Review: Eagle Rising

Eagle Rising

The Kirov series, of which Eagle Rising is the 47th (!) installment, is strange. If I’d read it three years ago, I’d probably have unfairly denounced it as the worst series of all time. In my more recent reviews, I’d sort of wavered from criticizing the individual books to admiring the ridiculous (in a good way!) plot and premise of the setting.

Now I have this weird feeling that’s settled. I unironically love the craziness and excess that the series gets into, while remaining just as critical of the many flaws of the individual books. I’ll take this flawed excess standout over a hundred “51% books” any day.

That being said, this book itself has essentially two set pieces spread out of over many pages and takes place in an entire arc with a forgone conclusion stated as early as the first book in the series. Whatever the author’s intention, the impression I got of this arc, with this particular WWIII having long since been established as ending in a nuclear fireball (hence the time travel and changing it in the first place…), was that it served mainly to show off wargaming set pieces.

The set pieces are a big Russo-NATO showdown in Eastern Europe and the shenanigans of the ship and its crew. The former is a strangely intriguing example of what happens when you rely on wargame simulations to an incredible and unprecedented degree. Besides the obvious issues with such a stilted de facto let’s play, there’s also problems when the simulations produce an undramatic (however realistic) result and there’s not much “cushion” of characterization or low-level danger to balance them. Another issue is that this particular conflict setup is not exactly undergamed.

The latter, a far more out there plot, involves the use of a time travel MacGuffin and some of the crew going onto an island and fighting a pack of wolves (it’s a bit of a long story). It also involves long scenes of clunky dialogue, which is less fun.

In a way, this book, with time travel shenanigans and wargame AARs, is its own series in a nutshell. Is this a good or bad thing? Well, it depends on what you want and/or like.

Review: Aurora Invasion

Aurora: Invasion

What better book series to review on the Fourth of July than the ridiculously star-spangled Black Eagle Force? Aurora Invasion is a later entry in Steinke and Farmer’s “masterpiece”, where the BEF battles a new opponent-aliens.

This is a weaker entry in the series. Part of this is because its authors never were the best in terms of literary fundamentals to begin with, something very true here as well. A bigger reason is that, believe it or not, the rest of the series is so bizarre that fighting UFOs is actually more grounded than some of the other stuff the BEF gets up to.

This is still a decent out-there cheap thriller, but there are better books even in its own series.

Review: The Hunt For Red October

The Hunt For Red October

This is it. The book that started it all. The book that turned Tom Clancy into a juggernaut. It’s time to review The Hunt For Red October. How is it? In short, it’s well-ok?

What I can say about this tale of a loose super-submarine is that it doesn’t really pass the “if this had been published a year or two later by a different author, would it still be as popular as it was?” test. Many works of fiction are so good on their own terms that they’d succeed in that goal. This isn’t. If it had been written by someone else later on, it’d probably be barely remembered as a middle-of-the-road technothriller.

The novel itself isn’t bad by any standards, but it still has all of the issues that would drag Tom Clancy down later on. It’s just those are in a smaller and more manageable form. There’s some bloat, but it’s manageable here. There’s a few too many subplots, but they’re manageable here. There’s the bias, but it’s manageable here. You get the idea. It’s easy to see why it could be a success in its time, but with hindsight, and with me having read other technothrillers before it, I don’t find it that impressive.

It’s also a little dated. Some of it is technical issues that are understandable and minor (for instance, a western author could be forgiven for getting the type of reactor in an Alfa-class wrong). But some of it is the general “wow” factor, again that would have made them a lot more impressive to someone at the time than to a post-Gulf War reader for whom advanced military technology is familiar. This is of course an issue with all of his books and with technothrillers in general. However, it is not an issue with the lavishly-produced, well-filmed movie.

I would say that, like Red Storm Rising, The Hunt For Red October is more of a historical book than an enduring technothriller that can really stand on its own. However, Red October comes across slightly worse in that regard due to being in a bigger niche. While also smaller than I originally thought, the number of technothrillers is still considerably larger than the number of conventional World War III novels.

Review: The Tenth Circle

The Tenth Circle

The latest, and as of now the last Blaine McCracken book released, The Tenth Circle is a frustrating misfire. While Dead Simple was, for the most part, a consistent middling slog without Land’s past spark, this occasionally shows the craziness that makes most of the series such a treat-and then drops dramatically.

The book opens with a delightfully preposterous and ridiculous set piece that does Blaine McCracken justice as he destroys an Iranian nuclear site. If the rest of the book was like that, I’d be giving it a wholeheartedly positive review. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

The problem is that the rest of the book is just too inconsistent. It’s often too self-serious for its own good-and then it returns to individually out-there set pieces. It’s not as (comparably) bad as Dead Simple and a lot of the fun is still there, but shares the problem in that its central core is a more conventional thriller that revolves only around the use of exotic explosives. Yet unlike its immediate predecessor, Pandora’s Temple, it just doesn’t live up to the classic McCrackens.

Review: Planeswalker

Planeswalker

The second novel in the Magic: The Gathering “Artifacts Cycle”, Lynn Abbey’s Planeswalker is a strange book that succeeds in one way but seemingly fails in its main goal. Where it succeeds, at least to me, is in one of its main characters.

Xantcha, a woman who was created by the technomagic horror plane of Phyrexia as an infiltrator, but who grew to have (mostly) free will of her own, steals the show. I’ll admit that the notion of an artificial almost-but-not-quite human is a fascinating one for me, and Abbey succeeds at portraying her well, certainly better than Urza himself.

