Review: Whiskey And Roses

Whiskey and Roses

In my last review of one of Bradley Wright’s Alexander King novels, I mentioned that the ones I’d previously read were so middling and forgettable that I’d actually forgotten about them. And the first one of those books was Whiskey and Roses. How is it?

Well, I’ll put it this way. This could very well replace Marine Force One for “most absolutely, utterly, middling thriller novel there is”. There is one pseudo-advantage and that’s that the title is a little less bland. Yes, it’s so “middle of the pack” that I need to talk about the title to find something distinct. However, there’s also one disadvantage and that’s that the proofreading and prose is sloppier than Marine Force One’s.

This is, to be fair, the first book in a series and Wright’s writing has improved since it. But this is still thriller fiction at its most middling and mediocre.

Review: Hostage Zero

Hostage Zero

John Gilstrap’s second Jonathon Grave novel and a tale of kidnapping, intrigue, and action, Hostage Zero lives up to the first. It might be a tiny bit “worse” than No Mercy, but that’s probably just me being more familiar with the series now. So I lack the awe at finding a newer, good author. Though the book itself is excellent.

Gilstrap’s action isn’t “realistic” unless benchmarked against the most absolutely ridiculous alternatives (not that I have a problem with that), but it’s as solid as always. There’s the slower middle portion, but even that demonstrates another strength of its author-a great sense of buildup. Stuff is revealed at a just-right pace. Not too quick, and not too slow. Jon Land has been consistently good at buildup, and in these two books, Gilstrap is too.

And this book and its predecessor also succeed in, well, having the cake and eating it too, for lack of a better word. Jonathan Grave has a huge network of resources at his disposal, but they don’t feel like easy victory buttons. He has to get his hands dirty and challenges do appear in his path. I love finding series that are good that I didn’t previously know about, and so far this is one of them.

Review: The Suriname Job

The Suriname Job

Vince Milam’s The Suriname Job is the first book in the Case Lee series of thrillers. In a very crowded field, it only stands out in a few ways. The first is its very format. This is told in a first-person, “hardboiled” narrative style. It’s different than a lot of cheap thrillers, but I’m not sure it’s for the better.

The second is a bigger issue, and that’s that the action isn’t very good. It’s basically flat, which isn’t what you want to feel when you read a cheap thriller. The third is that the plot is a little too mundane, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself but drags it down even more when combined with the poor action. With these issues in mind, I’m not exactly eager to read the later books in the series.

Review: The Wildered Quest

Throne of Eldraine: The Wildered Quest

Kate Elliot’s The Wildered Quest is a Magic: The Gathering tie-in ebook that reflects a dramatically different game from the last two I’ve reviewed on this blog.

Since I last looked at Planeswalker, a lot has changed in the lore of Magic: The Gathering. The Urza-vs-Phyrexia conflict concluded at the beginning of the 2000s, and then the wheels sort of spun until Wizards of the Coast made a massive change with the Great Mending, an event that reduced planeswalkers from near-divine immortal superbeings to considerably more “normal” people with the ability to teleport between dimensions.

Maybe this is just nostalgia, but I feel like the Mending has turned the setting from something offbeat and distinct into something more generic. It’s gone from two mad scientists-turned immortal monsters fighting a millenia-long war to superhero-wizards fighting some bland dragon-thingy. One effect of the Mending event was to actually make planeswalkers more prominent in spite of depowering by taking away third-party planar travel. So it’s either planeswalkers or having things take place entirely on one plane. Or, in this case, have planeswalkers drop in on what’s otherwise a one-dimension experience.

The Wildered Quest, taking place on the fairy-tale plane of Eldraine, has a lot going for it. It’s written by a successful author in her own right. It’s not too long. The prose is decent. The story of the Kenrith twins is interesting enough.

Yet it still feels like a merely adequate, phoned-in tie in. Of course, a lot of this might be my own biases-I tend to not be that into fantasy- but it still felt kind of just-good-enough. And that’s a type of book I’ve read a lot of. The glass-half-empty view is that it could have been better. The glass-half-full view is that MTG novels have had a sometimes-deserved reputation for being terrible and thus it could have been worse.

Review: New Deal Coalition Retained

New Deal Coalition Retained

I’ve finally felt it’s time for this blog to come full circle and return to internet alternate history. Now knowing so much more about the depth and context, I feel comfortable returning at last to a topic I’ve mostly avoided since starting this blog. This has not been a light decision.

