Review: The Body Man

The Body Man

Eric Bishop’s The Body Man is a remarkable piece of thriller writing. This tale of an extra-secret Secret Service man has managed to dethrone past champion Marine Force One for the “most adequately middling novel” crown. It incorporates every plot trait of a cheap thriller-the agent heroes, the high-level conspiracy, the Russians, the Arabs, the action-in a simply adequate fashion.

It’s never actually bad, even if it’s a little longer than it probably should have been. But it never really becomes, or even tries to become more than what it ends up being. Which is the most solidly “median 51%” book I’ve read in a long, long time. The action is neither bad nor excellent. The stakes are not too low but not too high either. You get the idea. It’s weirdly distinct because of its “genericness”. And that’s not a small feat.

Review: Red Flag

Red Flag

I was intrigued by Mike Solyom’s Red Flag, a novel set around the titular air combat exercise. After reading it, I found it rather underwhelming. There’s actually more than one main plot. There’s the air combat exercise, there’s the backdrop of the author’s other books and ridiculous geopolitics with a de facto WWIII against a “Caliphate” armed with Cold War surplus stuff, and there’s a boilerplate science fiction UFO thriller.

The book isn’t bad at all. The author has genuine expertise, and it shows, even if sometimes it falls into the twin banes of Herman Melville Exposition and “Let me tell you how it really is, unlike on that TV” statements. What it does feel is dissonant. Because of the details and what’s supposed to be grounding, whenever there’s iffy geopolitics and/or weapons choices, it feels extra-off. And when there’s alien spider robots, it feels off even more.

I feel like truly weird, alien, Stephen Baxter-esque beasts would work better with a more grounded novel like it tries to be in air combat. I also feel like the aliens in this story would work fine in a more bombastic, Mack Maloney-type tale. But together they just don’t feel right.

Still, this is still a cheap thriller, and since when do cheap thrillers care about “dissonance”? As a cheap thriller, it may be a “mean 51%” book of varying degrees of quality instead of a “median 51%” book of consistent adequacy, but it still works.

Review: Brink of War

Brink of War

Logan Ryles’ Brink of War is a rather strange action thriller. It’s equal parts 51% action thriller that plods along just fast enough and just well enough to be sufficient (when it’s focused on that), tepid attempt at a technothriller that falls short because of how little research is done on the various pieces of military equipment mentioned (at times it comes close to Ian Slater levels of inaccuracy) and justification sequences. Yes, justification sequences.

See, the premise of the book is that action hero Reed Montgomery (again with the action hero names) is sent to investigate the mysterious downing of this plane called, uh, Air Force One in eastern Turkey. And despite being in one of the most militarized regions of the world, the Americans need an action hero who’s in Latin America at the start of the book. I don’t mind contrivances, but this spends way too much time dwelling on its justification for having an action hero.

So a third of the book is a “decent enough” action hero novel. But two thirds of it are not. I guess that makes it uh, a 16.83% book? Whatever it is, there’s sadly much better cheap thrillers out there.

Review: Act of Justice

Act of Justice

Former SEAL Dick Couch’s Act of Justice is a thriller with one of the most distinct premises I’ve read. If it can even be called a thriller, for most of the book amounts to one strange plotline. When I saw the tagline of “alternate history”, I was intrigued. Though this book really tiptoes on the line between alternate and “secret history”, where there are divergences that didn’t change the results of history as we know it. Taking place in the War on Terror, this book offers an alternate/secret story for how the government managed to find Osama bin Laden. It starts with a Herman Melville-level description of the Abbotabad raid, and then goes… places.

First, Couch uses this as an opportunity to plug his previous books, taking the super secret special hired “Intervention Force” and making them central. While I haven’t read any of them, their inclusion and the references were still kind of glaring and gave the impression of “look at my Mary Sues”. Second, the bulk of the book is, well… it could be called “They Saved bin Laden’s Kidneys” for accuracy. The plan involves using superscience listening devices implanted in a set of fresh kidneys, making bin Laden more useful alive than dead. Most of the effort is devoted to the ways the operation is set up and finally conducted.

It’s fanciful, especially because all the parts of the plan fall into their lap. Thus while different, that’s really all that it is. But it still has the qualities of a 51% book, and I’ll gladly take a Dark Rose-style 51% book with a weird premise over a 51% book without one.

Review: Onslaught

The Fae Wars: Onslaught

J. F. Holmes’ The Fae Wars: Onslaught is the story of magical evil elves invading the contemporary world with magic that can overcome technology. It’s just a cheap thriller, but it’s a fun cheap thriller. The action is constant and told from both sides, with both experiencing difficulties.

While the military stuff is frequently both contrived (foreign arms dealers getting a giant super-arsenal into New York City), and inaccurate (the human aircraft engage at far closer distances than they realistically would, for one), this isn’t the kind of book where one would quibble about such things. It’s a fun magitech war novel that should be treated as a fun magitech war novel.

Review: Coup D’Etat

Coup D’Etat

Chris Nuttall’s Coup D’Etat is a book I knew I had to get when I saw the premise. A princess of a Middle Eastern country wrangles western mercenaries to overthrow it in a modern Dogs of War (explicitly cited as an influence, and obvious enough even without the citation)? Sounds good enough. The possibility of a thriller that can be more than just a small group of commandos? You betcha!

The premise is thus very good. The problem is that the execution is not. First, the main character comes across as an uncomfortable Mary Sue, and his opinions along with a more important portrayal cross the line from “hardened realist” to “creep”. But the bigger problem is the setting.

