Review: Ward

Ward

The sequel to Spacebattles darling Worm, Ward arrived to much fanfare, to the point where the end of its author’s last web serial was overshadowed by antsy fans waiting for it to start. Now Ward itself has just finished.

When I started reading it, I saw that Wildbow’s literary issues didn’t change. The prose was too flat. The action likewise was too flat. The pacing had only two speeds: “Way too fast” and “Way too slow”. The descriptions are either overdetailed or underdetailed. I’d tried to follow all of his serials after Worm itself when they were written, and ended up just abandoning them.

Reading more of Ward, it has Worm’s problems, if not more. The structural issues mentioned above. The tendency to write into a corner and then ESCALATE out of it. The way the cosmology becomes ridiculous (you don’t include precognition as a power without good reason, much less two super-precogs, and that’s just one problem).

But really, Ward is a tragedy. I don’t mean inside the story itself, although it has plenty of dark moments. I mean that it’s dragged down by two big factors. The first is the legend of Worm bringing up unrealistic expectations (something Wildbow himself mentioned in his retrospective). The second is that its predecessor had just the right amount of factors to make it popular. Lightning was never going to strike twice.

One strange effect was that an improvement in the characterization actually doomed the serial. Worm’s fandom success hinged on Taylor, its protagonist, and her lack of what would normally be considered substance. Someone who was about 30% power fantasy of fighting back against the people who were just UNFAIR TO HER and 70% blank slate camera RPG protagonist created some strange incentives.

If you saw Worm as something that was more of a superhero RPG let’s play than anything else (which it comes across as), then the fanfiction boom made sense. Taylor’s bug power was just one “build” among others, and if the sole part of her character that filtered down was that wish fulfillment, then it’s easy to see why (combined with bandwagon inertia) why it got all the fanfiction it did on one small part of the internet.

So Victoria Dallon may have been an improved character, but the mystique was lost. Ward ended up as feeling to me like the kind of webfiction that, if you’re into it from the start (I wasn’t) you’d follow until it finished and then leave it behind.

 

 

 

Review: Agile Retrieval

Agile Retrieval

agileretrievalcover

The SOBs series (officially Soldiers of Barabbas, but like Doom’s Bio-Force-Gun, the real implication is obvious) was a Gold Eagle men’s adventure series of the 1980s. Peter Nealen has cited it as one of the biggest inspirations for Brannigan’s Blackhearts. Agile Retrieval is the eleventh book in the series but the first that I read. Though series house name “Jack Hild” is on the cover, the real author was Robin Hardy.

Having read the successors first, I was on guard for the “having seen those, the original doesn’t seem so original”. This didn’t manifest in a negative way. In part this was because a lot of the elements that were copied were positive ones. For instance, giving the main characters lives outside of the action (we see the wedding and family troubles of the protagonists in the entire first part) makes them more sympathetic and human, unlike the mobster/terrorist killing robots that make up a lot of action-adventure. And in part because this entry, a chase for Nazi Macguffins in Cold War Germany, is a little unconventional.

It’s not really unconventional in a good way, though. The flaws (in particular, the stock villains) are still there, while being a little less action-y and a little more cloak and dagger takes away from the strengths of the formula. The “big, vulnerable team” subgenre of action adventure is, in my opinion, the style that offers the most, and to pull back from it is giving up a lot and not really gaining anything in return. While the structure of the series has many strong points, the structure of this particular book does not. After the opening, it doesn’t manage a good climax and remains slapdash throughout. The pool of cheap thrillers of past and present is so big and vast that I cannot recommend this except for completionists.

 

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.