Review: Red Phoenix

Red Phoenix

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Larry Bond’s Red Phoenix, telling the story of a second Korean War, is something I’ve struggled with for a while but now, after a lot of other books read, have the words to successfully describe. In short, it’s the Marine Force One of “big war thrillers”.

Every archetype of the small genre is there. The shifting viewpoints from top to bottom. Going into every part of the theater. And so on. And they’re executed with enough skill to not be bad, but not enough to be truly memorable or standing out.

What does stand out, and which I also have a more nuanced view of than I used to, is the long intro setting up the war. I’ve thought it, from a literary perspective, to be less than ideal. It’s taking a huge amount of effort to set up something the reader already knows will happen.

But from a plausibility perspective, given the massive unlikelihood of a Second Korean War even at the height of the north’s power, I can forgive it for putting in the effort to set up a situation where it could happen. It’s certainly better and less ridiculous than Cauldron at any rate.

And what else is there to say? This is very much a “if you like the genre, you’ll like this book. If you don’t, you won’t” kind of novel.

Snippet Reviews: January 2020

New year, new set of snippet reviews.

Return of the Ottomans

Return Of The Ottomans is a clunky “Big war thriller” only distinguished by its premise. Turkey invading Bulgaria is more conceptually interesting and the action isn’t the worst in a nuts and bolts way, but jumping viewpoints and Steel Panthers Characterization at its worst bring it down.

The Fires Of Midnight

The Fires of Midnight is the last of the classic Blaine McCrackens, before Dead Simple knocked the series off course. While I now knew the formula in great detail, it doesn’t change that the formula is a good one-and that it includes an excellent finale in an excellent place.

Sword Point

I wanted Sword Point, Harold Coyle’s second novel, to be good, and it still ultimately is. Yet it has this awkward feeling of a one-hit wonder musician trying to make lightning strike twice. The same formula and theme is there, and it’s not bad. But it just doesn’t have the kick the initial installment has.

It’s still tanks going boom in a solid, flowing way. And the Middle Eastern setting is distinct. But it’s just missing something.

Review: The Third World War, August 1985

The Third World War: August 1985

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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: Marching Through Georgia

Marching Through Georgia

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For a while, SM Stirling’s Draka series was a lightning rod for controversy in the online alternate history community. So I wanted to see how these tales of a continent-spanning slave empire fared as books, minus the controversy over their “plausibility”. Fittingly, I started with Marching Through Georgia.

As the paratroopers jump into the Caucasus, there are anachronistic assault rifles and Vasilek-style automortars against Kar98ks and MG34s. There are the equivalent of postwar MBTs with gun stabilizers. Now it’s not quite the most exaggerated “Vietnam technology against a WWII army” some people have claimed and the Drakan characters are certainly challenged, but it’s unmistakably clear that the Drakans are better than the Germans they’re fighting, that they have better equipment and are better fighters. The deck is clearly stacked and the “These are author’s pets” alarms are clearly ringing. So I could see why the backlash came.

In literary terms, the prose is functional even with a lot of clunky exposition to establish how the timeline diverged (a problem hardly unique to it). There are worse stories out there. The biggest problem is that the Draka themselves aren’t just unsympathetic, they’re uninteresting.

Although to be fair, this never really rises above the level of “slam-bang action war story with even more sleazy titillation thrown in”. In fact, it got to the point where I felt that all the effort expended in (not unreasonably) critiquing its plausibility seemed like punching down.

Take a decent-at-best war romp story with an inherently pulpy nation, add in a bunch of BISEXUAL AMAZONS, and for good measure, toss in some of the  understandable “commercial alternate history” tropes like “there’s still people and events the readers will recognize despite the point of divergence being centuries ago”. Now think-would something like that really stand up to massive, gigantic scrutiny over its plausibility? Would you even expect it to?

Review: The Chosen One

The Chosen One

Walt Gragg’s The Red Line was one of the first books I reviewed on Fuldapocalypse-and how could I not, with it being a Russo-American World War III, the kind that was supposed to be the blog’s bread and butter? Now his second book, The Chosen One, is out. And I felt I had to review it.

So, an Algerian man somehow becomes recognized as the “Madhi”, gets a huge army, is able to unify most of the Middle East, equip said huge army, and launch a conventional World War III. It doesn’t take place in the Fulda Gap, but the book does have all the hallmarks of the “big-war thriller” that I had in mind when starting the blog.

It has tons of viewpoint characters from top to bottom, lots of battles, a focus on air, land, and sea (via a cruise missile strike on the American fleet), and the general tropes of the subgenre. So I can say I feel very comfortable in declaring this a World War III book.

A lot of the big-picture stuff doesn’t make much sense (even in a spherical cow lines on a map way), which I’d be more forgiving of if it wasn’t brought up repeatedly in conference room exposition scenes. It’s not quite at the level of The Red Line’s convoluted way to turn the clock back to the 1980s, but it’s still there in force.

