isn’t even an out-there premise. It’s just “shoot the terrorist” and stopping the most basic and mundane plots, all the while moving through something horrendously unpolished.

There are good independent first novels. This is not one of them.

Review: Black April

Black April

George Veith’s Black April is an excellent chronicle of the final fall of South Vietnam. Taking as many sources as he could, Veith paints the picture of an understudied and underappreciated campaign.

The interior workings of the North Vietnamese are very fascinating and, in my opinion, the best part of the book. This is because the campaign was the biggest example of a Soviet-style army defeating a western-style one decisively. While all the planning texts and documents can show a strict operational plan where everyone adheres to their role, in any reality, friction and human conflict is always there, and this shows an example of it in practice.

Veith is on less firm footing with the southerners. While his goal to emphasize the damage of the aid cutoff and give the southerners a fair emphasis compared to their scapegoating as inept bumblers from start to finish is admirable, his opinions about the primacy of the aid cutoff don’t always match with the examples he shows. This isn’t to say that it wasn’t an incredibly important factor, but the frequent examples are of southern units getting chopped up by better-handled northern ones, not attritional slugfests that only ended when they ran low.

Still, this book is an excellent historical reference.

Review: The Ragnarok Conspiracy

The Ragnarok Conspiracy

Erec Stebbins’ debut in the INTEL 1 series is The Ragnarok Conspiracy. If you can accept A: Politics that are flipped 180 degrees from the stereotypical “shoot the terrorist” thriller (without spoiling much, it involves western antagonists destroying Muslim holy sites from the get-go), and B: Said politics being too-frequently pushed with all the subtlety of an after-school special, it’s not a bad thriller.

The political preachiness is a knock against it, but it’s not nearly bad enough to get in the way of a thriller with good fundamentals. Yes, it’s a rote thriller. Yes, its message doesn’t exactly go well with a main villain who’s the kind of person Blaine McCracken deals with on a daily basis. But I’ve definitely read worse.

 

Review: Never Die Twice

Never Die Twice

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Mark Jones’ Never Die Twice is the first book in the Reaper Force: Viper series, detailing the adventures of cybernetically enhanced heroine Natalie Nicks. With short chapters and simple prose that reminded me of Sidney Sheldon of all people, it’s not the most technically adept book. Even by cheap thriller standards.

What it is, however, is a fun book. It lands on the sci-fi end of the technothriller spectrum, with a lot of “just barely sorta a little kinda maybe slightly plausible” technology. I’ve used the “homemade apple strudel” analogy before to describe something that you know isn’t the most well constructed, but is still quite enjoyable. And this definitely fits the bill. I mean, the book has a line about pitting humans against grizzly bears in races. Its backstory is basically that of The Bionic Woman. What’s not to like?

Review: Armies of Sand

Armies of Sand

This is the first Fuldapocalypse nonfiction book review. Kenneth Pollack’s Armies of Sand is a semi-adaptation of his thesis, The Influence of Arab Culture on Arab Military Perfomance, and a semi-sequel to his book, Arabs at War. That looked at how Arab armies underperformed in the 20th century and examined the “how”. This looks more at the “why”.

Pollack uses bits and pieces from both Arab states at war and the non-Arab “control groups” to look at the four explanations-Soviet doctrine, over-politicization, underdevelopment, and culture. The first is a total red herring, with Pollack concluding that if anything, it was at least a little helpful. The middle two have had obvious influence, but can’t explain all of it. The final one is what he feels is the most satisfactory answer.

My biggest problem is his methodology, even though I think his conclusions are mostly sound. A lot of his sources are dated, some of the more lurid anecdotes are thinly-sourced, and a few times the implications go from the more reasonable “New York Knicks” (undeniably underperforming, sometimes significantly so) to the exaggerated “Washington Generals” (completely hopeless from start to finish at everything). This is the kind of argument where you need a lot of rigor, so seeing him pass on examples,  even those that would support his case like looking at the North Vietnamese air force when he used the Vietnam War in another control group, has made me raise an eyebrow.

