Life Imitates Art

The Kirov novel Eagle Rising, previously reviewed on Fuldapocalypse, has a wargamed out (mostly via the excellent The Operational Art of War) Russian all-out invasion of Ukraine in 2021 with largely realistic OOBs-that ends after a few weeks with the Russians grabbing a chunk of the country but falling short of their objectives and descending into a grinding stalemate. There are of course differences, often erring on the side of spectacle like a brigade-sized air assault into Dnipro at the beginning and, most bizarrely, a counteroffensive crossing the border to hit Belgorod.

It’s described in the book itself after the initial big battles as “All Tyrenkov [the time-traveling Russian leader] has done is buy himself a long war there, and for a lot of blood and steel.”

Like Hector Bywater’s The Great Pacific War, this was strangely prescient in many ways. Even in small details like Ukrainian light infantry succeeding with hit and run strikes. Of course, the background is vastly different, involving a time traveler from the past (Tyrenkov) going forward , seizing control of contemporary Russia, and mistaking a potential future victory for a certain one. But the nuts and bolts are a tribute to both the TOAW simulation and the power of well-designed wargames in general.

Review: Journey’s End

Journey’s End

Amazingly, surprisingly, the Kirov series has gotten a formal conclusion with Journey’s End. I’d predicted that there was no way for the series to end gracefully after 64 clunky volumes. And my prediction turned out to be accurate. A lot of this is de facto flashbacks to each ill-developed member of the crew. The final battle is just a wargamed clash like the hundreds before it. The hanging threats of Volkov and the aliens are dealt with hurriedly and contrivedly.

The conclusion is “a generally happy ending is stuffed in at the last second due to yet more time travel technobabble.” Schettler was clearly desperate to finish Kirov so he could write a fantasy novel series (which are no stranger to giant, bloated, sagas), and it shows. Still, that a 64 book epic with millions of words was completed at all is no small accomplishment.

Review: No Man’s Land

No Man’s Land

The 58th Kirov book, No Man’s Land takes the series to World War I. It has tanks and monsters, but not monstrous tanks. This installment isn’t quite as good as The Mission, and returns somewhat to the “excuse to show a bunch of battles” plot format. This isn’t unexpected from the series, but it is a little disappointing after seeing the previous one be a little more cohesive.

This is Kirov, for better or worse. It’s got all the weird elements and now it’s making them even weirder. This is not a bad thing. I still don’t think it’s really possible for the series to end gracefully by this point. It’s going to be some mushed-up variation of “destroy everything”, “reset everything”, and/or “just stop”. But I honestly don’t care.

Review: The Mission

The Mission

The 57th Kirov book, The Mission is a delightful change of pace. For a start, the absolute basics are changed. It’s less of a long, big, every-tank-and-every-missile wargame lets play like the past two seasons. This alone makes it preferable to the formula that was wearing out its welcome after sixteen previous installments.

The setting is also different. And by different, I mean “a lot more awesome”. There’s not only a change of scenery back to the Russian Civil War and airship fights, but the ridiculous goofy time manipulation and mystical elements come back with a vengeance. It reminds me of the later Payday 2 metaplot, and I say this as a total compliment.

This book was a lot of fun, the most I’ve had with Kirov in a while.

Review: Whirlwind

Whirlwind

The 56th book in the Kirov series and the conclusion of its third World War III arc is Whirlwind. By this point, the same issues present in any other installment are there. The prose is what it is, and the “time travel soap opera mixed with wargame AARs” is familiar as well. A large chunk of this book doesn’t even pretend to be a conventional narrative and just recaps the war in detail.

While this (supposedly) second-to-last arc in the series doesn’t just nuke everything and overwrite the timeline like its predecessor, it leaves an uncomfortable feeling. The talk about how weapons and doctrine in-universe evolved gave me the impression that Schettler would pull the football yet again and have yet another four-books-too-long wargame sim. Especially because the main ship plot does have a lot of genuine promise.

The concept of the titular ship’s crew going back in time to stop delightful supervillain Ivan Volkov from destroying the timeline is a great one, and I know very well that you could merge such a plot with wargame scenarios. But even my patience is wearing down with the formula. The circle could be squared if the ship and its crew got a good final conclusion while allowing the toy box lets plays to continue, but I’m not really confident in that happening.

Review: Breakout

Breakout

It’s kind of hard to take a look at individual entries in the Kirov series once its formula gets going, but if I had to choose one, I’d say Breakout. At the very least, it’s emblematic of the series. The Allies in this timeline have launched an amphibious invasion France from the south instead of from the north like they did historically. My fear when I first encountered the Kirov series was that it just would be stuff like that, or even more minor ones like “oh, well there were two Tiger battalions at ______ instead of the historical one?”

Instead, we get, in this book alone, timeshifted nuclear warheads, nuclear warheads developed with future technology by Volkov, airships, more airships, a timeshifted modern Bundeswehr brigade that inexplicably fights for the Axis because the author wanted to wargame it, and of course the adventures of the ship itself and its crew. There are reasons why, in spite of the pacing on display here, that I really enjoy this series. And Breakout has all of them.

