Review: The Suns of Scorpio

The Suns Of Scorpio

sunsofscorpiocover

A while ago on Fuldapocalypse, I reviewed the first of Kenneth Bulmer’s Dray Prescot “sword and planet” novels, Transit to Scorpio. That was at least somewhat fun. The second novel, The Suns of Scorpio, is less fun and more pretentious. And after only one book, the novelty of the setting has definitely worn off.

The setting is about a continent wide and a millimeter deep. This wouldn’t be such a problem if it was supposed to be mundane (ie, a world with a convenient near-endless supply of mobsters for Mack Bolan to kill) but it’s intended to be “exotic” and “awe-inspiring”. What it comes across as is nothing more than a literary version of the kind of trashy sword and sandal movie you’d see on Mystery Science Theater. By trying to be more than it is, the setting turns into less than it is.

Of course, the setting and concept are all secondary to the execution in this kind of work. And here it fails even more crucially. Bulmer’s prose is ridiculous without being ridiculously fun. To call it purple would be an incredibly horrific understatement. Yet it really isn’t that exciting. It should be, but it isn’t, since Bulmer just overdoes everything. Especially the descriptions.

To top it off, The Suns of Scorpio ends on a cliffhanger that brings the artificiality of the setting to full force. I’ll just say that after reading this, I knew why the sword and planet genre declined so much in popularity.

(As an aside, with 52 entries completed before Bulmer’s death, Dray Prescot is one of those individual series that far outstrips the entire “conventional WWIII” niche in terms of quantity).

Review: First Clash

First Clash

firstclash

Kenneth Macksey’s First Clash stands as one of the most detailed books about a conventional Fuldapocalypse. Its “plot” can be summarized in one sentence as “a Canadian brigade group fights a Soviet division in the opening phases of World War III.”

This is not a conventional novel by any means. It’s openly stated to be a training aid with a lot of “controlling factors”. Even without that admission, it’s very, very obviously a “how-to guide for facing an attack as a Canadian mechanized brigade, from top to bottom”. This leads to a few issues because a lot of situations have to be included for the sake of training.

Some of the parts from the Soviet perspective are a little iffy. Even accepting that it’s a Cold War piece written by a westerner, they come across as a little too “Asiatic Hordesy”. Also for the sake of training, assuming the worst case about one’s opponent feels to me like the better strategy.

It could be that the Soviet advance had to be imperfect to give a single brigade with Leopard Is and M113s a fighting chance and present a tactical situation other than “they fight a desperate defense but are then overrun rapidly”. I would have cut the “enemy perspective” parts entirely and only showed what parts of the Soviets the Canadians could directly see.

This brings me to my second critique, which is that there’s a lot of detail, likely at an outright unrealistic level that hurts a book that’s otherwise rock solid in that regard. This is understandable as an “after action briefing tape recap” approach, but it doesn’t help with the rest of the book. Like The War That Never Was, this is one specific type of book, and if you don’t like it, this just isn’t for you.

I wanted to like this more than I did. I knew what it was setting out to do, and it accomplished that, but it’s a very niche, slightly dated book. I still think The Defense of Hill 781 manages to speak most of the same messages in a format that’s more readable.

Review: The Third World War, August 1985

The Third World War: August 1985

hackettcover

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: Advance To Contact

Advance To Contact

advancetocontactcover

In the early stages of Fuldapocalypse, I reviewed Andy Farman’s Stand To, a World War III tale. Or rather, a sleazy spy tale that became a World War III tale that involved everything I thought I’d be seeing en masse on Fuldapocalypse, and then some. Lots of descriptions. Lots of viewpoint characters. Lots of meticulously described battles.

Now I’m in one of those full circle moods. I still had the remaining books in the series left unread, so I decided to return to that mostly untapped World War III vein and read the second Armageddon’s Song book, Advance to Contact.

Farman has had decades of legitimate expertise as a soldier and police officer, and indeed the infantry fighting scenes in this book sometimes actually work. The key word here is “sometimes”. Often they blur together (since the characters are so forgettable and interchangeable). Often Farman fills it with infodumps on the exact levels of equipment and/or author lectures on whatever topic is technically relevant. Often the viewpoints are yanked away and yanked back. Often they’re overdescribed to the point where it loses its focus. Still, I should give legitimate credit where credit is due. There’s one scene with doomed Belarusian soldiers where he actually writes well, doesn’t get too infodumpy, and keeps the ‘camera’ focused on them instead of jumping a continent away after a few paragraphs.

