Review: Dance of the Vampires

Dance of the Vampires

The ebook Dance of the Vampires is a behind-the-scenes look at the wargaming Larry Bond used for what would become Red Storm Rising. It’s fascinating to see how this battle was conducted. For someone who’s worked on Command, seeing this comparably ancient system is like looking at one of Naismith’s original basketball games.

Most of the book is composed of after action reports and figures detailing the games. Besides the ones that play out similarly to the actual book, there’s a short summary of the “Keflavik Turkey Shoot”, a scenario where the Soviets attempted to force the GIUK Gap with heavy bombers and got crushed (despite legitimately clever play on their side). This was what required them to take Iceland in Red Storm Rising proper. The smaller-than-I-thought presence of that country in World War III fiction started here.

This is in many ways a book about struggles, because they were on unfamiliar ground, and not just about rivet-counting specifics. When something like this hadn’t been done in this way before, there’s bound to be issues. And there were. But the results were still impressive, and so is this chronicle of the wargames. For those interested in this kind of history, I can recommend this book.

A Thousand Words: The Sumerian Game

The Sumerian Game

Putting this in the “A Thousand Words” category might be a little awkward because this is a text-based simulation, but The Sumerian Game and its successors like Hamurabi (spelled that way due to programming limitations) were among, if not the first, long-form strategy/management games. Using text-based inputs and randomization, you could either succeed massively or fail just as massively.

As my family enjoyed the classic Simcity games when I was younger, I thought it was very interesting to find what started it all, or at least what popularized it all. Like OXO (A tic tac toe simulator playable on one of the first computers), this stands as a piece of gaming history. Simulations had to start somewhere.

Review: Jericho

Jericho

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.

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.

A Thousand Words: Final Justice

A Joe Don Baker story about a trip to Malta where mobsters are (supposedly) fought, Final Justice is a terrible movie. It is a movie so bad that not even the Mystery Science Theater 3000 team could make it bearable. It’s certainly down there on my list of worst movies ever, although it inevitably faces some tough competition.

Still, this is a very bad movie consisting almost entirely of the main character walking around Malta and repeatedly getting berated by the Maltese police chief. It’s like someone did a faithful adaptation of one of those horrendous “action novels without action” paperbacks. And the acting is as “good” as you’d expect. But really, this is a terrible film. A terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible film.

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: The Sixth Battle

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.

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.

Review: Raider Brigade: Into A Time Warp

Raider Brigade: Into A Time Warp

With the premise of “1980s American armored brigade prepares for World War III, only to get timeshifted back to World War II”, I couldn’t not check out Daniel Gilbert’s Raider Brigade: Into A Time Warp when I saw it. While my reading experience is broad enough that this is strangely not new to me (the Kirov series timeshifted a modern brigade into the past twice), examining it was inevitable.

Unfortunately, this is rather lacking in execution, even compared to the Kirov series. The enthusiasm is there and the concept is still amazing, so I don’t want to sound too hard. But the prose is very rough and there’s as much time spent on the operations order given before the battles as there is on the (predictably one-sided) battles themselves. A too-large portion of the already short book is devoted to pictures and footnotes, giving this near-Richard Rohmer levels of “padding to substantive content”.

Even at the basics, this falls short. Descriptions are either too short or too long in that “I know what all the acronyms mean, and I’ll tell you in a footnote” way. The dialogue well, leaves something to be desired. And a lot of it is just well, incoherent. There’s no other way to put it. So, with a heavy heart, I’d say that this does not live up to its concept and is not recommended.