Review: HMS Ulysses

HMS Ulysses

A rightful classic, HMS Ulysses is, in my opinion, the greatest naval action novel of all time. Author Alistair MacLean, a veteran of the Royal Navy in World War II, could draw on a lot of personal experience, and it shows in this masterpiece. People who know their naval history can look at the obvious parallels between the actions of the book and the ill-fated Convoy PQ-17 (which MacLean served on), but that doesn’t change its effectiveness.

The way MacLean sets a tone is hard to describe, but he succeeds brilliantly. The travails of the convoy, in no small part thanks to the PQ-17 historical experience, are both dramatic and plausible-seeming. The feat of squaring the circle cannot be applauded enough. Historical military fiction, at least to me, has had the issue of “it’s going to be either realistically dull and un-dramatic, in which case I’ll read a history book that makes no pretense at narrative, or it’s going to be exaggerated, in which case I’ll read a cheap thriller that doesn’t have to be bound to an existing war.”

This avoids both of them by throwing one (plausible) German threat after another at the convoy and emphasizing the wear and tear the climate and stress imposes on the sailors. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Review: Opening Moves

Opening Moves

At the start of this blog, I thought that William Stroock’s World War 1990 was the worst World War III work of fiction I’d read. That is no longer the case. Colin Gee’s The Red Gambit: Opening Moves now holds, as of this post, that dubious “honor”.

Why have I made such a bold claim?

First, the prose is very poor and the book incredibly long and clunky. (And it’s just the beginning of a series!). This alone would have been enough for me to not recommend it. However, there’s more. Like Dragon’s Fury, it manages to stumble into seemingly all of the worst parts of the “big war thriller” (overdescription, characters that are too flat and too many at the same time, etc…) all at once. I mean, it has two conference room scenes in a row just at the beginning.

It also has the issue of being very close to World War II. This is one of the trickiest time periods to write a World War III in (for reasons of both military logic and storytelling) and it’s safe to say, especially given just how early Stalin attacks in-universe and how Japan allies with the Soviets (!), that Gee doesn’t do it right.

Although the biggest problem is how horrendously stereotyped everyone is. After reviewing Gee’s Atlantisch Crusaders, I kind of expected this, but that doesn’t make it any better. While terrible stereotypes don’t break a cheap thriller by themselves (if they did I’d have never read a single Casca book), this doesn’t present itself as a cheap thriller.

It presents itself as both a “crunchy” tale of military detail and as a sweeping war epic. For the former, the stereotypes, contrivances, and extreme premise counter whatever technically accurate rivet-counting details appeared. For the latter, the storytelling is just far too clunky for it to work.

Thus the stage is set for a truly gigantic mess. There’s stereotypical pulp, there’s overly rote “lines on a map” fiction, there are overlong big-picture doorstoopers, and then there’s this, which somehow manages to be all of the above.

 

Review: Operation Sea Lion

Operation Sea Lion

The most infamous invasion that never was, Operation Sea Lion holds a special place in the annals of alternate history. Richard Cox’s book takes a 1974 wargame of it at Sandhurst and turns it into a Hackett-esque big picture tale. This can be described as a World War II version of The War That Never Was, taking simple wargame results and giving them a tiny fig leaf of “plot” via various vignettes.

Not surprisingly to anyone knowledgeable about alternate history, the wargame, despite deliberately going easy on the first wave (to have a substantive ground element at all) ends with the Royal Navy cutting the lines and the Germans defeated. It’s not Cox’s fault, but something with the outcome never in doubt is hard to make exciting for someone who knows the context.

That being said, this remains an amusing little historical alternate history footnote. It’s aimed at a popular audience who wouldn’t necessarily know the context, and is at least more literary than a rote after action report of the wargame itself would have been.

 

Review: The Delian Cycle

The Delian Cycle

The quality of Kenneth Bulmer’s “Delian Cycle” of Dray Prescot novels (I got the omnibus edition) can be described in this anecdote. I dove straight through all 27 Survivalists with ease. To get through the five individually shorter Prescots took me considerably more effort. The question is…. why? I know I’ve explained my frustrations in my review of the second installment, but they deserve elaboration. After all, it’s not like I’ve had objections to reading similarly shallow cheap thrillers before.

The biggest reason is the prose, which is incredibly overwrought. It’s very hard to get through and takes away from whatever feelings the action might generate. Bulmer is seemingly never satisfied to use one paragraph to describe something when he can use three, and throw in another made-up word or ten while he’s at it. Still, if I can read Mike Lunnon-Wood, I can read him.

Then there’s the action, which labors under the horrendous prose and is just so constant that it becomes mundane. This is another reason, and it’d be a perfectly good reason. After all, cheap thrillers need to be good with action. But the action still isn’t the worst.

Another issue is the setting. The worldbuilding consists of nothing but throwing out so many names that the omnibus needs a giant glossary at the end, yet all it accomplishes is the creation of a sword and planet theme park, with the “exotic” names and airships and places being pushed so hard they lose any appeal. But it’s not like a bad setting is an absolute turn-off in a genre that depends on execution.

No, I think the biggest problem is the artificial nature of it. The books always involve Prescot getting teleported in and out by the MacGuffin People Star Lords. To use so blatant a setup would be bad, but what makes it worse is that they’re written in a kayfabe “Prescot has narrated this on cassette tapes to Alan Burt Akers [Bulmer’s pen name]” style. What turns this from a gimmick into a flaw is that the tapes are used as get-out-of-trouble cards where-not infrequently during a dramatic moment-Bulmer will just say “and then the tapes are missing, but Prescot clearly got out of it”.

I maintain a weird curiosity for the series, but it’s not very good.

Review: The Suns of Scorpio

The Suns Of Scorpio

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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.