Review: Drawing The Line

Drawing The Line

Peter Nealen’s Drawing The Line has been given out as a newsletter sign-up bonus. An American Praetorians story set on the southern American border, I wanted to see how it went. And it was what I basically expected it to be.

Now, the American Praetorians series as a whole is the least good of Nealen’s contemporary action. I say “least good” instead of “worst” because they’re still very good thrillers. It’s just two things get in their way. The first is the feeling of an author still finding his footing, which is less of a problem in this smaller, less ambitious work. The second is writing it in first person, which I don’t think is the best perspective for the genre.

Still, this is intended as a snack, and it’s a very good snack.

Review: The Afghan Way Of War

The Afghan Way Of War

Robert Johnson’s The Afghan Way of War was an obvious buy for me based purely on its relevance to current events. I was expecting a concise military history of that country and got it. But I also got more. The “more” had a few rough spots but was mostly good. As the book was published in 2011, it does not contain the decade that saw massive changes in the war even before the fall of Kabul. But that’s not it’s fault. Anyway, this was an interesting book, and not just because of its subject matter.

From the get go, the book wants to avoid and debunk “Orientalist” stereotypes. Because of this, at times it can get a little too “argumentative”, for lack of a better word. There are some passages that remind me of Stephen Biddle’s Nonstate Warfare in terms of being a little too focused on going “Well, these sources are wrong”. But only a few, and they aren’t deal breakers by any means. That the book succeeds at achieving its goal helps a lot.

And when The Afghan Way of War goes from being “argumentative” to “informative”, it works wonderfully. Johnson avoids not just the “idiot fanatic savage” stereotype, but also its cousin, the “cunning inscrutable super-warrior that the poor dumb lazy westerner cannot comprehend” that the likes of William Lind and H. John Poole like to trot out. The Afghans from the 1700s to the present are shown at their best and worst, never being truly dominant even in irregular warfare but always a threat.

One of the most fascinating and best written sections dealt with the Soviet war in the 1980s. The picture it paints of the mujaheddin there is not a flattering one. They come across as being substantially and massively flawed, and accomplishing as much as they did purely due to external support and the inherent advantages of irregular war on home ground.

Granted, its conclusions are not exactly shocking to anyone knowledgeable. Said conclusions amount to “a country known for poverty and disunity will have that manifest in its military and operations”. And it sometimes dives a little too deeply into supposed motivations (the “why”) when a deeper dive into operations (the “how” ) would have been, at least in my opinion, more useful.

Still, this is an excellent book and I highly recommend it.

Review: Threat Level Alpha

Threat Level Alpha

The sixth book in the Dan Morgan series, Threat Level Alpha is unfortunately a step back. The first problem is that the book reverts to the mean of “shoot the terrorist”, and a clumsy attempt to raise the stakes by making the threat supposedly more dangerous simply doesn’t work. The second is that there are two basically unconnected plotlines in the book.

There are better books in this series. I do not recommending reading this one. It may very well be the worst entry in the Dan Morgan series that I’ve read so far. Read the other five books instead.

Review: Rogue Commander

Rogue Commander

The fifth Dan Morgan thriller, Leo Maloney’s Rogue Commander solidifies his status as the “second-best Jon Land.” Like I’ve said before, this series is the closest I’ve gotten to the excessive fun that was Blaine McCracken and Land’s other heroes. The subject matter is more mundane than Land’s, but the structure, especially the excellent “slow reveal” is very similar and just as effective.

This book in particular emphasizes another trait shared with Land-the swerve where characters dramatically show they were on the opposite side then previously implied. In this case, the titular “rogue commander” is all but stated to be someone-and then, in the climax, revealed to be-gasp- someone else. It’s silly, it’s ridiculous, it’s not high literature in the slightest-and it’s very very fun.

It still isn’t the best in the Dan Morgan series (that would be Black Skies as of now), but you could still do worse than this as your first entry into Maloney’s action hero fantasy. It has everything good about Dan Morgan, and all the fundamentals are solid.

Review: People’s War

I’m doing it. I’m breaking all my rules. I’m reviewing an in-progress internet online alternate history piece by an author I overreacted to in the past, at one point calling his TLs the “worst ever”, something which is not true and which I apologize for. I speculated as to why I felt as negative as I did in the very review itself, and with years of hindsight I can say that, sadly, it was just personal stress mixed with tunnel vision. The actual view I have of them is what I said I’d have felt in isolation before-middling Hackett-fics, no better or worse than say, Operation Zhukov and not really the most able to build a long review around.

