Review: USA Vs. Militia Series

USA Vs. Militia Series

Ian Slater’s USA vs. Militia series is one of those bizarre footnotes in military thriller writing that I just had to check out in full. A while ago, I reviewed Battle Front, which is actually the third installment. Having since read all five books, now I can give my opinion on the entire series.

I described Battle Front as “This book is about 5-10% crazy goofy, and about 90-95% dull tedium.” In short, this is applicable to the entire series, particularly the last two books. These involve more pedestrian hunt-the-MacGuffin plots with small unit heroes that serve as a perfect example of “Captain Beefheart Playing Normal Music Syndrome”. The most bizarre part is a general personally leading this formation, and it has all of Slater’s numerous writing weaknesses without the appealing strengths. If it consisted of two books with action somewhat below the Marine Force One line, I’d have barely given them a second thought.

But the series is more than that.

At its best, you have ferocious fights between the federal army and militia in technicals with add on “reactive armor” (Slater is, to put it mildly, not the best with terminology). You have Abrams’ deploying from C-130s. And of course, you have preternaturally well-organized and numerous militia romping through the country. To try and make them viable, Slater turns every federal commander and soldier who isn’t Mary Sue Douglas Freeman into hopeless bumblers. It’s still badly written in actual practice save for some bizarre prose turns Slater uses, but the novelty is still something.

There’s two more distinctive elements. The first is the politics. Now, normally you’d expect a book about a second American civil war to be monstrously political. This, surprisingly isn’t. Or at least it feels oddly detached, coming from an Australian-Canadian having to look across the border through a distorted, second-hand lens.

The second is a complaint I’ve heard a lot about Slater’s World War III series, and which I saw firsthand here-he has absolutely no concept of continuity. There are references to the Third World War, references to the Gulf War, jumping references to real events that happened before the book in question got published, contradictory historical references, and no real sense of overall progression. The series ends on a strange half-conclusion, with the out-of-universe reason for its stoppage obviously clear from its publication date of December 2001.

This series occasionally can be an interesting curiosity, but it’s a mere curiosity without much substance.

 

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 Sword of the Templars

The Sword of the Templars

swordtemplarscovers

A work in the genre of “Templar Catholic Secret History” thrillers that followed in the wake of The Da Vinci Code, Christopher Hyde’s (under the pen name “Paul Christopher”) The Sword of the Templars manages to be somehow fun. Even though by all “normal means” it shouldn’t be.

First, it manages to check every single box one could imagine in a thriller like this. Everything from the academic hero to the unreformed Nazi descendant villain to the general shenanigans to the nature of “the secret” did not exactly surprise me when it was revealed. Second, I’ll just say it sticks to the thriller norms in terms of plot, pacing and action. Third, there’s lavish descriptions of every place that seem different. Fourth, the research ranges from too precise (knowing what color a box of commercial Prvi Partizan ammunition comes in) to too obviously wrong (calling a “point guard” a football position and, worse, describing the details on a submachine gun in terms dubious at best and wrong at worst). Fifth and finally, there’s a lot of blatant direction mentions of other popular books, the very definition of throwing stones from a glass house.

However, it all works somehow. The ability of the villains to throw one goon after another with just the “right” amount of capability against the heroes, the secret history that’s somehow both ridiculous and bland at the same time, and the actually sound literary fundamentals made this readable. In fact, I might say I liked it in part because it hit each and every cliche-it felt like it was to action hero thrillers what Thunder of Erebus was to technothrillers.

Review: The Kidnapping Of The President

The Kidnapping Of The President

Charles Templeton lived a long and involved life which involved everything from newspaper editor to author. His debut thriller, The Kidnapping of The President, was  later made into a William Shatner movie.

Adam Scott, the President, goes off to campaign in congressional elections in New York City. A pair of South American revolutionaries with an armored truck are there as well, and…. look at the title. Then the cabinet, a scandal-hit vice president, and the perpetrators all race against time, as the plot twists and turns.

This book wasn’t exactly breaking new ground even at the time, and it has issues. Issues like the grounded and genuinely researched deep infodumps clashing with the inherently strange premise (which is even mentioned in-story). Issues like the few action scenes, when they finally happen, being dry and questionable.

And yet it flows well in spite of the “look how much I researched” exposition, works acceptably as a read to pass the time on a dreary, snowy day, and does what a cheap thriller needs to do. The novelty of a “a prominent Canadian media figure wrote a cheap thriller about the American president being kidnapped” helps it stand out, but this book works even beyond that.

Snippet Reviews: June 2019

So this “snippets” feature is here so I can share books I recently read, but which I would struggle to write in a longer review. So here it goes.

Third Law: Let It Burn

Third Law: Let It Burn is the sort of throwaway cheap thriller it’s hard to write about. It’s at the prose level of a lower-grade self-published book and with a lot of really blocky paragraphs. But at the same time it’s not totally bad, and it worked for a day’s read. The only thing really interesting is that it’s one of the first books I’ve read since Ian Slater to have a domestic militia as the antagonist.