Most TLs on alternatehistory.com I’ve avoided-in hindsight, most that aren’t eventually commercialized in some fashion are shallow pieces of de facto fanfiction. I’ve found that, once one moves past the board drama, there isn’t really much to say. But for this one, I found a lot. Especially as it has a standout (in a bad way) Third World War.

New Deal Coalition Retained is one of the most infamous TLs, and it includes a conventional World War III in its second arc. Now for the others I read, I maintain by the Iceland post that they “weren’t particularly good, bad, or representative” any more than, say, Command and Conquer fanfiction. The WW3 in NDCR is bad, and it is representative, but not of conventional WW3s. In fact, its massive distinctiveness from other World War IIIs is because it’s representative of a trend in internet alternate history, what I call “trinketization”. And it seems to perfectly and eerily show that at its absolute worse.

I got this name from an Alexander Wallace post on Sea Lion Press. The entire article is very much worth reading, but here’s the most relevant part.

A mistake many newcomers make (and this is a nation encouraged by many online historical discussion fora, not just alternate historical spaces) is assuming that history is simply the aggregation of bits of trivia, whose own complex interrelationships are neglected. This reduces the study of history to a collection of trinkets rather than the system of the world that many academics spend entire lives studying but a tiny portion.

In some ways, this trinketization was inevitable. The fandom was going to grow larger and more “diluted”, and the internet made it far easier to find broad surface facts than deep knowledge. Audience attitudes shifted from nitpicking to fanfic consumption, with updating frequently and playing to the crowd taking precedence over all else.

I’ve softened somewhat on severe rivet counting because of its comparative infrequency, but also because it’s still preferable to trinketization. At least rivet-counting means substantial research has been done in at least one area.

Trinketization in practice means that it feels like just a collection of names, numbers, and events tossed out, with divergences being for their own sake and no attempt to work them into a bigger whole. Often the names are of semi-obscure figures who feel like they were just yanked out of Wikipedia or somewhere similar. AH works consisting purely of maps are often vulnerable to this, because they represent just one object. But those are nothing compare to the grand emblem of trinketization: The wikibox. Wikiboxes remove the need to add any sort of context or detail to the event. Simply put, they merely list the event itself. Imagine a sports story reduced to just the game score.

NDCR’s first act is essentially impossible to summarize beyond “Sherman Adams dies in 1957 and then a ton of weird stuff happens.” There are election wikiboxes, war wikiboxes, and stock photos interspersed with long blocks of exposition that are too big to be concise but too dull to be engaging, especially when one realizes the lack of research. Events simply happen.

One of the first things that jumped at me was Pakistan not only winning decisively against India (very, very unlikely), but annexing the Hindu nationalist stronghold of Gujarat. The alarms this set up (especially since looking up the relevant demographics is not truly difficult) were an indication of how everything else was going to go. Most relevant for the WW3 to come, there’s a bizarre and nonsensical situation where the Prague Spring ends up breaking Czechoslovakia into western-aligned Czech and eastern-aligned Slovak states.

This goes on and on. Imperial Germany and Japan somehow get restored. One of Richard Nixon’s daughters ends up marrying into the British royal family, earning the timeline the nickname “Queen Nixon” among detractors. Cuba stops being communist while Brazil starts. It’s a giant jumble.

And then comes the most legitimately creepy part, which is that almost every postwar neo-fascist figure ends up “redeemed” in some way, with the biggest example being German Gerhard Frey. What makes this stand out is that looking around for these figures seems to be the only legitimate, serious research done in the TL. Frey creates one of those “Notzi” ideologies where it comes across as “We support a state with that triumph-of-the-will stuff, but it’s for GOOD and not EVIL”. For all the alarm bells it trips up, I want to downplay this part for the review. However, it exists and needs to be mentioned.  

This jumble of trinkets clunks along until the World War III comes along to lend it some tiny attempt at cohesiveness. And here is where it gets interesting. It feels cargo-culted. It has the very basic and shallow box-checks of Hackett/Clancy/Bond knockoffs. It has a conventional WW3 happening at all, it has an invasion of Iceland, and it has a plotnuke conclusion. But when examined in any sort of detail, the World War III doesn’t feel like them in any way.

If it was shallowly copying techothrillers, the war would be over quick and involve NATO airpower and smart weapons crushing the Soviets. It isn’t that. If it was shallowly copying primary sources, it would probably resemble a knockoff The War That Never Was. It isn’t that. In fact, with its jumbled beginnings and strange numbers/conduct, this comes across as the complete antithesis of those kinds of works.