But I think this new TL is worthy. I feel I’m calm enough to look at it more objectively, unlike my past axe-grinding. Like with New Deal Coalition Retained, I feel that this isn’t an obsession and that one post on an internet timeline won’t overwhelm dozens of those on other topics far less controversial to me. And I feel it does have something to say about the genre. I don’t want to come across as gatekeeping or saying someone shouldn’t do anything that they and others enjoy. I’m just giving my personal opinion. And of course, if my opinion on it changes as new updates emerge, I will gladly make an update post.

The timeline is called People’s War, and it’s about a surviving East Germany.

What I consider People’s War to show actually has a parallel in sports betting. What William Leiss calls “manual research”.

Now obviously literature is not a zero-sum game like sports gambling is. Everyone has to start off with the surface level details, and not everyone can or wants to do Kirov-level simulations. But this kind of ultimately surface research applied to a pseudo-Hackett pure exposition style has made me see the strengths and weaknesses of it.

The biggest strength is that there is a lot more verisimilitude. This is something that Young Grognard Me took for granted because I started with nonfiction books and wargames and went backwards from there. Now I know how rare even nominally accurate military fiction is in a world of “machine gun pistols”, “Flamethrower M60 Abrams”, and “A-130 helicopter gunships”. More to the point, this and the WW3 TLs that preceded it and which I got far too angry about are far more sensible than the clearly just tossed carelessly out “stock photo and a wikibox” stuff like the infamous New Deal Coalition Retained Part II. It’s one thing to arguably lean too heavily on Hackett, Bond, and primary sources as Lions Will Fight Bears and its successors did. It’s quite another to avoid them completely in favor of BIG NUMBERS, as NDCR Part II did.

But Hackett, Bond, and the WW3 TLs were dealing with a hypothetical conflict that had decades and decades of simulations, analyses, and sources dedicated to it. Said documentation is a big reason why it’s up there with the American Civil War and World Wars for wargaming and “hard” alternate history. But what happens when you’re dealing with something that doesn’t have that paper trail?

Trying to Hackett-ify a 1980s technothriller scenario is one thing. But this TL is trying to Hackett-ify what’s essentially a 1990s technothriller, where a surviving East Germany ruled by Honecker’s widow comes into conflict with the western world. Now looking at the reams of studies of a theoretical conventional Fuldapocalypse is one thing. But where are the think tank papers for “Fighting a somehow surviving ex-Warsaw Pact state post-USSR, especially with the hint of threat balancers you’d find in a Larry Bond novel?” They aren’t there. The closest are clear surface details like the names and amounts of weapons that end up feeling close to the more shallow “here’s the exact designation of a Scud TEL” than what effect barrages of those missiles would have in practice.

And this is my objection. Because there’s less opportunity to look, this sort of thing just feels kind of shallow to me without either simulation/deep analysis or just setting up the basics and running with a conventional story. And the TL format prevents the latter.

It’s still far superior to the outright Calvinball of NDCR’s Neo-Timurid Empire or postwar AANW’s “Eastern Siberia as an American state.” The military details are still far greater and more plausible than 3 million Soviet troops sloooooooooooowly advancing against 2 million NATO ones. Compared to “historical fanfiction” AH, it is better.

But there still doesn’t like a real solid base is there. And by the standards of either wargaming or literary fiction, I feel it doesn’t reach its potential.

Especially because this is a redo of a previous concept for a surviving East Germany war that was ultimately abandoned in part because, unsurprisingly, its base was too one-sided strategically. This is what I think goes full circle back to the “Manual Research” video, because Leiss specifically talks about the follies of using manual research for an obvious mismatch. Manual research can tell you what common sense and the odds show-that the powerhouse team against a paid-to-lose punching bag will easily win. But it can’t tell you how likely the opponent is to cover the inevitably massive point spread.

The force regarded as the best non-Soviet Warsaw Pact military can definitely still threaten the characters in a normal narrative and can definitely still do more damage than Saddam’s army did. It’s just that this and other works like it sit in an awkward middle ground between hard and soft. I wouldn’t call it a trinket, but it still feels less than whole.

A Thousand Words: Fallout: New Vegas

Fallout: New Vegas

It’s close to the anniversary of the release of Fallout: New Vegas. That game is one I played a gigantic amount several years ago, and it’s one that seemed to suit my style more than the “Bethesda Fallouts” ever did.

New Vegas has a very simple plot. You control a deliveryperson who gets ambushed, shot, and left for dead by someone in a bad suit who wants to gain control of a Las Vegas that’s been left intact after the nuclear war. After being saved by a robot, making your way to Vegas, and dealing with the guy in a bad suit, you get to decide who gets to control it. The plot is simple, but the setting is amazing. It’s this very interesting “post-postapocalyptic” theme where society has fallen-and risen again with big cities and big armies. It feels alive.

