Review: A Dream Of Empire

A Dream Of Empire

A recent work of alternate history by someone with the pen name “Grey Wolf”, A Dream of Empire is about a war between 19th Century Britain and a surviving Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire. There are lots of characters. And there are airships. Because this is an alternate history work set in the 1800s, there has to be airships.

This isn’t bad, but it feels a little overstuffed and shallow. It’s trying to be a “big war thriller” and a spy thriller, but that’s hard to do with something that’s one third the length of a normal book, much less a big and sweeping one. That’s the literary critique. The alternate history nerd critique is that a Byzantine Empire surviving, Victorian semi-steampunk, and airships are all genre archetypes, if not cliches.

You could do a lot worse for the very low purchase price than this book. But it could have also been a lot more and a lot better than what it actually was.

Review: Children of the Night

Children of the Night: The Strange and Epic Story of Modern Romania

With All Union and my Soviet-Romanian War project, I figured getting a good one-volume history of the Southeast European country would be nice. And Paul Kenyon’s Children of the Night delivers. It starts in 1442 with Vlad “Dracula”, or “The Impaler” Tepes, and more or less concludes with the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. The book is a magisterial epic of Romania’s frequently bizarre and violent history.

One consistent theme is Romania being perched on an unsteady point and being tugged on in multiple directions for centuries. Whether it be the Hungarians and Turks, the Russians and Turks, or the east and west in the Cold War, Romania always feels like an odd one out, a Latin enclave in a Slavic realm. The most blatant example of this was Romania spending the first part of World War I figuring out who it should support (it sided with the Entente eventually), but this was shown throughout history. The most ghoulish is Ion Antonescu’s regime conducting some of the worst massacres of the Holocaust, but suddenly changing its mind on the deportation of Jews-conveniently right after the encirclement at Stalingrad.

But it’s its postwar history where the book shines. Ceausescu’s reign of terror is well documented, and the scenes of his fall and execution read like they could have come straight from The Death of Stalin. It also shows that his tendencies towards what can be called “independent totalitarianism” started under his predecessor, Gheorge Gheorghiu-Dej.

If you could only read one book on the history of Romania, this would be a good contender for the choice. It’s definitely worth reading.

Review: A History of Cavalry From The Earliest Times

A History of Cavalry From The Earliest Times

Now long since in the public domain (the first edition was in 1877 and later ones were published to 1913), George Denison’s A History of Cavalry From the Earliest Times was a look back at thousands of years of mounted operations. It’s an interesting time capsule. The aim was a sincere chronicle of cavalry and a look forward into an age of increased firepower. It’s a successful one given the limitations of the time.

The biggest problem, besides a 19th Century perspective on the world, is that Denison only had famous text sources to work with. Still, you can’t blame someone for being a product of their time or not having resources that only emerged later on. And he gets both important analyses essentially right. The first is how the role of mobile forces hasn’t really changed for thousands of years. Even if they swapped their horses for motorized vehicles. The second is how firepower and lethality was increasing, with him citing vastly higher casualties in recent (as of publication) battles compared to earlier ones with muzzleloaders.

Of course, the flame of cavalry would be briefly extinguished when offense against it rose massively by 1914 while defense did not. But another vehicle would soon pick up the torch. In any event, this is a good piece of classical military history.

Review: Special Reconnaissance and Advanced Small Unit Patrolling

Special Forces (specifically MACV-SOG) veteran Edward Wolcoff has created a masterpiece in Special Reconnaissance and Advanced Small Unit Patrolling. Despite the long and clunky title, the book itself is very accessible. The goal was to create a list of tactics, techniques, and procedures determined by both theory and practice. It was also to present them in a way that was easily accessible and not written in field manualese (indeed, taking issue with official doctrine is stated in the introduction as a big motivation for the entire book). Wolcoff succeeds admirably in both parts.

This is not just for people who actually do light infantry patrols. Even armchair writers like me will find it very useful for both research and curiosity. Few stones are left unturned. This aims to be comprehensive and it succeeds. It does arguably focus a little too much on the past, but given the author’s Vietnam service, this is quite understandable. While “tone” isn’t the most relevant for a book like this, I enjoy how this comes across as being critical of official doctrine and often greatly so, but not in a bitter or axe-grinding way (Wolcoff has said that he submitted this book to a security review and cooperated with the Pentagon in its publication, FWIW).