The OOB-person in me noticed the wikibox for the initial offensive listed the Warsaw Pact as having only 1,028 tanks for a force of 222,361 men (look at those exact numbers) carrying out a high-priority operation at the beginning of the war, the initial attack in the Prague area. This amounts to only around 3 or so divisions worth for something involving three whole field armies, and it’s where the formations would be as close to paper strength as possible. Also, the operation takes 37 days, longer than some estimates of the whole war, even with nukes handwaved away. (If the Soviets could stay at their planned advance rates, they’d be in Madrid by that point). For a conventional narrative, I’d be totally willing to let it slide if the story was good, but for something that’s pure description, the description needs to be of a higher standard.

But that’s small potatoes compared to what happens next. The big push appears, with close to 4 million Soviet troops grinding forward across West Germany against around 3 million NATO ones over the course of several months. To the extent where there’s any constant inspiration at all, it feels inspired by World War II. Everyone has totally mobilized drafted armies with huge numbers. Heavy bombers just level-bomb cities en masse like it’s 1943. A part of me thinks this theme might be taken at least in part from Anglo-American Nazi War, a timeline on the same site (published and reviewed as Festung Europa), which is another rote tale of giant armies and giant casualties struggling across the continent for years as seemingly horrific events are flatly described. At least it feels closer to that than pretty much any actually published World War III story.

The Soviets reach the east side of the Rhine, and the button is not pushed. They cross the Rhine, and the button is not pushed. They move some distance into France and the button is not pushed by either NATO or the French themselves. In that and every other theater there are stock photos, battles, and yes, wikiboxes. On every continent. The troop numbers are consistently too big by postwar standards, and when mentioned, the tank numbers are consistently too small-especially since they often depict situations where the explanation of realistic attrition isn’t usable.

The East Germans eventually mutiny due to “pervasive pan-German sentiment” as part of the tide turning. I should note in real life, they were considered trustworthy enough to be plugged right into GSFG-but of course, this is after thirty years of scrambling. The tide turns in more wikibox battles, with NATO eventually counter-invading the USSR itself, including an Arab-Israeli alliance pushing into the Caucasus. NATO crosses the border and the button is not pushed. Baku and Leningrad are overrun and the button is not pushed. Eventually, with Moscow on the brink, the Soviet leader orders the launch-and it’s portrayed as insane with a scramble to stop. One missile makes it aloft but a Star Wars satellite shoots it down. The end. Somehow this lasted for two and a half years of high-intensity fighting and had over forty million military deaths alone distributed evenly among the two sides.

I hope the feeling of this timeline can be determined from the review/summary here. If it sounds jumbled, it’s because it is. If it sounds like it doesn’t make any sense, it’s because it doesn’t.

There’s a postwar part which returns to the trinketization along with other creepy element common to it and some other trinketized online AH with fairly recent divergences. This is real living people turned into vastly different ones, with one of NDCR’s most prominent and bizarre examples being real actress Mariska Hargitay turned into a Freyist political figure. But little about that can be said beyond what’s been said about the first two parts.

It’s very rare that a work of fiction manages to somehow include all the negative elements of its genre in a way that highlights every single one of them. But New Deal Coalition Retained is such a work. One can sometimes get a feel for the flaws of a genre by looking at something that prominently displays them. Such is the case for later Tom Clancy books and technothrillers, and it’s the case for this and internet alternate history. If those are Chronicles of the Conference Room, this is like a research paper without any research.

Review: Field of Glory

Field of Glory

With Field of Glory, the Kirov series shifts into another subplot involving-you guessed it-time travelers changing the outcome of famous battles. In this case it’s a French and British time traveler manipulating history with their time-keys as part of a rivalry, with this book being about changing the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo. This entire “Keyholders Saga” was set up early in the series as a possible direction after the initial arc, shelved as an alternate World War II was focused on, and then revived later on as a way to show off wargames in other time periods.

This book is even more blatant than usual about being little but a lets play/after action report. While anyone crazy enough to make it through the Kirov series wouldn’t be surprised by any of this, this is intended as a spinoff. And for what it is, it’s not too bad.

At first it may be confusing and incomprehensible to have a story shift from the World Wars to the distant past, but once the gimmick is understood, it becomes better. Especially since a problem of some of the other Kirovs is that they linger too long on one certain war/campaign. A one-off book doesn’t have that issue.