Review: Zulu Hour

Zulu Hour

The second Kirov “Keyholders” spinoff, Zulu Hour takes a look at an alternate Battle of Isandlwana. Like the previous installment at Waterloo, this has an excuse plot that’s really forced and blatant even by Kirov standards. A pair of gambling time travelers use their time-keys to go back and try to change various historical battles for the sake of their rivalry. Don’t worry about the seemingly massive butterflies this would cause, because thanks to the mechanics of time travel, they can always “overwrite” it later.

Yeah, it’s that blatant. But this is the Kirov series, and using time travel to set up all kinds of alternate battles is the exact point of the series. Besides the battle itself and the time travelers trying to persuade Chelmsford and Cetshwayo, this also involves the Fairchild Group, another weird subplot in the series involving an oil heiress and her own personal Type 45 Destroyer. In past Kirovs, several people from that were timeshifted to… the Isandlwana site.

Once the fighting actually starts, what emerges may be one of the most legitimately good things Schettler has written. Maybe it’s just how a one-part spinoff simply has to be more concise than an eight-book series, or maybe it’s just the novelty. Yet it worked.

It could be a change of pace after seeing so many large-scope modern wargames. Or it could be that the late 19th Century is an area of warfare that I haven’t seen that much of, compared to the subject matter of the main series. Whatever it was, the action here felt and looked better than the norm for Kirov.

This long-foreshadowed book was a lot of fun. And the Kirov spinoff concept of just reenacting/changing historical battles via wargaming has a lot of possibilities. Those are taken advantage of here in an enjoyable book.

The Yearly Blog Year In Review Post

So 2020 happened. The worth of this blog in getting me through a lot of stress this year cannot be overstated. It’s been an amazing experience. What’s also been an amazing experience is seeing just how me becoming more broad-minded about fiction has manifested. What might have been exactly the sort of thing I would dismiss with a firebreathing sneer. Now I read and enjoyed it. I’ve been reading and reviewing far more alternate history than I had in the past as well.

I also feel comfortable with how I stopped the Creative Corner. That blog was becoming nothing but filler posts for the sake of a perceived obligation, and I found that once I made the conclusion post, it just felt right to concentrate entirely here.

There’s two book series I read this year that really stand out. The first is John Gilstrap’s Jonathan Grave series, which happened at the right time. I was having what I call the “D-Day Effect” where something big and covered you’ve previously dismissed becomes novel simply because you haven’t experienced it. This has happened to me and “grocery store books”, and this series was proof that some mainstream successes are deserved.

Of course, the second and much bigger series is Kirov. This is weird. Not just in its “three mediocre Final Countdown/Axis of Time knockoffs turning into a combination of wargame lets play and time travel soap opera” content, but in how I enjoy it without necessarily recommending it for others to read. But I enjoy it nonetheless, and love how I took so much to a series with a ton of jumping Steel Panthers Characters, wargaming lets plays, and World War IIIs (plural). Knowing that I embraced a series that, before the beginning of this blog, I would have done nothing but sneer at has warmed my heart.

However, there’s also been a bittersweet side to this blog, and that’s in seeing a lot the distant vistas close. Seeing the conventional World War III subgenre at its limits and piecing together what happened to the “Men’s Adventure” fiction that seemingly disappeared after 1990 can be fun, but it can also evoke a feeling of “that’s it”? Then there’s also seeing that some pieces of fiction are just easier and more interesting to actually review than others, even if they’re both equally fun to read. If the blog goes in the direction of those, so be it, but I feel obligated to bring that up. While I obviously haven’t completely dropped them, a “51%” thriller just isn’t as good to review or analyze as an ambitious, conceptually interesting work.

This brings me to the announcement. My answer to “what do you do if you’ve seen all there is of conventional World War III?” is “Write your own take on it.” So I’ve started writing my own supernatural/weird-tinged conventional 1980s World War III novel.

This concludes my 2020 posts on Fuldapocalypse.

Review: Jericho

Jericho

The 55th book in the Kirov series and most recent as of this post, Jericho is a victim of the series’ structure. In it, the third World War III in the series rages on, as wargame lets plays naval fighting rages off the coast of East Asia. There amphibious landings and tense reinforcement missions. There are also big naval battles where tons of offensive missiles are fired and tons of defensive missiles are fired.

The problem is there were six books in this arc before of big modern naval battles where tons of missiles are fired. And then there was an eight-book arc before this one with plenty of naval battles where tons of missiles were fired. You see the issue here?

Even with keeping the “huge set of wargame lets plays” structure, there’s a lot that could be trimmed. The novelty of a toy box with unique force structures is bound to wear off after several books of seeing that in action again and again. It happened in the previous arcs, and despite this (deliberately) being more out-there than the earlier World War III, by now I’m used to seeing the platforms, formations, and paper-thin Steel Panthers Characters crewing them. The actual simulations could still happen while not going into detail on the least important and/or dramatic of them. One can novelize a game without detailing every single encounter.

As for the central characters, well, they’re not very significant here. Part of this is just that the series is getting ready for the next big arc (insisted yet again to be the final one in the series), but there just aren’t that many words devoted to them in this novel. They’re just there to crew ships like the other to-be-erased cutouts.

This feels like a sports game late in the regular season where nothing is really at stake for either side and there’s no traditional rivalry to spice things up. Yes it’s sports/a Kirov book with wargame battles and jumping plotlines in it, but the feeling of being something greater just isn’t there. It’s understandable given the structure, but that doesn’t change the lackluster quality of the specific novel/game.