There are a few too many viewpoint characters for the book’s own good, they’re not exactly the least stereotypical, and they make the pacing jumbled (the kind of thing I sadly expected). Part of this is a cutaway to the antagonist’s stereotypical childhood. I’ll just say that A: I was reminded of Life Of Brian, and B: you shouldn’t be reminded of Life of Brian in what’s supposed to be a serious story.

As for the actual action, it’s strange. The prose descriptions are ridiculously melodramatic (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but still, given the tone, it clashes), but it also has more than its share of dry weapon over-description as well. There’s also anachronisms with the weapon names (which isn’t so bad if you don’t mind every enemy tank being an “M60” or “T-72”) and tactics (which is understandable but still a little out of date to see carrier aircraft flying at low altitude and having trouble hitting hardened shelters).

It’s not the absolute worst, but it’s still not what it could have been. The conclusion is also a stumbling point, which has a firefight inside an Egyptian pyramid (Ok?) that’s taken seriously and focused on while a big tank battle occurs elsewhere and is only mentioned in passing (not ok), and ends with a really, really blatant sequel hook.

This is a sort of oddball novelty-it has the roughness and er, “quirkiness” of some of the more uneven independent “big-war thrillers”, yet it’s a mainstream publication. And regrettably, its fundamentals just aren’t good enough to be more than an oddball novelty.

Review: Advance To Contact

Advance To Contact

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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.

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: Steel World

Steel World

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For BV Larson’s Steel World, I returned to a familiar place-the land of spacesuit commandos. Almost every single value checks out. Dystopian background? Check. The main character is a super-special spacesuit commando in a super-special spacesuit commando unit (in this case, a secret dirty tricks “Legion”)? Check. The main characters use nothing more than power armor and ray guns that don’t seem to really do much? Check. The tactics are iffy and everyone uses Roman ranks? Check.

The only novel feature, besides the use of “rules of war” that are clearly structured to enable the plot, is revivification. However, in practice all it does is remove tension, best summed up by having people -multiple times at that- want to be “killed” for the sake of convenience.

For all my complaining, Steel World manages to dodge the biggest problem with the subgenre. Its training sequences are not overly long, and I was thankful for that. And for all its issues, it’s still readable and fun as a mindless spacesuit commando novel.

Review: Reflexive Fire

Reflexive Fire

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Special Forces veteran Jack Murphy’s Reflexive Fire is a very strange kind of thriller. The low-level action is very well done, gritty and gory with almost the right amount of “semi-plausibility” and “exaggeration” (I learned about Murphy’s books from Peter Nealen’s posts on them, and could see the similarities in the action immediately). The high-level plot is this huge mega-stakes mix of ancient conspiracy theories, and to say it doesn’t fit the best with the low-level action is a huge understatement. It’s like a video game with ARMA’s mechanics but Metal Gear Solid’s plot. There are Blaine McCrackens that have less ridiculous plots and MacGuffins than this.

The pacing is very jumpy, with lots of viewpoint characters (it’s a rare instance of “just a name and nationality” Steel Panthers Characterization in a small-unit action book) and a very long “Herman Melville’s Guide To Building And Training Your Dream Army With The Help Of A Super-Conspiracy” section. There’s some hamfisted politics that don’t really add anything and are ruined by the presence of the super-conspiracy.

That being said, this was Murphy’s first novel in the series, and he demonstrated enough legitimate strengths for me to be forgiving of its many weaknesses. Plus, if I have to choose between a bland middling book that doesn’t stand out from the pack or a zigzagging, “really good in one way, bad in others, and quirky to boot” book that does, I’m choosing the latter instantly.

Review: Escalation

Escalation

 

Escalation by Peter Nealen is meant as a kind of spiritual successor to his American Praetorians series. It starts in a dystopian future world where everything bad in current society is made dozens of times worse, and every taken-for-granted part of the international order is going to crumble. I was reminded of an old classic alternate history timeline called “For All Time” , where in place of the postwar western world, we get…. something else.

I have mixed feelings on all this. On one hand, most of the time, like a lot of the best political commentary, the exaggerations are close enough to be genuinely chilling. On the other, that every single shoe drops stretches my credibility a little too far, and some of the pushing that does go too far stretches it even more. Still, compared to his axe-grinding contemporaries, Nealen is both more intelligent with the political commentary and  better at making it more important and relevant to the main plot.

Said main plot is a struggle to fight through a war-torn Slovakia. Nealen’s action is, as always from him, top-notch. The soldiers of the Triarii (the protagonist organization) face everything from tanks to ordinary enemy footsoldiers in well-written action that balances well between “just grounded enough” and “just spectacular enough”. The biggest problem is an insistence on a big-world, big-battle story told through a first-person viewpoint. This doesn’t really work as well, and it’s a credit to Nealen’s skill that it’s not an even bigger problem.

I still prefer the breezier, less political and lower-scale Brannigan’s Blackhearts books from Peter Nealen, but a lot of this is just preferring apples to oranges. It’s good that he’s willing to push the limits, and for all its faults, I enjoyed Escalation.