Review: Termination Orders

Termination Orders

Leo Maloney’s Termination Orders begins the Dan Morgan series of thrillers. The plot is basically cheap thriller boilerplate, as an action hero faces off against a super-conspiracy. Of course, cheap thrillers succeed and fail based on execution, not concept.

In that sense, the book works. Its action is competent and the pacing done fairly well, although there are a lot of flashbacks in weird places. The exception to the generic yet decent action is one set-piece involving lions that made me smile.

The conclusion I drew is that this book manages to go juuuuust above the middle of the very crowded pack. It’s not the most distinct or best cheap thriller. But it’s done well enough that I wouldn’t call it a mere “51%” book.

Review: Decisively Engaged

Decisively Engaged

It’s been some time since I read a nice, proper spacesuit commando novel. And C. J. Carella’s Decisively Engaged fits the bill. Because boy, is this of the biggest spacesuit commando books ever. It’s Space America vs. The Alien Hordes. Sure there’s a backstory, but all you really need to know is it being (literal) Space America vs. the Alien Hordes.

The military sci-fi cliches are present here in such massive qualities that they stop being annoying and start being oddly endearing. This and the fact that the action is actually decently written-not the best, but at least decently enough-is enough to make the book enjoyable for me. The worst part is overly jumpy perspective shifts, not helped a few clumsy flashback “interludes”.

This is the sort of pulpy cheap thriller that doesn’t feel like “good” would be the right word to describe it. Yet it’s enjoyable, and that’s ultimately what matters more.

Review: For Alert Force

For Alert Force: KLAXON KLAXON KLAXON

Having essentially run low on World War III books that both held interest to me and weren’t already read has been a slight issue for this blog. Thankfully, I found some newer ones. One of these was Jim Clonts’ FOR ALERT FORCE: KLAXON KLAXON KLAXON, an awkwardly-titled book telling the tale of SAC crews in World War III.

This is a near-immediate 1980s nuclear World War III with none of the contrivances to keep it conventional for any length of time that appear in other works. Clonts, a veteran of B-52s himself, tells their story of fighting in these apocalyptic conditions. The book is good for what it is, but tends to wobble a little.

It has the exact strengths and weaknesses of what something written by someone with personal experience brings. On one hand, it’s detailed and a lot of it is accurate (as far as I could tell). A lot of the scenes are tense and well-done. On the other, it has tons and tons of Herman Melville-grade explanations of everything minor and technical.

Still, it could have been a lot worse than it is, and works as an aviation thriller. It’s not the most pleasant, but as this is about nuclear war, that’s to be expected. A more focused Chieftains (albeit with airplanes instead of tanks) is not a bad thing.

Finally, I noticed that it openly declares itself an “alternate history” on the cover, something a lot of fiction, even the kind that could easily qualify as such, doesn’t do. This fits the description unambiguously. It takes place long before its writing time and has history-changing events. So it’s interesting that Clonts felt comfortable enough to label it as such.

In short, I didn’t regret reading this book.

Review: The Last Panther

The Last Panther

The book The Last Panther is supposedly the memoir of Wolfgang Faust, a German tank crewman in World War II, in the bitter final part of the war. I say supposedly because, well, it’s pretty clear to anyone with any sort of actual knowledge that this book, like its predecessor Tiger Tracks, is a hoax. I could say it’s because the situational awareness is, well…

…There’s books in third person with no pretense towards realism that have less precision and detail than this supposed “memoir”. There’s how the exact number of tanks in every battle is described amazingly, where everything explodes in a way that takes paragraphs to describe. Then there’s how the the supposed narrator can’t remember anything about his own crew save for one nickname. So there’s that, and… yeah, the book is not a real memoir.

It also rivals Atlantisch Crusaders for the title of “most ‘Wehraboo’ modern book ever.” Perhaps the best example of this is when a Soviet soldier who climbs on the narrator’s tank is described in the book’s exact words as having “an Asiatic, Mongolian type face” (and that he somehow can remember!) The rest of the novel is only slightly less blatant in that regards, but-yeah.

This is an anachronistic throwback to German-starring WWII war pulp, which remains as over-the-top and dubious as its predecessors. It’s not a memoir, it’s not historically accurate save for depicting a real battle that happened (in that sense, it’s on the level of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor), and even leaving the Wehrabooism aside, it’s repetitive and a little too over-the-top for its own good, defining the word “tryhard” when used in a negative sense.