What I particularly like is how Wolcoff makes it very clear that failure is as big a teacher (if not more) as success. Survivorship bias can skew things massively, so it’s important to look at what didn’t work as well as what did. This is a great resource for well, anyone, and well worth a purchase.

Review: Spetsnaz The Inside Story

Spetsnaz: The Inside Story

There are few Cold War authors who I have less respect for than defector Viktor Suvorov (pen name), nor are there more who’ve influenced the thought and discourse around Fuldapocalypses in a such a negative way. Since Suvorov was one of the biggest popularizers of the mega-super Spetsnaz , I felt that his Spetsnaz: The Inside Story would be an excellent first book to review.

Now defectors, confidential informants, and the like are generally not the best or most reliable people. Some may be and have been deliberate double agent sneaks to muddle the waters. But more have had mundane issues. Issues like exaggerating their own importance and telling their new handlers what they want to hear. There’s a reason why American military officers in the cold war considered intelligence defectors not noble dissidents but unreliable weasels while having far more respect for enemy field commanders who stayed loyal until December 1991. Suvorov fits this negative stereotype to a T (and I’m not the only one to say this).

The story begins with a description of shovels. Yes, military entrenching tools are important for digging in, other utilities, and make for a good enough melee weapon. Then Suvorov dives deep and talks about how spetsnaz train with their shovels as weapons and that it involves putting one alone with only a shovel against a crazed dog. Woof.

So yeah. If Suvorov says that a bicycle has two wheels, walk around and count them. There’s accurate points here and there, but remember what they say about a broken clock (or that he just grabbed it from an accessible source that others would soon do with less embellishment, or took information that wasn’t that controversial). Suvorov also introduces the “Icebreaker Theory” where he states that Stalin was going to invade west and Germany simply preempted him. (You know who else said that?). The Icebreaker Theory, which he would later expand into a full book, goes from “questionable” to outright uncomfortable in my eyes given how it echoes the Germans own justifications for Barbarossa.

Then there are the psychologically iffy parts. Perhaps the least credible sentence in the book is “In the spetsnaz soldier’s opinion the most dangerous thing he can do is put faith in his comrade, who may at the most critical moment turn out to be a beast.” It’s not like successful war has always relied about trusting one’s colleagues in crisis, and that demanding special operations would demand more of that. I can believe them to be ultra-cynical, cold, and hard-edged (to say nothing of having grown up in an autocratic society), but Suvorov generalizes every single one of them to be those mixed with (in another dubious quote) “A spetsnaz soldier knows that he is invincible.” This strikes me as playing to the crowd, because it’s what an armchair observer with little knowledge of actual battle dynamics would think the ultimate warrior mindset would be like. Even some of the accurate statements come across as being aimed too low: For instance, his (correct) emphasis that a safehouse keeper/secret agent should be someone who blends in and doesn’t have any profile to attract attention is accompanied by a swipe at the likes of James Bond, with Suvorov apparently figuring that most of his audience gets their knowledge of spycraft from that.

Even leaving plausibility issues aside, Suvorov’s writing is rambling, pretentious, and sensationalist to the extreme. This is not aimed at people who would actually have to make a serious plan about dealing with the serious, legitimate threat of opposing special forces. This is giving a general audience the treasured “inside peek” that Bill James recognized and criticized. It’s the Cold War equivalent of someone from the Pakistani intelligence services talking about Osama bin Laden’s giant mountain fortress and his army of countless infiltrators throughout the world in the early 2000s.

The biggest problem is that there’s now basically no point to read this for solid information. In an age where you have western analysis done with much greater access and info (ie, Heavy OPFOR/GENFORCE-Mobile) and translated real primary sources (ie, Voroshilov Lectures), including those on the spetsnaz themselves, having a dated “I WAS THERE” “expose” like this is basically worthless as a practical source. One of my biggest pet peeves is that Suvorov has been cited far too often by Cold War wargamers despite better sources having long been available now.

What it does show is the tone of the times, and of the kind of sensationalist book that appears to stoke every zeitgeist. In this sense, it (and Suvorov’s other books) are surprisingly close to the stereotypical true crime paranoia book. Except with spetsnaz instead of serial killers or whoever.