Still, Pollack handles the cultural argument well, by pointing out education and particularly military training as how it took root. He stresses the dangers of stereotyping and, most importantly, shows both how culture and warfare can change and how workarounds were developed. All of the workarounds involved, in some form or another, a smaller army with a more selective choice of personnel.

Armies Of Sand is not and should not be the last word on the Middle East or military history, and should not be unhesitatingly accepted. But I still highly recommend it, and not just for information on Arab armies. Its study of politicization and underdevelopment in general is fascinating, and it’s well-written.

 

Review: The Lost Codex

The Lost Codex

The third OPSIG Team Black book, The Lost Codex manages to sink lower than the first two-by a considerable amount. The bulk of the actual book is the most bland, clunky thriller against the most bland, generic terrorists imaginable, falling straight into the trap of being too “normal” to be bombastic but too exaggerated to be truly realistic.

This time, profiler Karen Vail is close to being a main character, and is handled in the worst possible way. She’s Miss Infodump and Miss Dragged Along Because The Plot Demands and , finally, Miss Action Heroine all in the same book.

But the icing on the cake is a barely connected bit of Dan Brown-style “secret religious history”. This is only linked to the “shoot the terrorist” plot in the thinniest, clumsiest way, and adds essentially nothing save for giving the book its title and a chance to sell it as being like Clive Cussler. It’s not. It’s worse. A lot worse.

 

Review: The High Frontier

The High Frontier

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The High Frontier is the de facto ending to the The Big One series. The end of the Easy Mode Cold War is, for most intents and purposes, the end of the main published series. And, like The Sum Of All Fears, it’s a good stopping point.

This entire franchise has the slight misfortune of bad context for me. You can see why and what in the entry for the main series. That being said, while The High Frontier may not be the worst book ever, it still stands out only for its plot “novelties”. What plot novelties?

Well, for this individual book, there’s, among other things…

  • A very cheap shot at the Space Shuttle program right off the bat, where the Columbia disaster occurs right after the Challenger disaster. It’s actually semi-realistic in a rivet-counting way. The second post-Challenger mission had foam hit the heat-shield and barely survived, and the Space Shuttle program’s many, many issues are well-known. But the narrative intent is obvious.
  • Exposition where the Chipanese [yes] antagonists lament the inferiority of their military compared to the (awesome) Americans.
  •  The Chipanese campaign in Vietnam, featuring the equivalent of the Soviet general secretary personally running into Afghanistan to command forces there and then getting killed.
  • In said campaign, there are so many names of historical Vietnam War figures that I couldn’t tell if it was just bad naming or the real people (who’d be much older, and in some cases, dead.)

 

Finally there’s the climax, the biggest missed opportunity in the whole book. Having read The Sum Of All Fears makes it look even worse than it did when I first read it. Here’s an opportunity to foil the plot by showing restraint in the face of apocalyptic provocation-and instead it’s the equivalent of having the protagonists stop the nuke from going off in the first place.

Then the book ends with Ronald Reagan asking about the Seer and one final infodump about the nature of the unaging mutants with catlike eyes who serve as combination plot devices, Mary Sues, and ways to not have to create more characters. Of course they happen to stop aging at convenient times, have an ability to sense other long-lifers, are disease-resistant but not immune, and it took as long as it did for one person to find them out. Hmmm….

The book itself is par for the course for the TBO series, which is to say, it’s substantially below-average. Yes, a lot of its negative reputation comes from the gauntlet-throwing and internet drama accompanying its initial release. Yes, it doesn’t look quite as bad in context when compared to the worst of either internet alternate history or post-1991 technothrillers. Yes, a lot of its flaws aren’t unique to it.

But it’s still clunky, hopping around characters and events. It’s still flat, with characters being either Mary Sues, placeholders, or strawmen.  The worldbuilding is still ridiculously stacked in favor of the Americans. The action is still either bland and one-sided or extra-bland. The stiff dialogue in this book (and in the whole series) is distinctly bad, even by the standards of low-end fiction. It’s still just not good.

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.