Another instance of deserved credit is that the plotting and pacing is a little better than in Stand To. The war is underway, so the goofy spy plot is less prominent and the viewpoint jumping merely at the level of “exaggerated technothriller” rather than the wrenching shifts of Stand To.

That being said, it still has most of the problems mentioned over a year ago in the review of Stand To. The times when details are gotten wrong (given the ridiculous amount of description) are annoying. Farman doesn’t focus on where he’s most skilled and comfortable but instead gives giant air/sea battles. There are bizarre events like B-2s being used as tankers and Tu-160s as special forces insertion craft. The dialogue for anyone not in the military is frequently awkward. And the pacing is just glacially slow.

Still, like with the first book, I couldn’t feel mad about this and frequently felt amused. This is an earnest series by a first-time fiction writer. It’s just that what could have been at least a rival to Chieftains with some more focus turned into this clunked-together technothriller kitchen sink.

Snippet Reviews: October 2019

The Press Gang

Kenneth Bulmer (as “Adam Hardy”) wrote the Fox series of age-of-sail adventures in the 1970s. The Press Gang is marked as being the second in the series in the modern Kindle format, but it was the first actually printed (chronological vs. publication order?).

In any case, the tale of George Abercrombie Fox is not the best one to ride across the waves. Bulmer’s prose, which I recognized from the Dray Prescot books, isn’t the best, and the setup is this weird hybrid of cheap thriller and Herman Melville “this is what an age of sail ship is like”.

The Enigma Strain

Nick Thacker’s first book in the Harvey Bennett series of thrillers, The Enigma Strain is a solid thriller, if a 51% one. The book features the titular park ranger and a CDC scientist as they fight to stop a plot that involves an ancient, exotic disease and multiple nuclear bombs.

On one hand, it’s in the awkward uncanny valley that plagues a lot of cheap thrillers. It’s clearly too ridiculous to be realistic, but it’s not bombastic enough to be the gonzo silly thriller that it deserves to be. On the other, it’s still competent enough to be a passable, fun reading experience, and that’s what cheap thrillers are supposed to be.

Review: Balkan Mercenary

Balkan Mercenary

balkancover

Although not the latest Casca book, Balkan Mercenary is the most recent chronologically, occurring in the beginning of the Yugoslav Wars. It’s the first book in the series I’ve reviewed that’s written by Tony Roberts, who’s the current official author of the Casca franchise.

So, I have get this out of the way first. If this had no connection to Casca at all and was just the story of a man and his team of mercs going into the Yugoslav Wars to take down a war criminal and avenge the death of his loved one, it would be a modestly decent “51% book”. There are far better books than something in the same league as Marine Force One, but there also worse ones (which is why, in spite of my complaints, I still read the Casca books).

But this is the 44th installment in a long series that I think just doesn’t work as well in more modern times as it does in the distant past. It’s even mentioned in the book itself that Casca’s aliases are getting easier to track, so I can understand why Roberts seems keener to keep Casca a historical character.

Here, every reminder that this middling action-adventure tale featured a millennia-old immortal felt blatantly shoved in. A piece on how he remembered medieval Serbia. A piece on his blood being poisonous (this was present in the early books). And a tie-in with designated recurring enemies the Brotherhood of the Lamb, who feel especially forced. Balkan Mercenary, like many other Cascas, just plods to the middle, not daring to  try and take the extraordinary premise any farther than 51% of the way.

 

Review: Diamondhead

Diamondhead

diamondheadcover

Patrick Robinson’s Diamondhead is in some ways the perfect book for this blog. Robinson was one of the few authors to get going as a new technothriller writer after 1991, when the genre was imploding. Robinson also has a reputation for being well, not very good. After reading Diamondhead, I can say that, at least judged from that book, that reputation is accurate.

But there’s more to it. This isn’t just a clunkfest like say, a later Tom Clancy or “Tom Clancy’s” novel. It was strangely fascinating in how so many elements of the “cheap thriller” had, by the year 2009, just sort of mushed together.

The military details are ridiculously inaccurate, from SEALS riding into battle inside tanks (yes, along with the regular crew) to Sidewinders being used as air-to-ground missiles. Where this is particularly bad is the MacGuffin of the book, the titular missiles. They’re a new, formally banned as too cruel (wha?) type of anti-tank missile that burns the crew of any vehicle it penetrates-you know, like any other ATGM with a shaped charge that shoots something very hot into something with a lot of fuel and ammunition inside it.