Part of the problem is that the rest of the book consists of clunky pushes towards one middling set piece after another. As good as Xantcha’s story is, it gets in the way of the main plot. Furthermore, having the numbers routinely get big – ie “A THOUSAND YEAR journey” actually makes the experiences seem smaller and more mundane. Thus one big part of the book is better than the whole. But that part sure is good.

Snippet Reviews: June 2020

It’s time for more snippet reviews.

The Kingdom of the Seven

There are two things you need to know about The Kingdom of the Seven. 1: It is one of the tamer Blaine McCracken books. 2: It features an evil televangelist building an underground city in an old salt mine.

Sword of the Prophet

The final entry in the Cody’s Army series, Sword of the Prophet is a merely middling book. Though not the worst men’s adventure novel ever, it’s not hard to see why this was the last in the series.

If Tomorrow Comes

A Sidney Sheldon novel about a female con artist, If Tomorrow Comes stands out for its ridiculous character arc. The protagonist goes from being a naive fool to a super-genius very quickly.

Review: Kirov

Kirov

Having started later in John Schettler’s massive series, it’s taken me quite a while to actually pick up the original book. I had very low expectations and somehow managed to still be disappointed by Kirov. This might seem strange, but it makes sense.

The book stars a “Frankenstein-Kirov” assembled from the rest of the class on a live fire exercise during a period of heightened tension before it’s timeshifted back to World War II. I’d heard this book was a tinny Final Countdown/Axis of Time knockoff. I suspected this book would be a tinny Final Countdown/Axis of Time knockoff. I was right.

So why the extra disappointment? Well, the structural issues from later in the series I saw were there from the start. The descriptions are over-detailed, the action scenes are too precisely described, and the dialogue is still extremely clunky. Worse, it’s more concentrated, for lack of a better word, instead of being incredibly spread out. The plot has the main characters acting in ways intended to set up battles in a forced way.

Finally, though the timeshifting, feuding and cosmic changes are there from the start, the main scenario of “modern ship fights a 1940s fleet” just isn’t as interesting as the the places the later books go. So even knowing what I was getting into, I found the first Kirov book to be a letdown.

Review: The Brothers’ War

The Brothers’ War

One of the big games in my childhood was Magic: The Gathering, a fantasy card game with a surprisingly deep and varied backstory. Having encountered some parts of the backstory when I was younger, I turned my attention recently to The Brothers’ War, a novel by author Jeff Grubb.

The plot features brothers Urza and Mishra as they grow up and turn against each other, eventually leading opposite sides in a war of techno-supernatural contraptions. While passable, the prose isn’t the best, and the descriptions of large events take precedence over character development. The book is also about a third longer than it should have been. I kept seeing more repetition than I felt was necessary, and this comes at the expense of a rushed finale.

Still, you could do worse. The setting is a genuinely interesting one that takes fantasy tropes and builds on them, and while it could have been better, the writing could also have been done more poorly than it was.

Review: The Kamikaze Legacy

The Kamikaze Legacy

A sequel to The Yakusa Tattoo, The Kamikaze Legacy continues to follow hardboiled Ed Mulvaney as he moves to foil another international plot in a stereotypical Japan, this one concerning a deep-sea expedition with sinister motives. This is less the “crazy Jerry Ahern novel mixed with technothriller” of its predecessor and more “crazy Jerry Ahern novel mixed with Clive Cussler-esque technology/ secret history thriller.”

While it still has the strengths and weaknesses of The Yakusa Tattoo (strengths: good ridiculous action and an even more ridiculous plot-weaknesses: blocky prose and a million weapon descriptions), I found that this has a MacGuffin that by all means should belong in a boring “shoot the terrorist” novel, but ends up being just as crazy as the rest of the book. This emphasizes that, especially for cheap thrillers, execution is more important than concepts by far. As for what it is, it shouldn’t be too hard to guess.

This is a very stupid-fun Jerry Ahern book. It’s the kind of book where the mountains of technical inaccuracy and implausibility actually add to the appeal of it all. While it’s not quite as bizarre as its predecessor, it’s still a very fun cheap thriller.

Review: Black Friday

Black Friday

I decided to finally do it, reading a book by a super-famous author. James Patterson’s Black Friday (original title Black Market) is a thriller of financial and physical chaos. It’s also a book that’s (as far as I can tell) genuinely his and not simply a “James Patterson’s” book with his name on it.

The chapters tend to be very short, in a style I already knew about from secondhand talk of his writing. I generally don’t mind short chapters, and he was not the first author to use them, but somehow they didn’t fit here. I think it’s a combination of them and a ton of shifting viewpoint characters that make the whole thing just look disjointed and sloppy.

And then there’s the tone, which is this constant plodding of Deep, Dark Seriousness. The jarring differences between that and the inaccuracies, particularly surrounding firearms, is astounding. This isn’t (just) having guns work on action movie logic or making mistakes like calling an SKS “automatic” and not knowing which airborne division has an eagle as its symbol. It isn’t even having a character use an American-180 for no discernable reason except the “it’s an exotic gun I’ve heard of” factor.

This is references to “machine gun pistols” (Exact words). This is talking about how submachine guns weren’t used in city fighting due to their high rate of fire (er…), and a gun that combines ridiculously effective silencing (even by cheap thriller/action movie standards) with implied heat seeking bullets. Said gun is only used in a single scene. It’s bad, even by the standards of someone who’s read a lot of cheap thrillers.

The plot feels like an absurdist jumble of cheap thriller cliches. There’s a super-conspiracy, lots of cutaways, and everything from international terrorists to crazy veterans. But with the tone and janky pacing getting in the way, it’s not the kind of book where you can enjoy the excess. There are a lot better books, even mainstream thrillers, out there.