Sweetwater Gunslinger 201

William LaBarge’s Sweetwater Gunslinger 201 is basically “Herman Melville, but with aircraft carriers”. This is not an insult. It’s the story of fighter pilots on an aircraft carrier, not facing any technothriller-level threat (but indeed facing the Libyan Air Force over the Gulf of Sidra-it had to have some action). Good for what it is.

Texas Lockdown

Robert Boren’s Texas Lockdown is the first book out of thirteen in the Bug Out: Texas series, which is itself a spinoff of the Bug Out series (13 books) and Bug Out California (15 books). It’s a combination invasion novel, survival novel, and (unsubtle) political novel. It’s adequate, if cliche, and its focus on the characters makes it better than some. But I’m skeptical as to it being a good starter for a series that long.

Review: Northern Fury H-Hour

Northern Fury H-Hour

(note: I received a review copy).

When I first got into Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations, I noticed a scenario set called Northern Fury, describing a third world war with a surviving USSR in the early 1990s. One of the first scenarios I played was one of the smaller ones there, called “A Cold And Lonely Place.”

Since then, I’ve been following the scenario set, and was delighted to hear that the novel had been announced. Having gotten a review copy and been cleared to post, I can say that H-Hour, the first book in the Northern Fury series, works well and dodges a lot of the pitfalls it could have fallen into. The August Coup has succeeded and the Third World War is not far off, with this story focusing not on Central Europe but in other theaters, particularly Norway and its waters.

First, it needs to be said: This book wears its technothriller heritage and inspiration on its sleeve, for better or worse. It has many of the prime technothriller elements in it. That being said, it handles them well, and in particular manages to escape-and escape completely- two pits that fiction like it tends to fall into.

The first is that it does not feel like just a rote let’s play/after action report of Command. Without giving too much away, focusing a lot on land makes it seem better, deeper, and out of the sim’s comfort zone, so to speak.

The second is more impressive and more important. Northern Fury manages to avoid what I call “Steel Panthers Characterization.” Named after how in the computer wargame “Steel Panthers”, units will have a rank and surname in the language of their nationality, Steel Panthers Characterization is when Character Name X controlling Military Weapon Y will appear in scene Z, with no characterization save for maybe a thrown-in national or rank stereotype. They will appear, operate the necessary piece of military equipment, and often die in the process. Then another flat character will appear.

In Northern Fury, this doesn’t happen. While there is a lot of viewpoint hopping, all the characters and their arcs have meat on their bones. This was an impressive feat that did a lot to raise my opinion of the book.

So, to briefly conclude, Northern Fury: H-Hour is both an excellent example of how a simulation can be used in the creation of a novel (like the original Harpoon tabletop version was for Red Storm Rising) and a very good throwback to the technothriller/WWIII fiction of days past.

Northern Fury: H-Hour releases on May 6. Its official website is here

Review: Worm

Worm

This is a weird story to be reviewing on Fuldapocalypse, and it’s a weird context. But Worm has been so crazy on Spacebattles to the point where the mods had to make a separate forum specifically for Worm fanfics.

Worm is a story about a teenage girl in a rough and tumble city who, after being shoved into a filthy locker by bullies, develops superpowers. Much, much, much more happens after that.

Worm has a lot going for it. It’s a superhero story that keeps the basic archetypes everyone knows and loves while shedding every last piece of baggage the big two comics have dragged over decades. The powers are interesting and distinct-for instance, the closest prominent figure you can find to the main character’s power set of insect control is a boss in Metal Gear Solid 3. There aren’t lazy “Superman” or “Batman” figures made with the minimum distinction. The characters are well developed and sympathetic in a truly dark world. It sounds very good……

 

……until it’s actually read. The fundamentals are ‘iffy’ enough that it becomes a slog. Especially early on, events happen and pass very quickly, not helped by the prose. But on the other side of the coin, the story as a whole is over one and a half million words long-longer than War and Peace and Atlas Shrugged combined. And I’ve found the prose to be simply dull.

In no small part because of this, every flaw in the worldbuilding comes up in a way that it wouldn’t in a better story. The biggest issue I’ve found is trying to have its cake and eat it too. Worm goes into a huge amount of in-universe detail to try and justify its common superhero-vs-supervillain tropes. To me the amount of raw effort required has the effect of making it seem less, rather than more plausible.

But I don’t want to be too hard on Worm-I can see its appeal, and consider it “not for me” rather than outright “bad”. It just didn’t really “click” for me, and I don’t want to read a million+ words of something that didn’t do that.

 

Unstructured Review: The Valor Series

Valor Series

One of my first “get me through a vacation” books was an omnibus containing the first two volumes of Tanya Huff’s Valor series of military sci-fi. At the time, I was impressed by how an author who was clearly new to the genre could write something well. Now, some time later, I’m even more impressed. Other authors of either fantasy or (surprisingly) contemporary action have stumbled, in my opinion, when they turned to the difficult genre of military science fiction. Huff, for the most part, did not.

