Review: The Protocol

The Protocol

The initial book in J. Robert Kennedy’s James Acton series is The Protocol. This secret history conspiracy archeology thriller comes at sort of the tail end of my reading binge of this “genre”. Having read a lot of them, I’ve returned to more conventional cheap thrillers and have moved on for now.

This book embodies the reason why. A 51% book with an ancient mystical MacGuffin and super-conspiracy is still a 51% book if it has middling, mundane action. Especially if the MacGuffin itself is an unoriginal ripoff (as this is-I’ll just say there was an Indiana Jones movie that had the same kind of artifact and leave it at that). Just because something seems more outlandish than the blandest “shoot the terrorist” novel on paper doesn’t mean it comes across that way when actually reading it.

I’m not against ancient bizarre MacGuffins and super-conspracies in the slightest. But just having them doesn’t make them the equals of the best thrillers any more than using a similarly shaped bat makes one equal to a baseball Hall of Famer. It’s a lesson I’ve learned throughout my binge, and this is a good, even if not the most pointed, example of that.

A Thousand Words: Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Coming on the heels of my last post about beat ’em ups, one of the more interesting examples came from Capcom. The 1994 Alien Vs. Predator arcade game is fascinating. As a game, it has the same beautiful spritework you’d expect from a Capcom game of this time period. Its mixture of enemies is not exactly a bunch of street punks led by a well-dressed man with a gun.

But what the most interesting thing is is that it does what an adaptation needs to do. Granted, in many ways the setting tone is kind of incompatible with the game-you aren’t an outmatched human facing horrific, inhuman monsters, you’re beating up hordes of them en masse. But in terms of the pure essence, it distills all the convoluted lore into one simple goal. Humans reluctantly ally with monsters who sometimes want to kill them against both monsters who always want to kill them and a government/corporate conspiracy foolishly trying to use the latter monsters.

And this is done so well that Capcom could put a bubbly-voiced kounichi in and have it work.

 

 

Weird Wargaming: Beat Em Ups

Ah, the “beat ’em up”, a type of video game that achieved its first popularity with Double Dragon, and may be known best from Final Fight and Streets of Rage. Should one wish to simulate it using tabletop rules, the following should be adhered to:

  • Given the genre, the system must have robust melee rules. This is an obvious requirement that needs no further explanation.
  • The enemies will resemble, by and large, stereotypical 1980s “punks”. Bosses will be bigger and stronger versions of them and/or exotic in some way.
  • If they have weapons, it will be stuff like pipes, bricks, and knives. Because…
  • The amount of guns used, especially any bigger than a pistol, can be counted on one hand. Double Dragon set the precedent that only the final boss is allowed to have a gun. While the degree to which this adhered to varies, it’s still generally enforced.
  • The final stage will be this opulent area that contrasts massively with the tone and theme of the rest of the game. Double Dragon had an ancient temple complete with mechanical traps. Final Fight and the first two Streets of Rage games have giant mansions. The latest Streets of Rage has an island supervillains lair complete with a castle.

 

Review: Sandstorm

Sandstorm

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James Rollins’ Sigma Force series begins with Sandstorm.

I might have a little bit of “hype backlash” because of the way this series has been praised so much. I might also be used to ridiculous thrillers because of the way I’ve actively sought them out, so what seems utterly crazy to a less prolific reader might not be that way to me.

That being said, this was a very good, very out-there cheap thriller. I’d describe it as a more tacticool version of Clive Cussler. The ridiculous technobabble and ancient puzzle-solving is there, but the action (which is both incredibly frequent and often janky) is more conventional and, for lack of a better word, “tactical”, save for an amazing scene where someone dual-wields pistols on horseback. While I like it, it’s not the best ever in my eyes.

 

Review: The Nash Criterion

The Nash Criterion

After three stumbles, Erec Stebbins suddenly struck the right note with The Nash Criterion.

After one bad and two middling thrillers, Stebbins suddenly turns into Jon Land-if not Hideo Kojima- with this ridiculously overstuffed tale of a second American Civil War and ancient world-controlling super conspiracies. This book just was so over-the-top that I grinned at every single later page.

A lot of times it’s hard to review additional books in a series. This is not one of them, as it offers a distinct change. Many more times, if there’s a distinct change worth pointing out, it’s a negative one as the series drops in quality. Here, the opposite is thankfully true. The INTEL 1 series has gained in quality with this book, and I was very glad to see it.

Review: Phantom Force

Phantom Force

A Mack Bolan novel from 1991, Phantom Force is the sort of book that you’d kind of feel would come out of a rushed adventure assembly line. Written by Rich Rainey, it tells the story of the Executioner fighting an evil Japanese cult.

It’s a 51% book through and through. I was not surprised in the least to feel this, for it’s what I expected it to be. No doubt it would accomplish its purpose for the person seeking a small, safe literary diversion. It’s just that even in the context of the cheap thriller, this sort of thing can be done so much better. I inevitably thought of Jerry Ahern’s The Yakusa Tattoo when I read this, and that book’s gonzo excess compared to the rote box-checking of this one could not be more different. You can probably judge for yourself which one would be more memorable.

At this point in time, the pulpy, rapid-fire “men’s adventure” genre was imploding even faster and even more thoroughly than the technothriller. The biggest reason was simple economics-these kind of slim throwaway books were just too low margin in a market already starting to decline and consolidate. The second-biggest was that visual media was now quite able to provide violent, trashy entertainment in a much more suitable form. But a lack of quality cannot be overlooked.

