Review: The Gambit

The Gambit

Take a stilted first novel, add a difficult genre, and you have Brad Carlson’s The Gambit. This tale of Iranian plots and the Americans out to stop them reminds me of, if anything else, an even rougher version of Gavin Parmar’s Unseen Warriors. The problem is that technothrillers are harder to do right than small unit thrillers. I don’t want to be hard on the author. This is a first novel, I know firsthand how much effort writing any kind of long fiction is, and everyone has to start somewhere. But I have to be hard on the book.

There’s the clumsy prose, but there’s also the awkward pacing. There’s the action that falls well below even the standards of Marine Force One, but there’s also a ton of conference rooms and really rote instances of military equipment doing its thing (I hesistate to use the term “action” for the scenes describing it). There isn’t even an out-there premise. It’s just “shoot the terrorist” and stopping the most basic and mundane plots, all the while moving through something horrendously unpolished.

There are good independent first novels. This is not one of them.

Review: Condition Zebra

Condition Zebra

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The (supposedly) final arc of John Schettler’s epic Kirov series, now exceeding even The Subspace Emissary’s Worlds Conquest in terms of word count, begins with Condition Zebra. This is the story of a contemporary World War III, after the Kirov timeshifted away from another contemporary World War III, possibly making it the first series to have multiple World War IIIs in it.

Having read two books in the 49-and-counting series, I figured it would at least be the same as before.  I was wrong. It somehow managed to be worse. And it manages to be worse in ways that might be considered contradictory at first glance.

One one end, the basic nuts and bolts writing has all the problems of the past Kirov books (characters who exist solely to operate military equipment, rote technical descriptions of the battles that give away the wargames used to sim them, and overall clunkiness) and just feels sloppier, with the dialogue, grammar, and even structure seeming worse.

On the other, the giant timeline tangles get bigger, more confusing, and somehow more pointless-seeming than ever. Knowing the end result and purpose, it just feels like the developers of Madden, 2K, or The Show making up a gigantic plot about time machines and time-traveling team general managers to explain why past players can appear in a game with current stars.

Maybe it’s those above flaws and maybe it’s just that the novelty of seeing the world’s longest wargame let’s play has worn off after three books, but this doesn’t even seem bad in a bemusing way anymore. It’s just bad.

 

Review: Red Phoenix

Red Phoenix

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Larry Bond’s Red Phoenix, telling the story of a second Korean War, is something I’ve struggled with for a while but now, after a lot of other books read, have the words to successfully describe. In short, it’s the Marine Force One of “big war thrillers”.

Every archetype of the small genre is there. The shifting viewpoints from top to bottom. Going into every part of the theater. And so on. And they’re executed with enough skill to not be bad, but not enough to be truly memorable or standing out.

What does stand out, and which I also have a more nuanced view of than I used to, is the long intro setting up the war. I’ve thought it, from a literary perspective, to be less than ideal. It’s taking a huge amount of effort to set up something the reader already knows will happen.

But from a plausibility perspective, given the massive unlikelihood of a Second Korean War even at the height of the north’s power, I can forgive it for putting in the effort to set up a situation where it could happen. It’s certainly better and less ridiculous than Cauldron at any rate.

And what else is there to say? This is very much a “if you like the genre, you’ll like this book. If you don’t, you won’t” kind of novel.

Review: The High Frontier

The High Frontier

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The High Frontier is the de facto ending to the The Big One series. The end of the Easy Mode Cold War is, for most intents and purposes, the end of the main published series. And, like The Sum Of All Fears, it’s a good stopping point.

This entire franchise has the slight misfortune of bad context for me. You can see why and what in the entry for the main series. That being said, while The High Frontier may not be the worst book ever, it still stands out only for its plot “novelties”. What plot novelties?

Well, for this individual book, there’s, among other things…

  • A very cheap shot at the Space Shuttle program right off the bat, where the Columbia disaster occurs right after the Challenger disaster. It’s actually semi-realistic in a rivet-counting way. The second post-Challenger mission had foam hit the heat-shield and barely survived, and the Space Shuttle program’s many, many issues are well-known. But the narrative intent is obvious.
  • Exposition where the Chipanese [yes] antagonists lament the inferiority of their military compared to the (awesome) Americans.
  •  The Chipanese campaign in Vietnam, featuring the equivalent of the Soviet general secretary personally running into Afghanistan to command forces there and then getting killed.
  • In said campaign, there are so many names of historical Vietnam War figures that I couldn’t tell if it was just bad naming or the real people (who’d be much older, and in some cases, dead.)

 

Finally there’s the climax, the biggest missed opportunity in the whole book. Having read The Sum Of All Fears makes it look even worse than it did when I first read it. Here’s an opportunity to foil the plot by showing restraint in the face of apocalyptic provocation-and instead it’s the equivalent of having the protagonists stop the nuke from going off in the first place.

