Review: Act of Justice

Act of Justice

Former SEAL Dick Couch’s Act of Justice is a thriller with one of the most distinct premises I’ve read. If it can even be called a thriller, for most of the book amounts to one strange plotline. When I saw the tagline of “alternate history”, I was intrigued. Though this book really tiptoes on the line between alternate and “secret history”, where there are divergences that didn’t change the results of history as we know it. Taking place in the War on Terror, this book offers an alternate/secret story for how the government managed to find Osama bin Laden. It starts with a Herman Melville-level description of the Abbotabad raid, and then goes… places.

First, Couch uses this as an opportunity to plug his previous books, taking the super secret special hired “Intervention Force” and making them central. While I haven’t read any of them, their inclusion and the references were still kind of glaring and gave the impression of “look at my Mary Sues”. Second, the bulk of the book is, well… it could be called “They Saved bin Laden’s Kidneys” for accuracy. The plan involves using superscience listening devices implanted in a set of fresh kidneys, making bin Laden more useful alive than dead. Most of the effort is devoted to the ways the operation is set up and finally conducted.

It’s fanciful, especially because all the parts of the plan fall into their lap. Thus while different, that’s really all that it is. But it still has the qualities of a 51% book, and I’ll gladly take a Dark Rose-style 51% book with a weird premise over a 51% book without one.

Review: Coup D’Etat

Coup D’Etat

Chris Nuttall’s Coup D’Etat is a book I knew I had to get when I saw the premise. A princess of a Middle Eastern country wrangles western mercenaries to overthrow it in a modern Dogs of War (explicitly cited as an influence, and obvious enough even without the citation)? Sounds good enough. The possibility of a thriller that can be more than just a small group of commandos? You betcha!

The premise is thus very good. The problem is that the execution is not. First, the main character comes across as an uncomfortable Mary Sue, and his opinions along with a more important portrayal cross the line from “hardened realist” to “creep”. But the bigger problem is the setting.

Taking place in a petrostate is a good, and arguably great setting. Having a fictional one so you don’t need to step on real toes and can make it to your needs is another good literary tool this book uses. The problem is that, well…

Say you had a fictional US state in the Old South for your story, and it was portrayed as being composed entirely of corrupt redneck bosses, uneducated and bigoted rural poor, Klansmen, and oppressed African-American sharecroppers who are used entirely as a mentioned prop to show how bad things are without actually being elaborated on. Replace that with the contemporary Middle Eastern equivalents and you have “Kabat”, the oil kingdom the novel takes place in. Compounding the worst true elements of an environment for the sake of fiction isn’t necessarily bad, but here it is. It takes away the stakes by making it look like an irredeemable and worse, dull wasteland. Pretty much any character who isn’t a power broker, trigger puller, or supervillain is used as nothing but a pop-up attraction in the freak show obstacle course.

Granted, you could reasonably argue that I’m overthinking the backdrop for an action thriller. Except this isn’t a very good action thriller. Not just because the prose is only decent at best, but because so much is devoted to the setup and exploring this dubious setting. So this book fails at being a suspense thriller and it fails at being an action thriller. It aims very high and falls very, very short.

Review: The Profession

The Profession

Steven Pressfield is known for his ancient fiction, but in The Profession he moved to contemporary (technically near-future) action. Or, rather, inaction. Because most of the action is in flashbacks and most of the book is just the main character moving around and monologuing about how wonderful and awesome these near-future supermercs are. It’s almost “A combination of Special Forces, Ranger, SEAL, and gutter-fighting” bad.

When I saw the book was written in first-person, I feared that it would be like some of Peter Nealen’s writing: Good but dragged down by an ill-suited format. Here, the book is so shallow that the format is basically beside the point. It’s like Angola running a man defense instead of a zone one (the textbook basketball strategy against individually better players) against the Dream Team. It still doesn’t matter. Even the basic prose is bad with its giant overdescriptive blocks.

The main character is a misogynistic ass of a Mary Sue intended to represent (and appeal to the fanboys of) the dubious Universal Warrior claim the author loves. The setting, well, anyone who knows anything even slightly deeper will have issues with it (for instance, even a casual scholar of Central Asia like myself could spot a lot of flaws with his description of Tajikistan). And the writing just feels so detached, inauthentic, and over-described.

Finally, I felt sort of insulted by the whole slobbering over the central man-on-a-horse, concluding with an “I admire its purity” plot twist. The track record of military strongmen is more like Thieu and Galtieri than Ike and Schwarzkopf. It doesn’t lead to martial virtue over civilian weakness, it leads to tunnel-vision paranoia.

Review: Blood Debt

Blood Debt

Peter Nealen’s Brannigan’s Blackhearts return with a bang in Blood Debt. When I saw the teaser and saw that the book took place in Kyrgyzstan, I was excited. Central Asia is an excellent and underused setting. Reading the actual book, and seeing the series return to its high-powered enemy heights made me even more excited. A lot of the time fiction works best when it’s audacious, and this is definitely that.

If anything, the action is somehow improved. I got a greater sense of a (very plausible and realistic) fog of war in the action scenes without it taking away from the cheap thriller spectacle. There’s this and there’s well, the main villainess (yes, villainess) having an Esperanto-derived name. What’s not to like?