But even beyond that, the genre kind of comes full circle back to the vigilante style as SEAL Mack Bedford (those are two truck brands) gets excoriated by the EVIL MEDIA, subject to a court martial that reminded me, no joke, of Phoenix Wright with all the loud “OBJECTIONS!”, before he gets his revenge on the evil French businessman/politician who’s been providing these super-missiles to rogue Islamist groups-and personally aiding in the first deployment of them. 

This plot could very well have worked as one of the classic “Men’s Adventure” thrillers. But unlike those, it suffers from the two things that plagued the technothriller-bloat and self-seriousness. At least with one of those books, you tended to get a brisk, smooth, “when in doubt, fight it out” style. This plods and clunks through unsuspenseful “suspense”, and then Mr. Truck just turns into John Rourke when the time comes for him to actually fight anyway. It has cheap thriller implausibility but not cheap thriller whimsy or bombast.

And the sad part is that more and more of the big-name, big-published “mainstream” thrillers (the kind I could find in the small book section of a local grocery store) are like this. There’s a reason why I review very few “big-time big-name” authors. Part of it is expense and part of it is me wanting to highlight obscure authors who need all the recognition they can get. But to be honest, a big part is that most of these thrillers are like Diamondheads in the ways that count.

Review: The Bear’s Claws

The Bear’s Claws

(Full disclosure: I was a beta reader for this book and thus received an advance review copy)

Reading The Bear’s Claws was a pleasant surprise, the likes of which I hadn’t gotten from a WWIII book since Team Yankee. This tells the story of a Soviet mechanized infantry unit as it progresses through a World War III in 1982.

Now I could mention the book’s shortcomings-in particular, its character arcs are not exactly the most unpredictable. But given the small of World War III fiction in general, having a book with all the things it did right was delightful to experience.

  • The Soviets not only win, but win handily. This does make sense for 1982, but it’s still good to see that leap being taken in popular WWIII fiction. And to add to that, it’s not portrayed as a cakewalk for the people on the ground.
  • In great contrast to the stereotypical Red Storm Rising-style type of book where viewpoint characters hop around, the “camera” here stays tightly focused.
  • Finally, it has the kind of “plotnukes” that I would normally denounce. Yet they were handled in a way that didn’t have me going “oh, come on!”. The plotnukes featured a personal connection and just the right amount of explanation.

This sort of thing doesn’t come along often. So I’m very happy to give The Bear’s Claws my thumbs up.

Review: Transit To Scorpio

Transit To Scorpio

scorpiocover

Though published close to fifty years ago, Kenneth Bulmer’s Transit to Scorpio was already almost an anachronism when it was released. Much of what we now know as “science fiction” and “fantasy” was once unified in a type of genre following in the footsteps of the legendary John Carter of Mars, one known as “sword and planet”, involving Earthmen traveling across exotic worlds and fighting with blades.

This book fits that category to a T. 18th century sailor Dray Prescot is transported to the planet Kregen around the star of Antares, where he proceeds to be rejuvenated and made near-immortal, only to be cast loose as he disobeys his masters to aid a beautiful woman, Delia. Cue a book of “planetary romance” (another name for the genre) in every definition of the term.

Transit to Scorpio has a lot of prose that’s sadly familiar even to someone like me who’s only read a bit of the style of the day, being both overwrought and clunky. It also has a plot setup that’s familiar, with almost all of the “science fiction” elements being used to set up the plot and little more. In spite of this, it’s not bad, particularly by the standards of the genre.

Review: The Peace of Amiens

Drake’s Drum: The Peace Of Amiens

drakesdrumcover

A fresh Sea Lion Press Release and the first book in an intended series, Drake’s Drum: The Peace Of Amiens is classic “crunchy” alternate history. Starting with flaws in British naval shells being fixed in World War I and a more decisive British victory at Jutland, the “butterflies” spiral off until a bankrupt Britain throws in the towel in World War II, the Caucasus is overrun and the Soviet economy collapses, and the stage is set for a German-American confrontation (the cover depicts Amerika Bombers striking New York, with the book ending on a cliffhanger).

The book cuts between character vignettes and “pseduo-history”. I didn’t get the most out of the character scenes, as well intended as they were, save for one chilling scene depicting the Madagascar Plan in “action”. Thus like a lot of alternate history, it leans a lot on plausibility.

And here, it does better than many others. I’ll also admit to not being the biggest fan of this kind of genre, but this is how to do it right. First, there’s very clearly a lot of research being done, and it being done in a good way. Second, there’s a sense that a lot of it feels right. There are handwaves like the war outcomes and stumbles like my pet peeve of the pool of American political candidates being too small. But there’s more things that sound right and plausible, especially compared to other alternate histories.

For people who like detailed alternate history, The Peace of Amiens is a treat.