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.

 

Review: The Zone Hard Target

The Zone: Hard Target

hardtarget

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.

Review: The Blue Effect

The Blue Effect

The final entry in Harvey Black’s Effect series is The Blue Effect. This book manages to be slightly better than its predecessors in some ways and a lot worse in another. There’s a sorta-kinda-semi-plot where the British face the Soviets in what could be the make-or-break battle near Hanover. But once again, it never really clicks into a whole that it could have been. If The Red Effect was just listing the ingredients before hurriedly pouring them into a bowl and The Black Effect was having them sit in the mixing bowl doing nothing, this at least turns them into batter-but not a finished dish.

The highlight of this book, besides more tanks exploding, is a very long scene in which a Vulcan bomber soars into action. A part of me was going “oh come on, this relic would probably be shot down, malfunction or just miss”, but another part of me, the part that likes unconventional units, was going “WOW NICE”. I mean, I’d love to read (or even write) a book of unconventional relic units flying into battle. This is not that book.

What really sours the The Blue Effect is not any of the action in the main book, but rather its anticlimax of an ending. Here was where going the Chieftains/Dr. Strangelove route and just nuking everything might very well have been better. Instead, it’s a have your cake and eat it too deal where after a few plotnukes and a few losses, the Warsaw Pact just gives up very abruptly. It’s a circumstance where either another full length tide-turning installment (with proper plotting) or trimming the entire three-book series into one could have been better. And there’s a lot of fat to trim.

Furthermore, all of the hindsight-driven greater “micro”- accuracy of the series (See the now-known durability of tanks with Kontakt-series reactive armor! See the proper tank mix in GSFG instead of just having everything be a T-72!) is squandered by this “macro”-level flop in the conclusion. Whatever issues there are with a clean NATO win in 1984, there are a lot more with it happening in this fashion. If the goal is realism, it’s implausible. If the goal is storytelling, it’s a contrivance and makes the victory seem unearned.

The result is something that could have risen higher than it did, both in this specific book and the overall series.

Review: The Black Effect

The Black Effect

blackeffectcover

Harvey Black’s The Black Effect is the kind of book I thought I’d be reviewing en masse on this blog, at least in terms of basic plot. Namely, in 198_ World War III breaks out. Cue a lot of tanks exploding. This is the second book in Black’s _____ Effect series, and the first I reviewed at Sea Lion Press before this blog even started.

The Black Effect is what I feared Team Yankee would be before being pleasantly surprised.  It’s a mostly-conventional 198X WW3 book that happens to be a picture-perfect case for why a bowl of ingredients does not equal a meal.

Some of the individual ingredients (battle scenes) in the novel are good, if repetitive. Others are weighed down by things like Black constantly listing the full designations of every piece of equipment in overwhelming detail (fog of war? target fixation? Limited viewpoints? What are those?). But as a whole the book just amounts to a disorganized parade of various pieces of military equipment and graphene-thin Steel Panthers Characters differing only in what they’re crewing and how much ‘camera time’ that they get before being blown up.

There is an almost total lack of anything cohesive or coherent beyond “WW3 stuff happens”. It gets to the point where the intelligence photographers who were the high point of the previous installment turn into just another pace-breaking liability. This at least doesn’t have The Red Effect’s using up nearly all of its space on historical events with names badly changed (ie, Stanislav Petrov became “Perov”) before rushing to stuff a bunch of battles into the last thirty pages.

The Black Effect isn’t all bad. It’s more evenhanded than a lot of WWIII stories, it being written as an alternate history with decades of hindsight helps with some (but not all) technical accuracy issues, and it works at providing simple action scenes. It’s just I’ve read better, even in this very specific subgenre.

Unstructured Review: The Power

Ok, now I’m really stretching things with Fuldapocalypse. I’m reading and reviewing something that’s social-commentary supernatural fiction. Even if it does involve a war.

The book is Naomi Alderman’s The Power.

So, the premise of the book is that women gain the ability to fire blasts of electricity (the way Alderman explains the origins of this power reminded me of old comic books, and I really wish she’d kept it more deliberately mysterious than she did). The most oppressed are the first and most determined to lash out, and they end up taking over the world and showing that power corrupts (hence the title).

The geopolitics are weird (A Saudi-focused Moldovan civil war?) and clearly bent to fit the story even by the standards of a world where women can become she-Electros. The depictions of every conventional armed force are cringeworthy in the limited research, even if forgivable given the author’s background. There are interludes that serve as combination infodumps and “ok, do you get it now? DO YOU GET IT NOW?” reinforcements of the point. Worst of all, the prose manages to be exceedingly dull and exceedingly pretentious at the exact same time, plodding on with every chapter feeling the same.