Review: Drawing The Line

Drawing The Line

Peter Nealen’s Drawing The Line has been given out as a newsletter sign-up bonus. An American Praetorians story set on the southern American border, I wanted to see how it went. And it was what I basically expected it to be.

Now, the American Praetorians series as a whole is the least good of Nealen’s contemporary action. I say “least good” instead of “worst” because they’re still very good thrillers. It’s just two things get in their way. The first is the feeling of an author still finding his footing, which is less of a problem in this smaller, less ambitious work. The second is writing it in first person, which I don’t think is the best perspective for the genre.

Still, this is intended as a snack, and it’s a very good snack.

Review: High Desert Vengeance

High Desert Vengeance

The fifth Brannigan’s Blackhearts book, High Desert Vengeance has the feeling of a “breather book”. Not the action itself in the American Southwest, which is as good as always. But rather in the personal scope and comparably close-to-home and mundane opponents when compared to the settings of the ones that came before and after it. There’s a tiny bit of “Captain Beefheart Playing Normal Music” at work here.

But only a bit. This is still solid in all the ways that matter, and I think the different tone is actually welcome in this case. While I think the series has done better, I still quite recommend this. It does everything right that it needs to, and remains an entertaining thriller.

Review: Deception

Deception

Zach James’ Deception is a debut thriller by a debut author. While it has some roughness around the edges and is a little clunky plot-wise in terms of jumping around between times and places, it does enough right to make me forgive it. I’ll even forgive the description of “Hudson Bay” as being close to New York and not close to northern Canada.

Hopefully the announced and obviously set up sequel will improve the writing fundamentals. But this is still a good action read and a good enough cheap thriller. Welcome to the community of thriller writers, Zach James!

Review: Friendly Fire

Friendly Fire

After an uncomfortably sustained dip in quality, the Jonathan Grave series returns to form in Friendly Fire. While it has all of the contrivances and weaknesses of Gilstrap’s other fiction, it also has the strengths in the form of excellent action. And the latter is far more prominent. It’s a “shoot the terrorist” book, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing if the execution is good.

And it is indeed good here, with Gilstrap leveraging the structure of the series to write powerful set pieces. It’s always a nice thing when a series returns to form after a swoon, and this book is definitely an example of that. It reminds me of the first few Jonathan Grave books, and as an introduction to the series, it’s as good as any.

Review: The Bodyguard Manual

The Bodyguard Manual

For those wondering why I seem to be reviewing so much about bodyguards/security contraptions, the answer is a combination of general curiosity and writing research. The first needs no explanation. The second is because I have a character in my WIPs who’s both extremely wealthy and extremely paranoid (beyond the totally justified concerns someone of wealth would have about security). I wanted to look at the excesses to see what they looked like. And Leroy Thompson’s The Bodyguard Manual is nothing if not excessive.

I can forgive some sensationalism. After all, a genuine manual on executive protection would have to be as long and detailed as a military field manual-and about as exciting to read. This does go into detail on the basics and the tactical templates. But there’s an impression that Thompson is just getting past the boring, realistic, “if it comes to force at all, you’ve already catastrophically failed” details before he goes to the good stuff. And boy is it good.

The general theme of much of the book is that if you are a bodyguard, you will have near-unlimited resources, and you will need them, because the principal [client] is being threatened by a Predator and an entire clan of techno-ninjas. Thompson talks about helicopters, tons of agents there, and exotic weapons that I’ll get to in a bit. If I was to give him the benefit of the doubt, I’d say that his stated experience in protecting military officers means that he’s used to dealing with military-grade threats where you do have lots of assets but also face much more capable threats. However, I have a hunch that the target audience for this book isn’t really aspiring protection officers.

There was an obsession with submachine guns. The biggest red flag I saw was a constant positive reference to drum magazines. Not only do they have a justified reputation for being clunky and jam-prone (see how the Thompson and PPSH both phased them out), but they go completely against the (accurate) stated info that bodyguards should be as low profile as possible. My favorite weird superweapon is his recommendation that, if you can’t get a Barrett .50 caliber rifle or equivalent for legal reasons, an elephant gun should be used to deter vehicles from attacking the principal’s estate.

After reading this, I can see where the “these guys aren’t like the people in action movies-they’re better” annoyance I’ve read in countless cheap thrillers comes from. One of the gun sections is basically “a badass bodyguard with a submachine gun scything down the villains-in controlled single-digit shot bursts”. It’s the definition of having ones cake and eating it too.

Is this a book I would recommend if I or anyone I knew sincerely wanted to be a bodyguard? No, definitely not. But is this a very fun book that can be very inspiring for cheap thriller authors? You bet it is. I had a lot of entertainment reading this book, and the review is the most fun I’ve had writing one in a while.

Review: The Modern Bodyguard

The Modern Bodyguard

Peter Costerdine’s The Modern Bodyguard is an excellent research resource for realistic “executive protection”. Written in a typically sharp, slightly sneery British style, it delivers the blunt realities of the job, especially for civilians who lack both financial and legal resources compared to government personnel. For instance, it points out that private security, especially traveling private security, will almost always be unarmed for legal/political reasons (at least as of the time of writing).

It’s not perfect, and it says something about the type of genre that even Costerdine goes into tirades about various types of firearms. But its positives outweigh the negatives substantially. If you’re curious about realistic, limited-resource protection, I cannot recommend this book enough.