Review: Never Die Twice

Never Die Twice

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Mark Jones’ Never Die Twice is the first book in the Reaper Force: Viper series, detailing the adventures of cybernetically enhanced heroine Natalie Nicks. With short chapters and simple prose that reminded me of Sidney Sheldon of all people, it’s not the most technically adept book. Even by cheap thriller standards.

What it is, however, is a fun book. It lands on the sci-fi end of the technothriller spectrum, with a lot of “just barely sorta a little kinda maybe slightly plausible” technology. I’ve used the “homemade apple strudel” analogy before to describe something that you know isn’t the most well constructed, but is still quite enjoyable. And this definitely fits the bill. I mean, the book has a line about pitting humans against grizzly bears in races. Its backstory is basically that of The Bionic Woman. What’s not to like?

Review: Drakon

Drakon

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The fourth book in the Draka series, Drakon is the story of the Draka utterly triumphant, having bioengineered humanity into master and servant subspecies-in one universe, with only the descendants of those who escaped the “Final War” to stand against them. Too bad homo drakenis Gwendolyn Ingolfsson got sucked through a wormhole experiment into the then-present. She plots to take over the world for the Draka, with only a strange cast of people from multiple universes to stop her.

This isn’t really alternate history, even in the most fleeting sense. It’s pure cheesy science fiction, a “fight the Terminator-Predator-Amazon” story. Drakon is as sleazy as it’s cheesy, with Stirling never missing a chance to throw in a lurid detail. And while it works as a turn-your-brain-off “51% book”, there are some legitimate and serious flaws.

First, it doesn’t have, say, Jon Land’s sense of buildup. Too much is revealed too fast, and the residual baggage of the alternate history background burdens it even more. Second, the conclusion is an utter clunker. That is to say, it’s a simultaneously confusing and rushed mess of escalation that ends with a contrivance and ridiculously obvious setup for a sequel that understandably never came. Third, the only interesting character is Ingolfsson herself, and even she could be done a lot better.

Take away the fandom controversy and the legitimately distinct (however dubious) alternate history that made up the first three installments, and all you have is, as I’ve said before, tawdry fiction that, while not unreadable or unenjoyable, wouldn’t really stand out.

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: Howling Wilderness

Howling Wilderness

The sourcebook Howling Wilderness sets the basis for the remaining North American setting in Twilight 2000.

I feel that in an isolated spherical cow world, the North American modules of Twilight 2000 should have been a different setting, something like “Apocalypse 2000”. It would probably be a good idea to alter the rules so that the out-there adventures can be a lot more viable. But theme alone would be enough to make the switch.

There’s two literary problems with actually keeping it and the original European setting part of the same universe. The first is the creative regression. The European setting is a clever way to square the circle of “Ok, we want you to be in the army but we also want you to be able to run free. We’ll make this post-apocalyptic, but not too post-apocalyptic, since we still want there to be tons of those tanks around.” There are still flaws, and not just the impossibility to balance dark struggles for survival, rivet-counting crunchy gaming, and traditional RPG adventure that all appear in the rules.

Enter this, where the setting is more of a traditional post-apocalyptic one. North America has been crushed by a mega-drought and everyone has withered down. This leads to the second problem, which is how this led to gimmicks. It feels like the setting should be doubling down on the “grim survival” element, but then an individual sourcebook has a submarine plot right out of Jerry Ahern’s Survivalist, making things more muddled than ever.

I don’t blame GDW for releasing new content out of business necessity. I also think that, given the flexibility GMs have for actually running games, the negative effects of any official supplement are inherently limited. But I still feel that, like how the Survivalist jumped the shark post-timeskip, Twilight 2000 also jumped post Atlantic crossing.

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 Awakening

The Awakening

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The tenth Survivalist book, The Awakening is when the series changes significantly. Having spent centuries in suspended animation to ride out a world-consuming fire wave underground, the Rourkes now emerge to take stock of the changes and aid the space-launched Eden Project as it prepares to return. John Rourke ages his children by selectively thawing and refreezing them so that they can be the same age as the adults when they wake up, and they emerge into a world where human life still exists.

This book, if I had to reedit/adapt the Survivalist series, probably wouldn’t even exist at all. I’d probably fold the recovery and the Eden Project return into an epilogue to Book 9 at worst and a few extra chapters at best, and then conclude the series there. But in actual history, the books were selling enough to continue and Ahern finally had the ability to make them more and more science fiction-y.

While the Survivalist series was never a “hard” setting to begin with (after all, the nuclear war caused multiple states to tumble into the ocean), here begins an even more contrived setup. There was an underground shelter. And another underground shelter. And another underground city. And an underwater city! It’s very much like a Bethesda Fallout game where there’s a lot of conveniently working stuff laying around centuries after the war, and it becomes a more obvious author’s toy with each new book after this.

