I’m proud to present another Sea Lion Press review, this one being of the once-infamous The Big One series of alternate history/aircraft novels. The review can be found here. It was a lot of fun to write.
As readers of this blog undoubtedly know, I’ve dipped pretty deep into the small field known as [mostly] conventional World War III fiction. So when I saw an actual new release of one, Evan Currie’s Holy Ground, I felt obligated to check it out. The book is a prequel to an extensive science fiction series, and it shows. It centers around the defense of the island of Iwo Jima, on land, sea, and air.
Honestly, the setting image that came to my mind was “Command and Conquer Generals”. Not in the exact form or in it being an exact ripoff of that game-it definitely is not. But in the general (no pun intended) sense of a combination of sci-fi technology and stuff that’s visible in the obvious headlines/popular culture. Despite nominally taking place several decades in the future, there’s a lot of contemporary fighter aircraft designations. There’s also a lot of “cinematic” stuff, like missile-age aircraft using guns far more often than they realistically should.
Because of these limitations, it doesn’t succeed in being a technothriller. At the same time it’s too comparably grounded to be a Wingman-style pulpy thriller. And even judged purely on its own terms, the action isn’t the best. I want to emphasize it’s not the worst either, but I’ve definitely read better. For me it was a little fascinating to see what a technothriller in the style of a popular science fiction book looked like, but that can’t raise the novel above average on its own.
It’s kind of hard to take a look at individual entries in the Kirov series once its formula gets going, but if I had to choose one, I’d say Breakout. At the very least, it’s emblematic of the series. The Allies in this timeline have launched an amphibious invasion France from the south instead of from the north like they did historically. My fear when I first encountered the Kirov series was that it just would be stuff like that, or even more minor ones like “oh, well there were two Tiger battalions at ______ instead of the historical one?”
Instead, we get, in this book alone, timeshifted nuclear warheads, nuclear warheads developed with future technology by Volkov, airships, more airships, a timeshifted modern Bundeswehr brigade that inexplicably fights for the Axis because the author wanted to wargame it, and of course the adventures of the ship itself and its crew. There are reasons why, in spite of the pacing on display here, that I really enjoy this series. And Breakout has all of them.
I’ve talked sometimes about the “you’ve seen so many imitators that the original doesn’t seem so original” effect with regards to fiction. When reading this translated, declassified 1969 Soviet lecture on conventional operations after the monomanical focus on nuclear weapons earlier that decade, I’ve found it applied to history as well. Because a lot of it just seems like later pieces on how a large force would fight conventionally. And there’s more interesting things to it as well.
- “A future world war is first and foremost a nuclear war.” Similar pieces illustrate that while the Soviets had made plans under the assumption that a World War III would start conventionally, they did not believe that it would end conventionally.
- This is for front and army level operations, with one frequently replacing the other. This I’ve seen a lot of in translated Soviet field regulations, to include two unit names being used interchangeably, one an echelon below the other. The assumption I’ve always had is that it’s a concession to heavy casualties because your “front” will quickly be worn down to the size of a paper-strength army, your army worn to a paper-strength division, and so on. I could be wrong.
- The stated rate of advance is 35-40 kilometers a day, a slightly lower one than their later 40-60.
- Airborne forces are to be used.
- The “going over to nuclear weapons” section specifically brings up the opponent pushing the button as soon as they start losing badly.
- With typical Soviet precision, the article estimates “A fighter bomber division is capable, in one day of combat with two to three sorties, of inflicting destruction (up to 20 percent losses) on one to two enemy brigades.”
- As always, there’s the boilerplate necessary propaganda statements and the obligatory (if quite understandable) reference to World War II.
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.
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.
J. Robert King’s The Thran is meant as a backstory novel in the setting of Magic: The Gathering. It tells the story of the ancient civilization that only existed in ruins by the time of The Brothers War, and the rise to power of Yawgmoth and Phyrexia. This setting, with its fusion of magic and technology (of course there are airships), and especially the twisted technomagical nightmare of Phyrexia itself, is my favorite part of Magic.
The setting and premise is good, as is its antagonist’s/evil main character’s portrayal, but this book desperately needed a better author. Lynn Abbey did Phyrexia’s nightmare justice in Planeswalker. King does not. Not only is the depiction of the human Yawgmoth merging with the plane done in a very “straightforward” manner, but he even “unplugs” and returns to being normal throughout the book afterward, as if the author didn’t feel like writing cosmic-level fantasy.
Which is a shame because not only is the setting good, but the alternate possibilities are there too. The Thran Empire was not exactly a paradise, and Glacian, the withering master technologist, comes across as someone who’d make for a great blue mana-themed villain in his own right, obsessed with building the better mousetrap at any cost. It’s potential that King simply couldn’t realize. So this feels like something only lore completionists would really like, which I feel was probably always the case.
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.
The Sixth Battle
Barrett Tillman’s The Sixth Battle is an interesting book. The 1992 novel of a gigantic combined battle over South Africa can either be considered the last Cold War “big war thriller” or the first post-USSR one. Because of its timing, the plot has to be kind of, er, forced a little, but that’s a small issue.
When I started reading the book, my thoughts turned to Red Phoenix. The similarities are there in that both are big picture thrillers that need to have a certain type of structure (most notably a lot of viewpoint characters and a setup period) to get that wide view across to the reader. For me personally, the perils of this is that since I already know a lot of what the authors are trying to communicate to a less knowledgeable audience, I see more of the downsides to this approach than the upsides.
However, I can also see-and appreciate-how rare a book like this is. “Big war thrillers” with this level of detail and knowledge behind them are and were very hard to come by. The Sixth Battle goes for a distinct setup, thinks it through, and competently executes the action in an evenhanded way.
Taking my biases into account and trying to adjust for them, I still recommend this book. It does feel a little clunkier than the best “big war thrillers”, but it’s never unreadably so. And it offers an all-too-uncommon experience that’s rarely duplicated elsewhere.
This could only have been produced in a very short time period, after the Berlin Wall and end of the Warsaw Pact but before the actual breakup of the USSR. Because of this, this RAND report looks interesting, especially in its “long-term” ramifications.
Having an intact, hostile USSR but no Warsaw Pact means that to threaten Germany, it has to move through Poland first, can only put two fronts against Germany directly due to Poland not being that wide (the third has to either be a reserve/second echelon or swing through the Czech Republic), and puts the initial front line considerably farther to the east, with the Oder river being the first big obstacle. It’s an interesting piece.