Oh, it has its pitfalls. Some of the prose is a little “flowery fantasy”-esque, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a line in one of the later books that about how drones were obsolete compared to a “good pair of eyes” because they kept getting shot down (when the alternative is losing those eyes). But those are tiny compared to the advantages.

Heroine Torin Kerr is a good enough protagonist, especially by the standards of the genre. Huff tends to keep her in smaller, fantasy adventure party sized engagements that she’s comfortable with and work very well. And the series takes out a lot of the “brown M&Ms” that plague the ‘spacesuit commando’ subgenre (that I groan at but still somehow read and like anyway). For instance, while other, worse military sci-fi books have the main character promoted ridiculously high ridiculously fast, Kerr starts as a staff sergeant and ends the series as a… gunnery sergeant.

For these reasons I recommend the Valor book. Sure they’re lightweight, but they’re lightweight in a good, solid way.

 

Review: Unseen Warriors

Unseen Warriors

While I’ve read some books in Gavin Parmar’s Unseen Warriors series before, it was only very recently that I actually read his debut. As an early independent novel, it has issues but manages to be better in context.

Who and What

A group of what appear to be ordinary American soldiers suddenly and quickly find themselves in a “Black Ops” unit. The main protagonists are sent to “Black Ops”, which has a camp in Russia, as a form of semi-punishment after getting in a fight in Seoul.

Then from there it’s a disjointed mess of action that involves everything from nuclear blasts (multiple ones over the course of the book, similar to Dale Brown) to firefights to dogfights to infantry-vs-tank. This is a first independent novel, and it shows in the prose with inconsistent descriptions and grammatical issues-the most obvious is referring to martial law as “Marshal Law”.

In terms of characterization, it ends up being clunky cheap thriller characterization but still earnestly tries-something that can sum up the entire book very well.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

Unseen Warriors starts with an infodump on how the US military adopted a version of the G3 rifle for their own use after the 5.56mm rifles [that they’d used for decades] somehow proved unsatisfactory. It continues in this style throughout the entire book. As an example, it has Mi-35s (export Hinds) referred to sometimes as Mi-34s (a real but totally different helicopter).

Zombie Sorceresses

Pretty much the entire book (and the later series) has their heavy hand. Tanks appear everywhere and ignore logistics and concealment. The main characters just go into a “Black Ops Unit” like that. Terrorists can have gigantic arsenals that no one noticed before, even with stuff that would be hard to conceal and raise lots of red flags. Nuclear bombs are treated very cavalierly and continuously used. The jumping around plot doesn’t help.

Tank Booms

The action is well-intended (see a pattern?) but suffers from several big problems. The first is its constant repetition (including the gore), the second is the clunky prose, and the third is that it’s hard to tell the exact context sometimes thanks to the careening, weaving plot.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Judged purely in isolation, this book and series are not the best. My first impression while reading one of them long ago was that the writing style was poor, the action repetitive, the premise and plausibility ludicrous, and thus it was hard to get into.

However, as an early earnest effort, it feels better. After all, I’d rather have a sincere amateur effort (and Parmar has improved in later Unseen Warriors books, especially in terms of flow and pacing) that was clunky and zombie sorceress-heavy than a cynical commercial effort that was also, as many 2000s technothrillers were, clunky and zombie sorceress-heavy.

Review: Battle Front (USA VS Militia)

Ian Slater’s Battle Front spun the 90s Technothriller Opponent Selector Wheel and it landed on “Militias”. While Slater has written some proper World War III novels, this is my first introduction  to him.

Who and What

Now, it wasn’t until sometime in that I found out this was one of the middle books in a five-book series. That explained some of the confusion, but I wasn’t that lost before. There is a Second American Civil War between the federal government and right-wing militias who are both cartoonishly racist puppy kickers and far more competent than they would have any right to be. On the federal government’s side is main character General Mary Sue-I mean, Douglas Freeman.

Now, the book kind of rambles and jumps around, but what was interesting (and good) to me was how it didn’t feel like an axe-grinding polemic. Nor did it feel like a parody either. It takes this crazy setup and plays it completely, sometimes boringly straight. Normally I’d praise a book for not being too political, but it just feels strange. Maybe it’s that the non-American Slater didn’t have a feel for American politics, but that doesn’t explain all of it.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

The book can get kind of infodumpy and it never seems to enter full gritty story mode. Furthermore, a lot of the infodumps are strange and frequently inaccurate (for example, one used ‘TOW’ as a generic term for anti-tank rounds. Not even missiles, rounds).

Zombie Sorceresses

The zombie sorceresses made American militias number in the hundreds of thousands, be unified, and be competent. The latter part required the most zombie sorceress intervention.

Tank Booms

The action is mostly dull and somewhat infodumpy, but it gets the occasional ridiculous moment, like how the evil militia are preternaturally competent (to drive the plot) and the ridiculous stuff like over-effective reactive armor (except it’s described as if it was inert add-on armor) on pickup trucks.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This book is about 5-10% crazy goofy, and about 90-95% dull tedium. Yet I’m a sucker for even a little bit of crazy goofiness. A lot of other readers might not be.