I know this from personal experience. Even when younger and hungry for cheap thrillers, the output of the collapsing Gold Eagle line never appealed to me. I’ve read a few of them since then, but never to the degrees I’ve gone for other lines. And Phantom Force doesn’t seem that much different.

Of course, it’s another comment on the book’s value when writing about the context is more interesting to me than writing about the story itself.

Review: The Hard Kill

The Hard Kill

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Reading The Hard Kill got off to a good start when I saw it was by “the Manning brothers.” Though a coincidence, I was reminded of the quarterbacks. This sports joke got me in the perfect lighthearted mood for a book that defines the term “Cheap Thriller”.

It stars a John Stone out to save his goddaughter and keep the Macguffin out of the wrong hands. Now, I’ve already read cheap thrillers starring a Mark Stone and a Luke Stone, so I guess someone else with that last name was inevitable. The time this book really clicked for me was when John pursued a villain named Karl (which also brings up a sports reference to my mind, one of the the greatest basketball duos ever) in a vehicle chase involving an Audi R8 and a bunch of conveniently placed big vehicles the R8 hits.

Then after that there’s a finale where the main character brings a rifle, a pistol, and a submachine gun to the fight. What I’m trying to say is that this is an incredibly over-the-top thriller despite its pedestrian plot. It’s also incredibly fun. In fact, it’s the most fun I’ve had reading an action hero thriller in some time, and I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes “cheap action”.

Review: The Return of the Dog Team

The Return of the Dog Team

It’s time for Fuldapocalypse to dive into the world of “William W. Johnstone’s” novels. Johnstone himself wrote (and apparently considered his proudest work) the original Last of the Dog Team in 1981. By 2005 he was dead, though he lived on as a “Tom Clancy’s”-esque brand name, with its sequel being written “with” “Fred Austin” (who I’m convinced is just a house name).

To be honest, this isn’t really that bad-or that good. Yes, the heroes are ridiculous unstoppable Mary Sues, but this is far from the only book to have that issue. Yes, the military details are frequently inaccurate, often to excess (behold the “A-130” gunship helicopter), but that’s also common. Yes, there’s axe-grinding politics and horrible stereotypes, but-you get the idea.

In a strange way, William W. Johnstone stood out. This doesn’t. It’s just “shoot the terrorist” mush that hundreds of writers have done better without the baggage attached to the name. It’s a little better technically than Johnstone himself, but still. People remember the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. They don’t remember the 2002 Kansas City Royals.

Review: Destiny In The Ashes

Destiny In The Ashes

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William W. Johnstone’s Destiny in the Ashes is the 32nd (!) book in the series. Released near the end of Johnstone’s life, there are legitimate questions as to whether it’s the work of Johnstone the person or “Johnstone”, the pen name used by his niece and an army of ghostwriters behind ironclad NDAs since his death. I will only say that it reads like the real Johnstone and certainly isn’t any better than anything unambiguously written by the real Johnstone.

It took over ten books for Jerry Ahern’s Survivalist to stop being truly post-apocalyptic. It took Johnstone less than one. Instead it was focused entirely on societal commentary, if the commentary came from a pretentious, incoherent redneck.

The “plot” of this book is a Middle Eastern terrorist is striking the “US” run by the EVIL LIBERAL GUN GRABBERS, and they are forced to call upon Raines in the Great People’s SUSA Utopia for help. Raines steps up, in part with lectures about the inferiority of helicopters for troop insertion compared to HALO jumps. Naturally, the Americans go in with helicopters and get killed, while the Rebels HALO drop with ease.

The “military action” in this book (and the whole series, I must add) is legitimately strange and not just poorly written. It would be one thing if, by accident or design, it involved unrealistic and overly cinematic action. There’s some of that, but there’s also hunched strategy sessions that just make no sense and end in Mary Sue stomps.

The conclusion of this book involves an effortless jaunt out to Iraq in a passage that reads like a far worse version of a Chet Cunningham SEAL Team Seven novel. This continues the trend made far earlier in the series when Johnstone ran out of domestic “punks” for Raines to kill and had to send him abroad to get more.

The writing is terrible, the pacing is only somewhat bad, the plotting is terrible, and the characterization is extra-terrible. Yet, if it makes sense, the Ashes series is genuinely and distinctly terrible. A horrendous writer got a conventional publisher to produce and distribute literally dozens of his picture-book war stories and become successful enough that he endured as a “Tom Clancy’s” -esque brand name. That’s what makes it stand out.

Weird Wargaming: Payday

Payday: The Heist

The focus of this Weird Wargaming is the game series that started off as an obvious homage to classic heist movies and became a struggle against a world-controlling super-conspiracy that ended with confronting an evil dentist in a cave underneath the White House.

The Payday Gang themselves are more customizable, and their opponents shouldn’t be too much of a problem to come up with. Bulldozers have heavier armor, cloakers are stealth and possibly melee-based, tasers use electricity, and shields should be obvious. Not all of the specials are suitable for all kinds of rules, so use common sense.

The big issue is choosing between “hard” and “soft”. In “hard” mode, there’s at least a pretense of grounding, everything has to be stealthed if possible, and even loud heists are, by definition, short. In soft mode, closer to the game, the gang massively outclasses its opponents individually and can take on gigantic waves of people. All this depends on the rules and the theme, but Payday certainly offers a lot of chances.