Then the book ends with Ronald Reagan asking about the Seer and one final infodump about the nature of the unaging mutants with catlike eyes who serve as combination plot devices, Mary Sues, and ways to not have to create more characters. Of course they happen to stop aging at convenient times, have an ability to sense other long-lifers, are disease-resistant but not immune, and it took as long as it did for one person to find them out. Hmmm….

The book itself is par for the course for the TBO series, which is to say, it’s substantially below-average. Yes, a lot of its negative reputation comes from the gauntlet-throwing and internet drama accompanying its initial release. Yes, it doesn’t look quite as bad in context when compared to the worst of either internet alternate history or post-1991 technothrillers. Yes, a lot of its flaws aren’t unique to it.

But it’s still clunky, hopping around characters and events. It’s still flat, with characters being either Mary Sues, placeholders, or strawmen.  The worldbuilding is still ridiculously stacked in favor of the Americans. The action is still either bland and one-sided or extra-bland. The stiff dialogue in this book (and in the whole series) is distinctly bad, even by the standards of low-end fiction. It’s still just not good.

Snippet Reviews: January 2020

New year, new set of snippet reviews.

Return of the Ottomans

Return Of The Ottomans is a clunky “Big war thriller” only distinguished by its premise. Turkey invading Bulgaria is more conceptually interesting and the action isn’t the worst in a nuts and bolts way, but jumping viewpoints and Steel Panthers Characterization at its worst bring it down.

The Fires Of Midnight

The Fires of Midnight is the last of the classic Blaine McCrackens, before Dead Simple knocked the series off course. While I now knew the formula in great detail, it doesn’t change that the formula is a good one-and that it includes an excellent finale in an excellent place.

Sword Point

I wanted Sword Point, Harold Coyle’s second novel, to be good, and it still ultimately is. Yet it has this awkward feeling of a one-hit wonder musician trying to make lightning strike twice. The same formula and theme is there, and it’s not bad. But it just doesn’t have the kick the initial installment has.

It’s still tanks going boom in a solid, flowing way. And the Middle Eastern setting is distinct. But it’s just missing something.

Review: The Circle War

The Circle War

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The second entry in Mack Maloney’s Wingman series, The Circle War remains every bit as ridiculous, if not more so, than the first. If one desires accurate depictions of military hardware, any kind of deep plot, or moral ambiguity, this book is not for you.

However, if you desire a tale of a man named after a fighter aircraft flying his super- F-16 from everywhere from Hawaii to Yankee Stadium, fighting everything from “air pirates” to Mongolian horsemen, and periodically recharging by bedding a beautiful woman jumping right into his lap, this book is for you.

What I like is that there’s absolutely no attempt at making this “realistic”, “plausible”, or “grounded” apart from sometimes getting the equipment names right (but only sometimes). It’s just a continent-spanning parade of goofiness, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

Weird Wargaming: Iron Eagle

Weird Wargaming: Iron Eagle

One may not expect a cheesy 80s action movie to produce a viable wargaming setting. Yet Iron Eagle offers a strange example of this.

The antagonist country in Iron Eagle is basically “close to Libya without saying Libya”. Several years before the Gulf War, the Middle Eastern antagonist du joir was Libya and not Iraq, and a hint at the end about Chappie being picked up by an “Egyptian trawler” gives another hint.

Equipment/Organization

First, the obvious issue. As Iron Eagle was filmed in Israel, we got Kfirs as “MiG-23s” and AH-1 Cobras as the enemy helicopters. Now the Mirage (which the Kfir is a variant of) is a hugely prolific fighter series serving in many air forces, including Iraq’s and Libya’s. The Cobra, not so much, but some other medium “attack helicopter on a transport platform” could stand-in.

It depends on the degree of “actor” vs. “character” the player wants.

For organization, Libya serves as an obvious inspiration, along with many other Middle Eastern countries. Having looked at various scenes of aircraft lined up, 5 to 6 appear on one side of a runaway, and six are depicted in one flight formation, for exact detail.

Proficiency

Considering that the antagonist nation failed to stop a pair of F-16s, including one which landed and took off again , that they’re based on Libya, a nation with a bad track record in conventional war even by the standards of 20th-century Arab armies, and they have incredibly poor munitions discipline (what else can explain every building going up in giant flames?), it’s safe to give them specifically a low overall proficiency in settings that allow it.

Other Notes

There’s two specific things I’ve considered for Iron Eagle. The first is to go “what realistic force would you need, against a pseudo-Libyan OPFOR, to have even a slight chance of rescuing the colonel”.

The second is how it leads into one of my pet projects, designing a generic Middle Eastern OPFOR country for wargaming purposes, with the working title “Seleucia” (after the Seleucid Empire), since a nameless, vague country fits that.

Conclusion

-Low proficiency in settings that allow it, for equipment use either Libya or whatever you’d expect a country of that nature to reasonably have, and have them be guarding a prisoner if you want to “realistically” (to the degree that such a thing is even possible) reenact the movie.