Taking place in a petrostate is a good, and arguably great setting. Having a fictional one so you don’t need to step on real toes and can make it to your needs is another good literary tool this book uses. The problem is that, well…

Say you had a fictional US state in the Old South for your story, and it was portrayed as being composed entirely of corrupt redneck bosses, uneducated and bigoted rural poor, Klansmen, and oppressed African-American sharecroppers who are used entirely as a mentioned prop to show how bad things are without actually being elaborated on. Replace that with the contemporary Middle Eastern equivalents and you have “Kabat”, the oil kingdom the novel takes place in. Compounding the worst true elements of an environment for the sake of fiction isn’t necessarily bad, but here it is. It takes away the stakes by making it look like an irredeemable and worse, dull wasteland. Pretty much any character who isn’t a power broker, trigger puller, or supervillain is used as nothing but a pop-up attraction in the freak show obstacle course.

Granted, you could reasonably argue that I’m overthinking the backdrop for an action thriller. Except this isn’t a very good action thriller. Not just because the prose is only decent at best, but because so much is devoted to the setup and exploring this dubious setting. So this book fails at being a suspense thriller and it fails at being an action thriller. It aims very high and falls very, very short.

A Thousand Words: Money Plane

Money Plane

Adam “Edge” Copeland and Kelsey Grammer’s Money Plane is the story of an attempt to rob a flying super-casino. It fails. Not the heist, the movie. This is an extremely stupid movie. And it’s not even that stupid in a fun way. It’s just inept. Even if one follows the reasonable assumption that action movies do not have to make sense, it’s a failure. Its suspension of disbelief refuses to be followed.

For instance, in-universe, a “master thief” doesn’t seem to know how many people crew the average commercial cockpit. Out of universe, a professional wrestler is squandered by having him spend the bulk of the movie sitting at the controls and talking. In-universe, there are no staff on this supervillain plane and no one goes to check on the cockpit even after the plane shakes and diverts from its original course. Oh, and almost all the resistance comes not from the plane runners but from other gamblers.

The film is very short but still feels overstuffed, not knowing if it wants to be a serious heist movie or a silly heist movie. None of the protagonists are very developed or charming, and even Grammer’s performance is a little too forced. The people behind the titular super-plane are squandered: The actors who play the “concierge” and “bookkeeper” on the plane actually do their supervillain roles well, but the movie bizarrely shifts away from them and towards unfunny “wacky” guests like a cowboy who ends up shooting himself in the head (it’s a long story). I wanted to like this movie, but it really doesn’t work, even as a dumb action movie.

Review: Deep Sleep

Deep Sleep

Steven Konkoly’s Deep Sleep is a tight, excellent spy thriller. When agent Devin Gray finds out that his recently deceased mom has uncovered the mother of all conspiracies, the game is on. I loved this book. I really did love it. I’ll even let its “the action wants to be just a little grounded while the backdrop of the conspiracy could have been written by Jon Land” dissonance slide.

One thing I loved about this book was its personality. For the heroes and villains alike, this felt more personal, close, and intimate than a 51% book where the action hero crushes a ton of faceless goons. Not that I mind such books, but it’s good to have variety.

Combine this with the spectacular set pieces that do exist and you have a rarity. A book that can have its cake and eat it too. I highly recommend reading this.

Review: OPLAN Fulda

OPLAN Fulda

Time to return to this blog’s roots with intelligence veteran Leo Barron’s new OPLAN Fulda. It’s a 1989 conventional World War III novel. In other words, what this blog was made to cover. So how is it?

Well, it’s pretty obvious that this was written by a military intelligence veteran. One passage where a Soviet army commander muses on the two difference courses of action his subordinate division commanders have chosen for their attack is the most blatant, but the tone is clear throughout the whole book. This means there’s too little fog of war for my liking and a lot of Melville-esque passages (complete with footnotes in many cases).

There’s also the usual suspects. There’s the contrived excuse for a war, conference room scenes, and jumping viewpoints. However, and this is important to note, the execution of all this is not bad at all. In a hard genre to do right, Barron succeeds.

The action is good and appropriately messy. Nuclear weapons are not handwaved aside (and the escalation makes sense!). The focus is an intricate one on both the Americans and Soviets instead of swerving away to some British or Dutch unit elsewhere at the worst possible moment. Oh, and it gets the tank designations right.

Because of this, I’m delighted to recommend this book to all World War III enthusiasts. Stuff like this doesn’t come along too often. So when it does, I feel great in reviewing it. The best praise I can give this is that it’s helped inspire me to make a “big war thriller” for my next draft after two mostly nonviolent works.

A Thousand Words: Nightmare Reaper

Nightmare Reaper

The just-fully-released Nightmare Reaper is a love letter to both roguelikes (games built around randomized content) and classic “motion shooters”. With that frantic gameplay mixed with a background that involves a trapped young woman’s troubled, twisted dreams (the game takes place in said dreams), it could be called Doom Nikki.

I’ll admit this is not usually my kind of game, but I’ve found that losing can be surprisingly fun (it is extremely generous by roguelike standards in terms of how much dying in a level costs you-or, in this case doesn’t). Of course, besides the traits of a Doom-style shooter, the roguelike randomization means the game’s difficulty can become a lot more luck than skill based.

Still, if you love Doom-style FPSes, this game is definitely for you.