(Later there will be a second timeskip that will obliterate the last traces of any post-apocalyptic residue in the setting, but that’s another story)

The actual book itself is more satisfactory Jerry Ahern action, but this is still the time when the series jumped the shark.

 

Review: The Council Of Ten

The Council Of Ten

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Jon Land’s The Council Of Ten is a thriller that starts off with the impression of being overly mundane. Launching with the obvious Miami Vice-inspired tone and location, the book starts slowly and there’s a fear of just being a slightly eccentric drug novel. Thankfully, the super-conspiracy reasserts itself, the Big Burly Bad Guy Thug appears, and soon all is right with the world.

It’s incredibly hard to review a lot of similar books by one author. The Council Of Ten is a little subpar by Jon Land standards. The MacGuffin not living up to some of the more ridiculous ones isn’t really too bad. Worse is that there’s a little too much space devoted to long and comparably mundane fights. But it still has all the wonderful craziness Land is known for, and, after its slow introduction, it never feels like a rote 51% book.

And besides, you’ve gotta give props to a book that has a conference room on its cover.

Review: Armies of Sand

Armies of Sand

This is the first Fuldapocalypse nonfiction book review. Kenneth Pollack’s Armies of Sand is a semi-adaptation of his thesis, The Influence of Arab Culture on Arab Military Perfomance, and a semi-sequel to his book, Arabs at War. That looked at how Arab armies underperformed in the 20th century and examined the “how”. This looks more at the “why”.

Pollack uses bits and pieces from both Arab states at war and the non-Arab “control groups” to look at the four explanations-Soviet doctrine, over-politicization, underdevelopment, and culture. The first is a total red herring, with Pollack concluding that if anything, it was at least a little helpful. The middle two have had obvious influence, but can’t explain all of it. The final one is what he feels is the most satisfactory answer.

My biggest problem is his methodology, even though I think his conclusions are mostly sound. A lot of his sources are dated, some of the more lurid anecdotes are thinly-sourced, and a few times the implications go from the more reasonable “New York Knicks” (undeniably underperforming, sometimes significantly so) to the exaggerated “Washington Generals” (completely hopeless from start to finish at everything). This is the kind of argument where you need a lot of rigor, so seeing him pass on examples,  even those that would support his case like looking at the North Vietnamese air force when he used the Vietnam War in another control group, has made me raise an eyebrow.

Still, Pollack handles the cultural argument well, by pointing out education and particularly military training as how it took root. He stresses the dangers of stereotyping and, most importantly, shows both how culture and warfare can change and how workarounds were developed. All of the workarounds involved, in some form or another, a smaller army with a more selective choice of personnel.

Armies Of Sand is not and should not be the last word on the Middle East or military history, and should not be unhesitatingly accepted. But I still highly recommend it, and not just for information on Arab armies. Its study of politicization and underdevelopment in general is fascinating, and it’s well-written.

 

Review: The Yakusa Tattoo

The Yakusa Tattoo

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Jerry Ahern’s turn into (sort of) hardboiled detective fiction, The Yakusa Tattoo, is something.

Ahern has the stereotypical Hardboiled Vietnam Vet Police Officer being tasked to go to (a stereotypical) Japan for a secret mission. Cue a plot with everything from a Hunt For Red October-style super-submarine to lots and lots of ninja fights. What were you expecting from someone who wrote a 27-book centuries-long epic with Hitler’s corpse as a MacGuffin in one of the books?

The prose is – not exactly the best, to put it mildly. There are the huge descriptions of guns and holsters (although thankfully a Detonics only appears once). There are characters talking in gigantic blocky paragraph-speeches. There are perhaps a few too many fight scenes for the sake of fight scenes.

And yet it has the same “I’m not holding anything back” charm that the Survivalist series at its best had. I mean, it has ninjas and Cold War spy plots. And where else can you get a hardboiled Chicago officer storming an ancient castle?

Review: The Lost Codex

The Lost Codex

The third OPSIG Team Black book, The Lost Codex manages to sink lower than the first two-by a considerable amount. The bulk of the actual book is the most bland, clunky thriller against the most bland, generic terrorists imaginable, falling straight into the trap of being too “normal” to be bombastic but too exaggerated to be truly realistic.

This time, profiler Karen Vail is close to being a main character, and is handled in the worst possible way. She’s Miss Infodump and Miss Dragged Along Because The Plot Demands and , finally, Miss Action Heroine all in the same book.

But the icing on the cake is a barely connected bit of Dan Brown-style “secret religious history”. This is only linked to the “shoot the terrorist” plot in the thinniest, clumsiest way, and adds essentially nothing save for giving the book its title and a chance to sell it as being like Clive Cussler. It’s not. It’s worse. A lot worse.