Review: Pale Horse 3

Pale Horse 3

Russell Greer’s Pale Horse 3 is the story of a B-52 in a 1980s World War III-published in 2020. So it’s another entry in the “alternate history World War III after Vietnam” genre which, as I’ve said many times, thought was too big but ended up being too small. Except this is in an even smaller field because it has nuclear weapons involved. But wait, unlike the apocalyptic For Alert Force, this falls back into limited plotnukes.

That quibble as to what tinier chuck of a tiny segment of fiction it falls into aside, how is the actual book?

The answer, I’m sad to say, is “not the best”. Given that this is only the author’s second novel, I’m not holding it against him, but the prose is still very clunky, the plot is kind of jumbled and a little slow with the backstory, and even the action gets a little too Herman Melville-y. Dale Brown at his finest this is not.

Besides the review of the book itself, this has a very bittersweet “closing the frontier” feeling for me. It’s one thing to know the “AHWW3AV” (how’s that for an acronym?) genre inside and outside, but quite another to literally read the literal last one on the current list. One reason I actually like having backlogs of books is because of the empty feeling when they’re finished, even if in a satisfying way.

Once the magic of figuring out the genre is gone, you’re left with a field that, like any other, has good, bad, and in this case middling entries. Conventional (or mostly conventional) World War III felt like something to explore. Something to help me mature when I saw how little it actually resembled the “Icelandic” picture I had in mind before. Something to start a whole blog about. Now it’s just another tag in this blog, and I’m really not sure how I feel about that.

Review: Zulu Hour

Zulu Hour

The second Kirov “Keyholders” spinoff, Zulu Hour takes a look at an alternate Battle of Isandlwana. Like the previous installment at Waterloo, this has an excuse plot that’s really forced and blatant even by Kirov standards. A pair of gambling time travelers use their time-keys to go back and try to change various historical battles for the sake of their rivalry. Don’t worry about the seemingly massive butterflies this would cause, because thanks to the mechanics of time travel, they can always “overwrite” it later.

Yeah, it’s that blatant. But this is the Kirov series, and using time travel to set up all kinds of alternate battles is the exact point of the series. Besides the battle itself and the time travelers trying to persuade Chelmsford and Cetshwayo, this also involves the Fairchild Group, another weird subplot in the series involving an oil heiress and her own personal Type 45 Destroyer. In past Kirovs, several people from that were timeshifted to… the Isandlwana site.

Once the fighting actually starts, what emerges may be one of the most legitimately good things Schettler has written. Maybe it’s just how a one-part spinoff simply has to be more concise than an eight-book series, or maybe it’s just the novelty. Yet it worked.

It could be a change of pace after seeing so many large-scope modern wargames. Or it could be that the late 19th Century is an area of warfare that I haven’t seen that much of, compared to the subject matter of the main series. Whatever it was, the action here felt and looked better than the norm for Kirov.

This long-foreshadowed book was a lot of fun. And the Kirov spinoff concept of just reenacting/changing historical battles via wargaming has a lot of possibilities. Those are taken advantage of here in an enjoyable book.

Review: Battle of the Three Seas

World War 1990: Battle of The Three Seas

It’s time to return to William Stroock, an author who I’ve previously slammed as the worst World War III writer ever. Has this been fair? And has his new Battle of the Three Seas improved on his previous entries?

For the first question, it’s a weird answer. It’s like talking about the New York Knicks or Jets. They’re still pro-level teams, and even a “bad” pro player is still among the greatest in the world. Being the 32nd-best team in the world is still an accomplishment. Similiarly, to write a long novel at all in a niche genre is a talent many don’t have, and Stroock has still gotten more basics right in the field than non-specialized authors have. (Research on military equipment, especially above small arms, is something frequently in very, very short supply). So yes, it has been unfair to simply denounce in fire-breathing terms.

Yet it’s still fair to consider the Knicks and Jets not the 32nd-best teams in the world, but the worst compared to their colleagues. They’re still bad by those (incredibly high) standards. And they’re not going against college/international teams-you judge them by who they’re up against. So, with a heavier heart, I still have to say that Stroock is one of the worse World War III specialist writers, and while this book has improved somewhat compared to the earlier ones, it’s not enough to shift the rankings that much.

The book is less one-sided in absolute terms than some of his previous books. It’s undeniably improved in prose quality. But it still has a jumbled structure with way too many viewpoint changes for its own good and writing that’s still too flat to really work. There are still bizarre subplots that don’t really add anything.

