Review: Agile Retrieval

Agile Retrieval

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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: The Death Merchant

The Death Merchant

Joseph Rosenberger’s Death Merchant is one of the most notorious men’s adventure series of all time. Its reputation is such that I had to check it out, starting with the first volume.

The adventures of psychotic super-assassin Richard Camellion start off on a mixed note. Like the Destroyer series, the Death Merchant (for understandable business reasons) had to start off with a conventional “shoot the mobster” plot that has little in common with the crazed excesses the later books reached.

That being said, Rosenberger’s writing er, “eccentricities” are definitely on display en masse here. Long and weird descriptions of gore, over-detailed action scenes, and more, including an erratic prose style with lots of exclamation points, “grace” the pages of the book as Camellion slaughters his way through.

Rather than sink into the middle of the pack, the initial Death Merchant at least stands out due to its writing style. Whether or not it’s in a good or bad way depends on your tastes.

Review: Enemy Unidentified

Enemy Unidentified

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The third book in the Brannigan’s Blackhearts series, Enemy Unidentified takes it in a different direction. See, there’s a (then) unidentified group that has carried out one of the bloodiest terror attacks ever, and the right people to take out the perpetrators on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico are- John Brannigan and company. How surprising!

Now the book itself is typical action-adventure. I could sum up the basic plot with one sentence as always, that sentence being “The Blackhearts storm an oil rig.” But it’s very well done, and contains one of the best cliffhangers I’ve read. Yet this falls into the problem of stuff like this being hard to describe, even in good terms. What I find more interesting is the direction the series took, and how I felt about it.

Starting here, the books became somewhat more serialized. When I first read them, my feeling was disappointment, especially after the high of Burmese Crossfire. Now, especially having actually written an action-adventure book, I feel differently. The concept of a big-picture series has grown on me. If it can keep the author motivated, it makes the stories better than just somewhat interchangeable “51%” potboilers.

Review: Balkan Mercenary

Balkan Mercenary

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Although not the latest Casca book, Balkan Mercenary is the most recent chronologically, occurring in the beginning of the Yugoslav Wars. It’s the first book in the series I’ve reviewed that’s written by Tony Roberts, who’s the current official author of the Casca franchise.

So, I have get this out of the way first. If this had no connection to Casca at all and was just the story of a man and his team of mercs going into the Yugoslav Wars to take down a war criminal and avenge the death of his loved one, it would be a modestly decent “51% book”. There are far better books than something in the same league as Marine Force One, but there also worse ones (which is why, in spite of my complaints, I still read the Casca books).

But this is the 44th installment in a long series that I think just doesn’t work as well in more modern times as it does in the distant past. It’s even mentioned in the book itself that Casca’s aliases are getting easier to track, so I can understand why Roberts seems keener to keep Casca a historical character.

Here, every reminder that this middling action-adventure tale featured a millennia-old immortal felt blatantly shoved in. A piece on how he remembered medieval Serbia. A piece on his blood being poisonous (this was present in the early books). And a tie-in with designated recurring enemies the Brotherhood of the Lamb, who feel especially forced. Balkan Mercenary, like many other Cascas, just plods to the middle, not daring to  try and take the extraordinary premise any farther than 51% of the way.

 

Review: Kill Or Capture

Kill Or Capture

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Understandably pushed back because of the Maelstorm Rising series, Peter Nealen’s Brannigan’s Blackhearts continues with the just-released Kill Or Capture. It was well worth the wait.

Everything in this book reminded me of how great a cheap thriller this series is. Not just because the actual action is well-done (it certainly is) but because of all the touches that help it become more than the sum of its parts. There’s the opening where the protagonists are called back from their normal, everyday lives and families-something that distinguishes them from the Gold Eagle action automatons. There’s the super-conspiracy being both capable enough to pose a challenge worthy of a super-conspiracy and human enough to be fallible.

Of course, the actual plot is just a set-up for much action. I can sum it up in one sentence: The protagonists storm a fortified villa in northern Argentina. But the action is continuous, well-written, and solidly executed. The mountain terrain feels vivid and effective. The threats are varied. This is an excellent cheap thriller and worthy continuation of one of my favorite series.

Review: Gray Matter Splatter

Gray Matter Splatter

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The path to opening Gray Matter Splatter was a little offbeat. I thought Jack Murphy’s debut in the Deckard series, Reflexive Fire, was wildly uneven, the kind of book that’s “Mean 51%” instead of the consistently middling “Mode 51%”. I also, similar to my experience with spacesuit commandos last winter, was getting a little worn on middling action books after reading so many of them.

So I figured, having heard that this was the craziest out of the four Deckard books, that this book with a great title was worth a shot to leap out. And so I leapfrogged over the other two and headed straight for the fourth. It was a good decision.

Now this book still has many of the problems that plagued Reflexive Fire-the political soapboxing that got in the way of the plot, the not-unusual but still irritating long descriptions of weapons, the jumpy perspectives, and the less-than-developed characters. But it’s improved to a considerable degree with the fundamentals, and the mega-conspiracy behind everything is at least tamer than the mega-conspiracy in Reflexive Fire. So there’s a little less dissonance there.

But in terms of what matters, the action is excellent and challenging as Deckard and his mercs fight their way across the entire Arctic Circle. While the sustained action may be a little more implausible than the low-level action in Reflexive Fire, I’m certainly not complaining in that sense.

This is still a cheap thriller for all its pretensions. But it’s a good cheap thriller.

Review: A Talent For Revenge

A Talent For Revenge

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I think I may have found it. The apex. The apogee. The peak. The high point, the distillation of everything that “men’s adventure” fiction contained, all packed into A Talent For Revenge, the premier book in the “Specialist” series by “John Cutter” (a pen name of John Shirley).

The book stars supermerc Jack Sullivan as he’s hired by an heiress to kill an exiled African dictator. (Yes, the plot can be summed up in one sentence. This is men’s adventure). The men’s adventure-ness of this can be summed up by how the book blends more or less every single trend that these throwaway pulps put together.

  • 70s men’s adventure was notorious for sexual sleaze. Guess what this book has lots of?
  • 80s men’s adventure was notorious for ridiculously long descriptions of weapons. Guess what this book has lots of?
  • 70s men’s adventure frequently let its heroes get banged up. This happens to Sullivan, but….
  • 80s men’s adventure frequently turned its heroes into unstoppable fleshy Terminators. Sullivan also definitely qualifies as one.
  • Then there’s the constants, like a ridiculous amount of gore and a total lack of tastefulness.

By the late 80s, the genre had (with the obvious exceptions) begun to harden around the “80s, no sex, lots and lots of gun descriptions” style. The 90s commercially devastated it to such a degree that technothrillers looked untouched in comparison. When I came of age, “men’s adventure” in its purest form was down to cheap-looking Gold Eagles with awkward covers.

So I have a strange appreciation for this spectacle. If I had to show someone one book that would sum up “men’s adventure”, it would be this one.