Review: Events


The debut published work of Sea Lion Press author Charles E. P. Murphy, Events tells the story of alternate British prime ministers as they deal with the economy, other familiar problems, and, uh, alien invasions. The book is told in a deadpan pseudo-historical fashion, complete with footnotes that reference made-up history books. Anyone who knows internet alternate history will see the style being poked at instantly.

And this is the novella’s biggest issue: You need to be in an extremely small, insular community to really appreciate it. Otherwise, the obvious joke will just get repeated. “Oh, this prime minister dealt with an alien attack and then (insert mundane historical political problem here). And then this prime minister did (___)….” Even though it’s very short, the gag wears out its welcome by the third alien invasion.

But if you do know internet alternate history, the joke becomes better. A genre with a frequent rivet-counting “how many B-52s can dance on the head of a pin” obesssion and which cares absolutely nothing for conventional plot or characters gets skewered by Murphy treating made-up nonsense as if it was a meticulously researched order of battle for 1863/1942/1985.

Of course, the book also gets soured a bit by Poe’s Law (there is no parody of something that cannot be equaled in extremes by a sincere expression of the same). Since many internet alternate history timelines often portray events rivaling flying saucer wars in terms of divergence unironically, this can feel like just a handwaved in timeline that happens to be tongue in cheek. And (thankfully) without wikiboxes.

This is a first novel, so I can forgive its flaws. But it’s still made by and for those who follow a specific niche.

Review: Wings Over The Hindu Kush

Wings Over The Hindu Kush

Lukas Muller’s Wings Over The Hindu Kush shines a light on an obscure footnote in aviation history: The Afghan air forces (yes, plural) between the Soviet withdraw and Enduring Freedom. Leaving behind a large quantity of helicopters and aircraft, there were enough parts and willing pilots for the Taliban and its rivals to create air forces up until 2001. As someone aware of their existence and interested in how functional air units could be maintained from such “scraps”, this book was an easy purchase.

In a complex, fluid situation without the best documentation, getting the detail that Muller did was no small feat. The book isn’t the biggest or most absolutely detailed, but it does tell the story of these helicopters, Fitters, and Fishbeds. And it’s a very interesting story.

The strike aircraft were far from the most capable or effective (the transports in a place with poor infrastructure were far more vital), but their mere presence in such conditions was surprising. And this book clears up the surprise in a great way.

Review: Soviet Era Airliners

Soviet-Era Airliners: The Final Three Decades

In many ways, Aeroflot mirrored the USSR itself. Its breakup in 1991 scattered the massive airline’s assets across all the independent republics. Christopher Buckley’s Soviet-Era Airliners: The Final Three Decades tells the story of what happened to all the “Classics”, “Crusties”, “Carelesses”, “Clobbers”, and more. While the collapse of the USSR and the failure of its aviation industry to make a competitive product caused its new-build civil aircraft industry to fall apart instantly, there were lots of surplus planes around.

This book does a great job showing most of their fates. There’s lots of details and even more excellent photographs. If you like civil aviation at all, this is a great book. I was curious to see what happened to these flying trilobites, and now I know.

Review: Wheels


Arthur Hailey’s Wheels, published three years after Airport, turned its attention to the auto industry. While I’ve been a fairly new study to the aircraft industry, I’ve been interested in cars for much, much longer. So I knew I had to at least try this book. Especially because there are bizarrely few novels about the auto industry’s shenanigans. The biggest names are just this and The Betsy, which barely counts as a coherent book.

This is only somewhat more focused than Robbins’ scattershot, crazed novel. And it’s less focused than Airport. While that had a big broad soap opera and industry exposition that concluded with a rushed thriller plot, this is nothing but a Detroit drama. Or to be more specific, a series of Detroit dramas that range from car design to the struggles of a poor assembly line worker to the not-exactly-scintillating subject of middle class adultery.

I can respect this book for what it is-a lot of the research holds up, even if Hailey once again fell for futurist wonders being just around the corner (room-temperature superconductors in this case). It does work as a snapshot of an utterly rotten industry that was practically begging for the imports to come and whip it into shape (Published in 1971, the only reference to Japanese cars is a Subaru 360-esque “four wheeled motorcycle” that no one likes). But it doesn’t really work as a practical narrative.