It’s ultimately just still too hard to find something in this book, or Stroock’s series as a whole, that does what another “conventional World War III” book doesn’t do better, be it characterization, tone, or technical plausibility. It might be better than a historical “sports nadir” team. But it’s still, in a now-obsolete baseball term, very much a “second-division” series.

A Thousand Words: The Henry Stickmin Collection

The Henry Stickmin Collection

It’s fitting to ring in the new year with something that celebrates what Fuldapocalypse has become. Which is to say, a blog that relishes in reviewing the most goofy and out-there cheap thrillers imaginable. And I’ve recently been playing a game that epitomizes that.

Said game is The Henry Stickmin Collection, a remaster/remake of Newgrounds classics whose general type I knew fondly when I was younger. Since Flash has been officially abandoned by Adobe, this is a fitting tribute. Ok, maybe that sentence was weird. But so is this game, and I love it.

A combination of “choose your own adventure” and quicktime events, Henry Stickmin is exactly what you’d get if you had a teenager who played too many video games and Jon Land collaborate on an action-adventure story. In a combination of slapstick and really, really blatant video game references, you pull off daring capers-or fail miserably. A lot. So often. Thankfully you can just restart at the selection-event easily, which means there isn’t really any frustration in failure. In fact, I sometimes got disappointed when I actually succeeded on the first try.

As for the references themselves, most pass my personal test for references, which is to say that you could find them amusing even if you knew nothing of the setting they’re referencing. And there’s so many that even I didn’t get some of them. But there were many more that I did, and quite a few scenes that succeed in being funny even without any references whatsoever.

And there’s some parts of it that actually have a bit of real cleverness to them. Not just the gags, but the game structure. For instance, the final chapter has many different options that you can access based on the assumptions that you completed a certain set of paths beforehand. And every character, if you can right-click on them fast enough, has an accessible defined biography, which is a nice touch.

It’s been a while since I got a new video game that really grabbed me, but this did. It’s probably just a silly novelty, but it’s a very fun silly novelty. It feels almost tailored to my exact tastes. No wonder I’ve been playing a lot of it.

Review: Enemy Of My Enemy

Enemy Of My Enemy

It’s been a long wait, but Peter Nealen’s Brannigan’s Blackhearts have finally returned in Enemy Of My Enemy, the latest installment in the series. The crew heads down into the Caucasus on a mission that’s dubious and ultra-risky even by their standards, and the result is a typically solid thriller. By now I know the structure used in the series, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing.

What’s interesting is that I’ve read this series so long that my tastes have shifted against its trends multiple times. When it was doing a giant multi-book arc, I’d gotten a little annoyed that it had abandoned light, easy standalone pieces. Now that it’s back to standalone books, I’ve gotten a little annoyed that it’s moved past big, ambitious arcs. But these are only small annoyances. They’re understandable and the works underneath are still excellent.

Review: Jericho

Jericho

The 55th book in the Kirov series and most recent as of this post, Jericho is a victim of the series’ structure. In it, the third World War III in the series rages on, as wargame lets plays naval fighting rages off the coast of East Asia. There amphibious landings and tense reinforcement missions. There are also big naval battles where tons of offensive missiles are fired and tons of defensive missiles are fired.

The problem is there were six books in this arc before of big modern naval battles where tons of missiles are fired. And then there was an eight-book arc before this one with plenty of naval battles where tons of missiles were fired. You see the issue here?

Even with keeping the “huge set of wargame lets plays” structure, there’s a lot that could be trimmed. The novelty of a toy box with unique force structures is bound to wear off after several books of seeing that in action again and again. It happened in the previous arcs, and despite this (deliberately) being more out-there than the earlier World War III, by now I’m used to seeing the platforms, formations, and paper-thin Steel Panthers Characters crewing them. The actual simulations could still happen while not going into detail on the least important and/or dramatic of them. One can novelize a game without detailing every single encounter.

As for the central characters, well, they’re not very significant here. Part of this is just that the series is getting ready for the next big arc (insisted yet again to be the final one in the series), but there just aren’t that many words devoted to them in this novel. They’re just there to crew ships like the other to-be-erased cutouts.