I can’t fault the book for wanting to have a message or make a statement. The basic messages of “people who are pushed down will push back if given the chance” and “power corrupts” are true and worth sharing, even if they’re not exactly the most profound or unknown. But it’s just so blatant and so clunkily executed that I was soured by it.

Which is a shame, because both of the concepts (women suddenly gaining a physical advantage and/or superpowers emerging regardless of the context) would make for good serious speculative fiction if done right.

(For a somewhat different opinion on this book, see author Kate Vane’s review here )

Unstructured Review: Exultant

If The Big One was a miss I heard of from Spacebattles, Stephen Baxter’s Exultant was a clear hit. It’s the first military science fiction I’ve found fit to review on Fuldapocalypse, and it’s a bit of an oddball, both by the standards of its author and of the genre. But it’s a good oddball.

Stephen Baxter is usually a big-scope, big picture truly speculative science fiction writer, one who talks about exotic universal processes and has no time for heroic spacemen fighting aliens who look like humans in bad costumes. Baxter’s aliens are truly, massively alien. He also uses time travel in his big “Xeelee sequence”, of which Exultant is a part. This allows a semi-kinda-a-little-plausible form of FTL travel and also spares the need to worry about strict continuity between books (if something changed, well, a time traveler did it).

Exultant is a bit of a mishmash. Part of it is an exploration of alien and extranormal societies, biologies, and universal engineering. Part of it, though, is a conventional tale. Humans have regressed over thousands of years into a society built entirely around a sort of galaxy-scaled trench warfare as they battle the almost godlike Xeelee, an utterly alien race of invisible space-time defects completely integrated with their maple-seed like ships. One fighter pilot has managed the impossible-capture a Xeelee ship intact-and now must battle his own bureaucracy as a chance to end the war finally emerges.

Baxter manages this very well. While there’s speculative infodumps galore, the military part manages to break from the typical military sci-fi “current or recent past with a coating of laser” in both directions. On one hand, there’s time machine computers and deliberately “groundhog-daying” information back to the past. On the other, the actual fighting is deliberately reminiscent of the worst of World War I. Exultant juggles all this without really managing to drop anything, and I recommend it because of this.

 

Review: Agent Lavender

Agent Lavender

I’m going to push my review system to the limit by reviewing a mostly nonviolent alternate history story set in 1970s Britain. But Agent Lavender deserves all the positive recognition it can get.

Icelands

The “Iceland Scale” is simply not suited for something like this. After all, World War III never happens here. And that’s a good thing, especially considering the genre. Alternate history tends to swing to two extremes. Either it appears (especially in mass market fiction) as an often clunky parallel of actual historical events, or (in niche fiction and online postings) as a bunch of events happening for the “thrill of it”, often descending into lurid darkness.

Agent Lavender manages to dodge both these extremes. Yes, in the tumult of Britain in 1970s, stuff happens. But it never spirals out of control or is clearly something contemporary pasted over the date.

Rivets

This “section” is one of the book’s weakest parts. It can get very “inside baseball for nerd aficionados of British political history” at points. Thankfully this doesn’t take the form of clunky infodumps.

Zombie Sorceresses

This is where it gets effective. There’s one implausible divergence, and that’s the main character, Harold Wilson himself. A lot of alternate history tries to make the divergence itself plausible. This shows that an implausible zombie-sorceress induced divergence can work as long as there’s care shown to the aftermath.

The “Wha?”

Agent Lavender probably boasts the best example in this section I’ve seen. The plot and pacing are very, very good. There’s only one small bump in the scenes with Wilson himself that descend into pure goofiness. Other than that, it flows well and avoids a lot of the mistakes.

First, it feels right. This kind of verisimilitude is what makes or breaks alternate history. Parallelism tends not to feel right because it’s easy to tell what event the author is making an analogy of at the expense of accuracy. Lists of events tend not to feel right because they feel very clunky and artificial. An integrated, grounded story like this may not be right (After all, it has the one big divergence and I’m not exactly the best expert on 1970s British politics), but it feels right, and that’s what matters.

Second, the research is done to benefit the story, rather than the story being done to show off the research. Which is to say, it’s integrated to aid the feel of the plot and only dwelled on when necessary rather than just being shoved out in infodumps. The most infodumpy parts are placed in a section at the end where they don’t interfere with the main novel.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Agent Lavender is probably the finest work of alternate history and one of the best political novels I’ve read. It’s not perfect, but what is? I highly recommend it.