What makes this an orange to the “apples” of Fallouts 3 and 4 is that this is more linear. You’re railroaded on the main quest route both by dialogue and the game placing powerful monsters in all the places you’re not supposed to go, and the world is a lot less flat and explorable than in those two. But because my strategy was to just go through the main quests, I didn’t mind.

While this has the infamous “Gamebryo Bugs” and balance issues (speech is an overpowered skill that there’s no point in not maxing unless you want a self-imposed challenge), it’s still my favorite PC RPG of all time.

Review: High Rise Invasion Volume 1

High Rise Invasion Volume 1

The manga High Rise Invasion was recommended to me, so I decided to give the first volume a try. The premise of this volume is extremely simple-schoolgirl Yuri Honjo ends up in a strange world of nothing but skyscrapers and masked killers. Essentially the entire volume’s plot, save for the last few sections where other sane characters appear, is of Yuri running around and fighting.

It’s shallow but I can forgive it. Remembering that it’s meant to be read one chapter at a time in a magazine serial helps a lot. That and the fundamentals being done well (the art is good and so is the action) makes this worth the cost. I’ve read plenty of shallow but worthy cheap thrillers in text form, so one in comic form can work as well.

Review: Unflown Wings

Unflown Wings

I was somewhat critical of Yefim Gordon’s book on the MiG-29. Yet for his Unflown Wings, showing nearly a century of never-built Soviet/Russian aircraft, I’m far less so. This is an amazing book about amazing aircraft. It’s rightfully massive, covering every major design bureau.

People looking at the weird “Luft 46” German aircraft often overlook that every country had its similar oddball paper planes. And so it is with this book. With many illustrations, one can see everything from the redundant to the too expensive to the too out-there. It’s a lot to make you wonder what could have been, from the cancelled jet-powered maritime patroller to giant seaplanes to my personal favorite, the overambitious “Backfiretomcat” Tu-148 multi-role fighter.

The very nature of this book means that the issues I had with the Fulcrum one are far less so. Because the aircraft here never actually entered service in any event, it means there’s less need for total rigor and one doesn’t have to be “deep”. Breadth is required for this overview, and it’s very, very broad indeed.

This is a very fun, very thick book, and I recommend it to any aviation fan in spite of its size and expense.

A Thousand Words: Pokemon Black/White

Pokemon Black and White Versions

It was recently the 11th anniversary of Pokemon Black and White’s release. Now in terms of actual gameplay, it’s the same monster-catching as always. But in terms of opinion, it’s one of the games where, with full hindsight and difference, my views on it have shifted the most.

At the time, I viewed the story’s very slight challenge of its premise as something hamfisted and dumb. For the gameplay, while it wasn’t bad, it still felt like business as usual. Now with three more generations and a decade of thought, I can actually appreciate it more.

The first thing is realizing that Unova, the region of the game, is (loosely) based off my local area, the New York City metropolitan area. That’s neat, at least. The second is seeing that Game Freak played it so safe with the next three games that their mild, necessarily child-friendly critique comes across as the best they could do. Instead of slamming them for not doing it the best, I can praise them for trying. The third is the graphics. This was the last Pokemon game to feature classic sprites, which reach their apex here. After that, it’s ugly, basic, horribly optimized 3D models.

So what I wasn’t the fondest of at the time has turned into a nostalgic memory.

Review: Mikoyan MiG-29 and MiG-35

Mikoyan MiG-29 and MiG-35: Famous Russian Aircraft

The MiG-29 was the last hurrah of the legendary Cold War bureau. Aviation authors Yefim Gordon and Dimitry Komissarov write about it in the extensive Famous Russian Aircraft: MiG-29 book. The book is both a wonderful treat and a bitter “what could have been”. First, the obvious needs to be stated. This is a book for aviation enthusiasts and not a general audience. If you don’t know much about the MiG-29 or military aircraft already, it’s not a good first choice.

But even as a niche in-detail work, it’s uneven. Gordon has a reputation online for not being the most reliable source, but I wouldn’t know enough to comment in that regard. Whatever the veracity, the book is extremely broad, covering each and every prototype, variant, and proposal of the Fulcrum complete with excellent pictures and once-rare photographs. You want to know the exact radar designations? This is for you. You want to know the slight visual differences? This is also for you.

Yet while it’s broad, this book also feels shallower than it could have been. This manifests most visibly in the section on the actual service of the MiG-29. There, it’s a combination of more lists and stuff that I’d already heard about. It was disappointing and could have used a little more doctrinal meat.

Finally, the book feels a little, well, inefficient. It’s a very long impressive paperweight of a hardcover, but its layout and formatting doesn’t look very space-effective. The pictures are good, but their organization isn’t. That being said, take this book for what it is-something meant for serious aviation fans. It’s what you’re getting, for better or worse.