This feels like a sports game late in the regular season where nothing is really at stake for either side and there’s no traditional rivalry to spice things up. Yes it’s sports/a Kirov book with wargame battles and jumping plotlines in it, but the feeling of being something greater just isn’t there. It’s understandable given the structure, but that doesn’t change the lackluster quality of the specific novel/game.

Review: Blood Vortex

Blood Vortex

The newest Mack Bolan, Blood Vortex is the 464th (!) Executioner novel. It’s also the last Executioner book planned, or at least the last Gold Eagle/Harlequin one. Thus this marks the end of an era lasting nearly forty years.

In it, every single terror group gathers in Venezuela for a meeting and Bolan has to stop them. So basically, this is like a serious version of The Naked Gun’s opening. The tonal dissonance here is an issue I’ve noticed in other Gold Eagles. Other cheap thrillers often successfully go for either a grounded or audacious tone, but these tend to have seemingly goofy premises that are countered by a self-serious tone and flat execution.

We get long descriptions of each component of the League of Evil arriving at Venezuela. There’s not just over-description of weapons, but over-description of weapons in a very clunky way. There’s also just as clumsy exposition that reads like Wikipedia excerpts about other things. Another big issue I’ve seen with some of these men’s adventure books (including Gold Eagle Bolans) is that despite their short length, they still contain lots of really obvious padding.

Then there’s the other thing I’ve noticed in these Gold Eagles, which is that the infodumps on anything bigger than a bazooka are frequently not just wrong, but blatantly wrong. For instance, the AIM-120 and Kh-59MK2 (yes, the book uses that exact designation) are considered “equivalents”, dubious when the latter is an air-to-surface missile. And the context in which they appear is a paragraph of pure filler.

But what about the action here? Well, it manages to be adequate-at best. There’s a lot more flow-breaking internal monologues here than in other cheap thrillers, and it never rises that high. And this has the problem of going against a mega-saturated genre.

This isn’t some kind of grand finale and there’s no attempt to make it one. Like a lot of “men’s adventure” novels that stopped, it’s just one installment among others. This is like the last nondescript econobox car rolling off the assembly line, long after the rest of the auto world passed it by. This isn’t a dinosaur, it’s a trilobite, with its genre’s business model being obsoleted twice. A series that became disposable and interchangeable (really, look at all the “mass production” and “assembly line” metaphors I’ve used in past reviews) was bound to conclude in such a way.

Review: Raider Brigade: Into A Time Warp

Raider Brigade: Into A Time Warp

With the premise of “1980s American armored brigade prepares for World War III, only to get timeshifted back to World War II”, I couldn’t not check out Daniel Gilbert’s Raider Brigade: Into A Time Warp when I saw it. While my reading experience is broad enough that this is strangely not new to me (the Kirov series timeshifted a modern brigade into the past twice), examining it was inevitable.

Unfortunately, this is rather lacking in execution, even compared to the Kirov series. The enthusiasm is there and the concept is still amazing, so I don’t want to sound too hard. But the prose is very rough and there’s as much time spent on the operations order given before the battles as there is on the (predictably one-sided) battles themselves. A too-large portion of the already short book is devoted to pictures and footnotes, giving this near-Richard Rohmer levels of “padding to substantive content”.

Even at the basics, this falls short. Descriptions are either too short or too long in that “I know what all the acronyms mean, and I’ll tell you in a footnote” way. The dialogue well, leaves something to be desired. And a lot of it is just well, incoherent. There’s no other way to put it. So, with a heavy heart, I’d say that this does not live up to its concept and is not recommended.

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: Tales of World War III 1985

Tales of World War III: 1985

Looking back at the progression of this blog, I’m reminded a lot of the story of trying to make a cockpit design that could fit the “average pilot”, and then finding that no one actually met that criteria. I feel similarly when I look back at just how little anything actually met my stereotype.

Brad Smith’s Tales of World War III: 1985 series comes closest, edging out Larry Bond’s earlier work. It’s done by a wargame designer and thus features the wargame-friendly setting of 1985 Europe, with battles taking place in various parts of it. There’s a lot of technical description.

I don’t feel nearly as much negativity towards it as I would have and did in the past. Smith has sincerely tried to build characterization, even if the execution is still often clunky and the characters often Steel Panthers cameras in practice. And the wargaming at least takes the series above Ian Slater in terms of technical accuracy. But it’s still a 51% entry in a niche genre, the pilot who isn’t particularly good or bad but has the dimensions to actually fit well in the “average” cockpit.