Review: Lethal Tribute

Lethal Tribute

A 2000s SuperBolan, Lethal Tribute tells the story of the Executioner as he fights a group of Hindu cultists with cloaking devices and their stolen nuclear weapons. By this point, Mack Bolan plots had long since devolved into “cheap thriller mad libs”. With the books being published at such a fast pace, it’s hard to imagine how they couldn’t have ended up that way.

That being said, this book is one of the better ones, by later Bolan standards-which may not be saying much. It still amounts to little but an overstuffed jumble of action scenes and very much feels (understandably) rushed. It still has the issue of its plot being so shallow (even by cheap thriller standards) that it needs filler. It still has the strange generic feeling that managed to last across different authors in the series. And it still manages to be both over-descriptive of weapons and sometimes inaccurate, listing two different calibers for the same helicopter gun on one page.

But the premise here is at least more out-there than just a plain “shoot the terrorist” novel. Some of the set pieces, from tank attacks to hallucinations, get crazier than usual, a silver lining of a weird “cheap thriller mad libs” result. The filler isn’t quite as obvious or clumsy as it’s been in some other Mack Bolans. Finally and most importantly, the Executioner himself is portrayed as a lot more vulnerable than he is in some other installments. The Gold Eagle Bolans are not what I’d recommend to action readers-they’re very smooth, disposable, mass-produced, measured and forgettable artificial thrillers from the Harlequin assembly line. But in comparison to some of the others, Lethal Tribute still looks just a little better.

Review: Phantom Force

Phantom Force

A Mack Bolan novel from 1991, Phantom Force is the sort of book that you’d kind of feel would come out of a rushed adventure assembly line. Written by Rich Rainey, it tells the story of the Executioner fighting an evil Japanese cult.

It’s a 51% book through and through. I was not surprised in the least to feel this, for it’s what I expected it to be. No doubt it would accomplish its purpose for the person seeking a small, safe literary diversion. It’s just that even in the context of the cheap thriller, this sort of thing can be done so much better. I inevitably thought of Jerry Ahern’s The Yakusa Tattoo when I read this, and that book’s gonzo excess compared to the rote box-checking of this one could not be more different. You can probably judge for yourself which one would be more memorable.

At this point in time, the pulpy, rapid-fire “men’s adventure” genre was imploding even faster and even more thoroughly than the technothriller. The biggest reason was simple economics-these kind of slim throwaway books were just too low margin in a market already starting to decline and consolidate. The second-biggest was that visual media was now quite able to provide violent, trashy entertainment in a much more suitable form. But a lack of quality cannot be overlooked.

I know this from personal experience. Even when younger and hungry for cheap thrillers, the output of the collapsing Gold Eagle line never appealed to me. I’ve read a few of them since then, but never to the degrees I’ve gone for other lines. And Phantom Force doesn’t seem that much different.

Of course, it’s another comment on the book’s value when writing about the context is more interesting to me than writing about the story itself.

Review: Death Run

Death Run

deathrrun

It was inevitable that my run of at-least “decent enough” later Mack Bolans would come to an end at some point.

The blurb was promising enough. To stop a nuke, Mack Bolan gets caught up in the world of motorcycle racing. It felt like the kind of zombie sorceress plot I enjoy, and I was wondering “So, how are these going to connect?” It reminded me of one of those missions in Grand Theft Auto games everyone hates where the boss-of-the-week forces you into this linear, nonsensical set-piece with dubious mechanics where a more direct approach is seemingly better. Something like:

“Ok, Claude/Tommy/CJ/Niko/Michael/Franklin/Trevor, the nuke is in a shack with only three guards. Last mission you killed thirty armed people, but you can’t just grab your minigun and storm the shack. No, you first have to win a motorcycle race against computer opponents who do everything but throw blue shells at you. What, that’s unfair? Well, we could have put trains in! Be lucky we didn’t do that!”

The actual book is not nearly as amusing as that hypothetical thought. The motorcycle racing plot is mostly just A: A way to set up the various Macguffins, and B: A way for the author to talk about motorcycles and motocross. Cue some of the most generic, third-rate action possible to defeat some of the most generic “evil terrorists” possible, and conclude with one of the most stereotypical “defuse the bomb” scenes.

