Review: End Game

End Game

After five hits that ranged from “good” to “excellent”, the Jonathan Grave series finally gets a miss in End Game. Which is a shame, for it’s still an uncovered gem of a series. Now, five solid books is an excellent run, and even this on its own isn’t that bad. But it’s still weaker than what had come before.

Basically, the formula is there stronger than ever, which means that all the issues with it are also there and stronger than ever. What makes things far worse is a mundane plot and dull antagonists who just don’t seem fitting. That its super-protagonist gets involved at all feels off in a way that none of the previous other plots did. Those felt like challenges befitting someone of Grave’s abilities. Here, it feels weirdly like a 1990-2000s technothriller where the villains have to be propped up in a crude way. And the whole point of the small-unit action hero thriller is that it shouldn’t have to rely on such gimmicks.

So this is a disappointment. A readable disappointment, but still a definite disappointment. For authors who’ve proved their worth, the expectations often feel higher. And this didn’t meet them.

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: Target Response

Target Response

Somehow my mind said “you know what you really need to read next? Another ‘William W. Johnstone’s’ book.” And thus I decided to try and roll the boulder up the hill yet again with Target Response. I mean, maybe it could be a serviceable cheap thriller? Maybe one of the anonymous, carefully-hidden authors behind what’s become a house name worked well this time?

Or not. But really, what did I expect?

There’s two barely connected plots that only stay together by virtue of sharing a common villain and “theme” of the Dog Team assassins being targeted for death by said villains. The first is a paint-by-numbers set piece in Nigeria that takes up the opening act. This at least doesn’t have very far to sink. But the second is another Dog Team member back home having to fight off a literal family of assassins, and it’s something that a better thriller writer could have done just so much better. The potential is lost and it falls flat, like the writing.

The writing style is extremely sparse and flat. It’s meant as a basic reading thriller, but comes across as just rote and artificial-which makes sense given what the series is. And yet I couldn’t help but think that in some ways this was actually, at least in context, better than many of the “rival” later Gold Eagles. The weapon descriptions aren’t quite as blocky and overstuffed. And while the plot is just as erratic and wrapped-up too quickly, there’s less outright obvious padding.

Now, there are so many more deserving books by both big and small name authors that I’d recommend over these literary clunkers. They still share the same basic and deep flaws. And as I said in the last Dog Team book review, going from “distinctively, memorably bad” to “forgettably mediocre” in many ways works against it. So this is kind of like saying one old-design, tiny cheap subcompact car is “better” than another old, cheap subcompact car. But I still need to give a bit of credit where it’s due.

Review: The Ninja

The Ninja

Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja is a very fascinating book. On one hand, it played a big role in the 1980s “Western Ninja” craze. On the other, the book itself is… bad. To put it very mildly.

The actual substance of the first Nicholas Linnear novel consists of little more than sleaze, padding, and ridiculously purple prose. I mean, it makes Kenneth Bulmer at his worst look like a field manual in comparison. That’s how bad it is. What’s interesting is how it was successful.

While literary tastes can be very different, this still feels strange that what got a subgenre going was something like this. It’s as if The Hunt For Red October was a thousand-page impenetrable mess where the protagonists effortlessly sink the Northern Fleet. Or if War Against The Mafia was full of exclamation points! in weird spots and couldn’t even keep its main character’s name consistent. It’s something, but it’s not exactly something I’d recommend.

On Mack Bolan

So with the release of Blood Vortex, the Harlequin/Gold Eagle era of Mack Bolan concluded. After reviewing that book, I have a couple more thoughts.

The first is that there simply wasn’t much attention paid to it outside the existing fandom. Nader Elhefnawy has commented that in 2015, the rest of Gold Eagle, a once-big imprint, getting folded attracted literally no comment. Likewise for the end of Mack Bolan, and I can add to that by saying the responses to my Blood Vortex review amounted to “Wait they were still making Mack Bolans?” This isn’t surprising, as the series was an irrelevant shell for years and years.

What I find more interesting is how every Mack Bolan movie project has fallen through. Some of this could just be bad luck, but it implies that, for all the success of the books (at a time before visual media could match its visceral qualities), the character was, unlike his inspiration The Punisher, never truly that marketable.

Now for the biggest surprise I had when reading the later, non-Pendleton Bolans. What I’d expected was for the multiple authors to result in the books being extremely erratic in quality, ie comic books. Yet what I found, albeit based on a small sample size, was strangely the opposite. There was a bit of difference in quality, but there was a lot more similarity.

Whatever the author, the Gold Eagle Bolans I’ve read all have had the same issues with a consistency I haven’t seen among cheap thrillers made by different writers in different settings. Nearly all of them would go into ridiculous detail on the character weapons, but would make gigantic mistakes about anything vehicle-based or bigger that one glance at a Wikipedia page could have corrected. All of them felt filled with obvious padding in spite of their short-to-very-short length. All of them had, to one degree or another, stilted and clunky prose. And all of them were jumbled and had huge issues with their plots (even by cheap thriller standards).

I don’t know the reasons why this was the cause. Whether it was the editors pushing it, the authors just getting into a routine (especially given the undoubtedly tight release schedule), or something else, I don’t know. But it was there, and it was one of the things that made me less eager to read them.

It’s strange. The Executioner (which was originally intended as a one-off!) ended up with so many books and so many more it clearly influenced, including a popular Marvel character. Yet so much of it was also disposable throwaway literature, cheap even by the standards of cheap thrillers.

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: Threat Warning

Threat Warning

The third Jonathan Grave “shoot the terrorist” thriller, Threat Warning remains mostly as good as its two predecessors. However, it backslides just a little, as I’m seeing plot elements decisively solidify. The first part of this isn’t too bad, simply featuring Gilstrap deciding on a certain style and it becoming less novel to me. Any long series would have this problem.

The second part is that it features my “this isn’t the movies-it’s worse!” pet peeve where the books go into a lot of semi-realistic detail, and then Grave turns into John Rourke and can fight off giant armies of goons on his own. It’s not a deal-breaker by any means, but it’s still a little annoying.

There’s also two issues specific to this book. The first is that it tips its hand about the main plot too soon, unlike the last two. Again, this doesn’t ruin the book and the action/execution is still as good as ever (with the previously mentioned caveat), but it is a downgrade. The second is that the climax has the villains failing as much due to their own incompetence as the heroes action. While plausible, it isn’t as satisfying. These issues lower Threat Warning from the heights of the previous two novels, but it’s still a fine thriller.

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.

A Thousand Words: Metal Slug

Metal Slug

SNK’s classic series Metal Slug takes the Contra-type “side scrolling shooter” game and adds an unforgettable art style to it. The excuse plot is you controlling a member of the elite “Peregrine Falcons” against the “Rebel Army”-and more weird enemies.

The art, from the goofy yet legitimately detailed sprites to the lavish backgrounds to the smooth animations, is consistently amazing. The music isn’t as standout (with a few exceptions), but is always at least serviceable. As for the gameplay, it’s both very good and inherently limited.

The action, weapon combinations, and controls are all excellent with the exception of a few clumsy platforming sections. The issue is the games are very short and were originally for arcades. So it’s either “be good enough at this very hard game to avoid deaths or just brute-force your way through with credits”. This probably couldn’t have been avoided, but it’s still a little bitter. That being said, this series is a classic for a reason and the games are well worth playing.