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: Advance To Contact

Advance To Contact

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

 

Review: The Zone Hard Target

The Zone: Hard Target

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In 1980, Hard Target was released. It was the first book in The Zone series of post-semi-apocalyptic World War III novels. Just that description alone gives the impression of the book being weirdly different. And in many ways, it is.

The background of this book is simple, contrived, and still somewhat novel. Basically, there’s a World War III, but now the fighting is limited to a contaminated zone in Europe, and the westerners have super-hovercraft for some science fiction flair. I was reminded of the Ogre board game/franchise, which has hovercraft and limited conventional nuclear war (it makes sense in context). That came out three years before this book did, and I don’t know how much influence, if any, it had over the writing.

This is a “have your cake and eat it too” kind of book. On one hand, the action is grittier and gorier compared to some other works in the genre, and the target MacGuffin is a tank repair unit and not some kind of superweapon. On the other, it’s still very much a cheap thriller with a premise, like Twilight 2000, that’s pretty much designed to be an adventure-friendly setting.

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and Hard Target is a good book for what it is. It checks the boxes of what makes a cheap thriller passable, and as obviously contrived as they were, the setting and tone were novel enough to take things up a notch for me.

Another opinion on this book can be found on the excellent Books That Time Forgot blog.

 

Review: Atlantisch Crusaders

Atlantisch Crusaders

Collin Gee’s Atlantisch Crusaders tells an alternate history tale of World War II. Namely, it tells the story of an armistice in the west that leads to the formation of an Anglo-American volunteer unit in the Waffen-SS that joins Barbarossa. Now the reputation of World War II fiction, especially concerning those two letters, had me on very, very high alert. I was not going to give it any slack.

In literary terms, it was neither as bad or good as I feared. Historical war fiction isn’t really my cup of tea (I read this primarily because of the alternate history aspect and likely wouldn’t have if it had been a straight historical war novel with volunteers from another country), so I’m not the best judge. It’s not as bad as it could have been (the writing isn’t too bad) but it’s not also not as good as it could have been (the writing is dry and a little AAR-y). So if this was the story of a totally fictional war between Teutonia and Krasnovia without any other context or baggage, I’d have dismissed it as a “49 to 51%” book and left it at that.

But it isn’t. And alarm bell after alarm bell roared in my mind as I read this book. There’s a mention of the “unique comradeship that set the Waffen-SS apart from other forces” early on. Then they cross the border, and the words “hordes” and “human waves” are used to describe the Soviet counterattacks. To be slightly fair, the book does take place in 1941, when the skill gap between the two armies was at its height-but remember, no slack.

But then there’s the whitewashing. One of the first things the legion sees as it enters the USSR is the aftermath of a massacre-committed by Stalin’s security forces. Then there’s tale after tale of captured members of the Atlantisch Legion and their brutal, cruel fate at the hands of the Soviets. It’s not ahistorical, but the one-sidedness combined with the overall tone of the book made me uneasy, to say the least.

In contrast, it takes about 2/3s the length of the book before some of the SS volunteers finally commit an atrocity-and it’s one they’re quickly punished for, and one which many feel “uneasy” about. There’s the handwringing of “oh no, these war crimes are happening”, with the whole “Look, we’re the good noble warrior Waffen-SS, we’re not the murdering Totenkopfverbande-SS” dodge.

Even the nature of the battles the legion fights, with many spectacular affairs against Red Army regulars and their huge arrays of tanks and artillery, is both suspicious (being rear area security is more likely) and contributing to the “wehrabooism” of it all. It read like a western Cold War depiction of the Eastern Front-but it was written very recently. And the rest of the book is not good enough-not nearly good enough- to make up for the moral queasiness I felt with this.