It’s kind of a little hard to even criticize because of how shallow and generic it seems. But yeah, in short it’s shallow, generic, and the motorcycle racing plot isn’t taken advantage of in an amusing way.

 

Review: Terror Descending

Terror Descending

terrordescending

When I browsed the Stony Man Executioner spinoffs on mackbolan.com , I followed one of my personal rules-when in doubt, go for the most ridiculous. Upon seeing the ridiculous commentary about Terror Descending, I went “go for it” and got it.

A 1960s relic left-wing terror group is using B-52s disguised as 707s to hit targets around the world with the aid of Cray supercomputer-launched cyberwarfare, and the Stony Man Farm team must stop them. This zombie sorceress-licious premise made me get the book. One reviewer compared it to a Mack Maloney book-this especially made me want to get it.

Terror Descending has the problem of “going into big technical detail and getting it wrong” with a vengeance. “F-17 Eagles”, F-22s staging from aircraft carriers, B-52s being “common” with thousands built, B-52s being disguisable as 707s, “Chinese-made Stingers”, and “MiG-8” fighters. And that’s without the “interesting” aircraft procurement this world has made (Austria uses F-14s). Oh, and despite the book being released in 2009, “Yugoslavia” still exists. This would have been more of a problem if I had the slightest expectation of genuine realism out of this book. Fortunately, I did not. The Mack Maloney comparison is very apt indeed.

Terror Descending, like the previous Gold Eagle Bolan Season of Slaughter, is rather overstuffed. There’s everything from skinhead gangs to airstrikes to a dogfight over Chad to every single flashpoint in the world from the Aegean to the Korean DMZ flaring up to South American prisons. And that’s just the villains. Having to use both Able Team and Phoenix Force as the heroes doesn’t help matters. While workable, the action isn’t good enough to really compensate for all of these flaws.

Still, I’d rather have “fun/crazy bad” than “dull bad”, and Terror Descending is definitely the former.

Review: Dying Art

Dying Art

I decided to read and review Dying Art, the very latest (as of this post) Mack Bolan novel. The Gold Eagle line used to be for action what the rest of Harlequin was for romance. Now after the December 2015 closure, it’s reduced to a Mack Bolan every few months.

So how does the absolute latest Executioner stack up?

Who and What

There’s a plot featuring Mexican cartel leaders, art thieves, mercenaries, and contractors making a super-railgun. Despite less action, it feels better paced than Season of Slaughter (written by a different author) was and considerably less “overstuffed”. But it also feels less exciting.

The characters are archetypes that were old when the original Pendleton Executioners were young. But there’s no attempt at fun exaggeration. They’re just not the most interesting people. And this version of Mack Bolan himself is one of them.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

It’s less infodumpy than Season of Slaughter, which actually reinforces the “IKEA Thriller” feeling. It’s because everything is played very safe overall.

Zombie Sorceresses

Even the zombie sorceresses are in a lethargic mood in this book, putting everything into place but not going an inch beyond it. The way it’s set up has all the drawbacks of something over-the-top (How many low-level down and dirty crime thrillers have super-railguns in them?) without the advantages (the actual action and villains are bland and pedestrian).

Tank Booms

The action also has the same “generic” problem that plagues the rest of the book. It’s still action-movieish, but it’s not as wild and over-the-top or crazy (or even just as good) as others in its genre. Mack Bolan still fights a lot of people and ultimately uses the super-railgun for good rather than ill.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This works as the kind of throwaway reading it was meant to be. Dying Art is readable and smooth-flowing, and what it does have is good enough. But it feels even more “check the boxes on the assembly line”-y than many past Bolans and has neither has the talent nor the outlandishness to stand out from the very, very large pack.

Review: Season of Slaughter

Season of Slaughter

It’s time to fast forward several decades from the debut of Mack Bolan. Now he’s the well-established king of the adventure novel with many spinoffs and many, many more novels to his name. A more recent Bolan, 2005’s Season of Slaughter, is the subject of this review.