Review: The Third World War, August 1985

The Third World War: August 1985

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John Hackett’s Third World War was, even more than Red Storm Rising, the book that started off the subgenre this blog was founded on. Thus I figured making it my first review of 2020 was an appropriate milestone.

This is incredibly hard to review. I was initially very dismissive of this book when I read it. And in an isolated “spherical cow” sense, I still feel that way.

Compared to Team Yankee, Red Army, Chieftains, and even RSR itself, it offers very little in terms of literary quality. It’s dated (there’s a reference to Abrams as “XM1s”, which is kind of like calling T-64s “Object 432s”). It’s a mixture of straight “pseudo-history” and clunky, sometimes dubiously written vignettes, all stuffed together awkardly. It has, with the Birmingham-Minsk “trade”, one of the worst examples of plotnukes ever. The whole thing is a political lobbying document in the shape of a novel.

And yet, this is perhaps the most context-affected book I’ve ever read. To someone like me who treated the Heavy OPFOR Tactical as casual reading and has seen many, many primary sources, it’s not novel in any way. To someone of that time period, especially someone who wasn’t an analyst, it definitely would be. The nature of this book makes its novelty even more essential than normal, due to its shortcomings.

Hackett’s Third World War has a few interesting scenes, like the chapter detailing how the general public saw the war. It deserves credit for being the first out of the gate. While I originally thought that it was a bad influence on later books of its type, a more thorough reading of the “big war thriller” subgrene reveals that it really wasn’t.

That being said, to a modern audience, it’s still really nothing more than an even more dated version of The War That Never Was, with all the baggage you might expect from it. It’s a very important historical piece and is worth a read for that alone, but it hasn’t aged well.

Review: Himmler’s War

Himmler’s War

I decided it was time to read one of the most infamous names in alternate history. Entering one of my “moods”, I figured, “go for Robert Conroy, and reverse your order of preference.” Normally I’d pick out the most bizarre premise, and Conroy, with his flock of “US gets invaded” novels, certainly has a lot of those. But for this, I chose the most cliche and shopworn one of all-Himmer’s War, which features that obscure and understudied conflict, World War II.

The divergence is simple to explain-a lucky hit from an off-course Allied bomber kills Hitler after D-Day, the titular SS head takes over, and proceeds to change the war, viewed from the usual top-to-bottom viewpoint characters.

Now it was probably a big mistake reading one of David Glantz’s books on the history of the Red Army right before this, especially with the scenes involving the Soviets. This is one of the most pop-historical, “wehraboo” books ever.

  • In about a month, the Germans can conduct major reforms and become better (sort of).
  • Stalin agrees to peace just because Bagration is slowing down.
  • Stalin agrees to give the Germans huge numbers of T-34s in exchange for one collaborating general. Oh-K?
  • The Germans build an atomic bomb before Skorzeny sneaks it to Moscow and detonates it, killing Stalin.

And then in the later part of the book the Americans just bulldoze their way across the Rhine anyway and win quickly, throwing in a “noble Clean Wehrmacht Rommel” to save the day and neatly clean up the potentially messy aftermath, because Conroy realized he didn’t use that particular World War II alternate history cliche yet.

That part of the book is legitimately interesting because it’s where Conroy’s failure as an alternate historian intersects “perfectly” with Conroy’s failure as a writer. It’s the sort of thing that, ideally, would take two books…

…Or zero, because, alternate history aside, Conroy’s writing isn’t the greatest. His characters are all cliches of some sort. The dialogue is horrendous. And finally, his writing of battles leaves something to be desired. Given that he’s writing a book taking place during a war, this is a big problem. Add in too many characters for their own good and minor, useless subplots like FDR having a stroke and barely living to his next inauguration.

There’s a reason why Conroy has the reputation that he has, and it’s a justified one. Even as “soft alternate history” and as a cheap thriller, Himmler’s War falls short.

 

Review: The Second Voyage Of The Seventh Carrier

The Second Voyage Of The Seventh Carrier

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The Seventh Carrier series by Peter Albano continues in its next installment.

There, the plotline that takes up the rest of the series begins. As Japan and the rest of the world get to grips with the existence of the Yonaga and its aged but living crew, a haywire killer- satellite system launched by the Chinese begins immediately destroying anything with a jet or rocket engine. Then Kadafi (of all the spellings of the Libyan dictator’s name, Albano uses this one) buys up a bunch of WWII surplus equipment and launches a campaign against Israel. Suddenly a carrier with old propeller fighters is a valuable asset, and it sails into battle again.

Most of the issues with the first book remain. The characters are all national stereotypes, and now there’s more nations to stereotype. The premise is goofy and turns into an excuse to have another slugfest with World War II weapons (which include surface warships as well the carrier and aircraft).

In spite of this, the action is good, as long as one considers the kind of book that it is. Yet I felt a sinking feeling in me (pun partially intended) when I read it. See, this is the second book in an eleven book long series. I’m not sure I want to read that many of Albano’s adventures.