Who and What

Bad guys do something very bad at the beginning. Mack Bolan and company move to stop them from doing more bad things. Simple cheap thriller plot, simple cheap thriller characters. Although I have to say there are a lot of characters here, contributing to the “overstuffed” feeling of the book. I have a slight hunch that some may have been there to let a casual reader notice that the spinoffs existed.

The prose unsurprisingly feels like an action movie in words. Characters firing Desert Eagles and skidding safely away from mammoth fireballs.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

There are the usual gun infodumps, and a very, very detailed infodump about a super-helicopter used by the protagonists. Only a few of these infodumps go to ‘waste’ in that they’re totally irrelevant, but many of them are gratuitous. Of course, this entire book is gratuitous.

Zombie Sorceresses

Apart from the action novel contrivances, the choice of villains is less zombie-sorceress than you might think in one way. It’s an alliance between Islamist terrorists and white supremacist terrorists. This is handled with a surprising amount of deftness-it’s treated only as a teeth gritted alliance of convenience against someone they both hate and nothing more.

Of course, they’re coordinated by a cartoon anarchist group and backed by supermercs, so the zombie sorceresses reassert themselves there.

Tank Booms

The “overstuffed” nature of the book is nowhere more apparent than in the action. There’s a lot of action scenes shoved together into this fairly small book, from fistfights to helicopter dogfights. The action can still be blurred and clunky at times, but one advantage of the many characters is that it allows for diverse fights.

And to be fair, this kind of book is the kind where you expect lots of action. I’d rather have too much action in a cheap thriller like this than too little.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is an assembly-line book, and it shows. But it works as an assembly-line cheap thriller. The first Mack Bolan was a late 1960s cheap thriller, while this is a 2000s cheap thriller. This has explosions and Mack Bolan action, and that’s what’s asked of this kind of story.

 

Review: War Against The Mafia

War Against The Mafia

I figured I’d go straight to the source. Don Pendleton’s War Against The Mafia is what kicked off the Mack Bolan series. This spawned hundreds and hundreds of books-by one rough calc, a Mack Bolan novel of some form or another has released every thirty days. And this isn’t even counting the even more numerous knockoffs throughout the decades, including a certain Marvel Comics character who likes wearing shirts with skulls on them.

The modern cheap thriller as we know it owes its origins, or at least its popularity, in no small part to Pendleton’s tale. So I knew I had to check it out.

Who and What

This tells the story of super-veteran Mack Bolan as he wages the conflict depicted in the title. Reading this, I feared that this would fall victim to the “seen so many imitators that the original doesn’t seem so original” effect. And in some ways it came to pass and in some it didn’t.

The stock two-dimensional cheap thriller characters I recognized instantly. This is definitely not a series that started highbrow and was cheapened by the mass market. But the prose was different, and not necessarily for the better. It feels kind of clunky, and it’s the style I’ve recognized from other books written in the 1960s.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

There aren’t that many extraneous infodumps here compared to a lot of later cheap thrillers. Especially not infodumps about weapons-for the most part it’s the caliber, the brand name, and not much else. At most.

There’s still plenty of infodumps, and they serve as part of the hindering style of writing mentioned above, but a lot of them are at least germane to the plot. I think the worst explanation came from telling and not showing Bolan’s exploits in Vietnam.

Zombie Sorceresses

Whatever contrivances are needed to make an action hero occur here. Bolan in this book isn’t the absolute strongest or most capable compared with some later heroes-he feels more human and vulnerable than The Survivalist’s John Rourke, for instance-but he’s still very much a larger than life figure.

While the blurbs alone make it clear that the zombie sorceresses are a lot busier in later Bolan books (let me put it this way, you can only fight mobsters so many times), they can take it easier in his debut.

Tank Booms

The action is not bad, and there is lots of it. But the writing style just makes it not feel as action-y as it could have been.

The Only Score That Really Matters

War Against The Mafia is worth reading if only for its influence. But it feels more like something that was just in the right place at the right time than something that could stand on its own terms. It would probably just be a middle of the road action adventure thriller like so many of its follow-ons undoubtedly were.

Still, I enjoyed reading it. It’s not a bad book by the standards of its genre, as clunky as its prose could be in places. I’m undoubtedly biased by having read so many adventure thrillers that were at least indirectly influenced by it.