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.

Review: War To The Knife

The latest Brannigan’s Blackhearts novel is War To The Knife. This time Brannigan and his gang go on a romp through South America, in an adventure that Nealen admitted was inspired by the classic video game Jagged Alliance. As the ninth book in the series, it’s hard to get the feeling of awe-inspiring thrills that I got when I read the first and second books. But this is still a very solid entry in a very solid series.

One thing I’ve always liked about this series is how the Blackhearts enemies convincingly portrayed as having vastly different levels of skill and capabilities. The raw irregulars they fight in this book are nothing like the supermercs or a former Soviet army complete with AFVs they’ve encountered in the past. Yet they all come across as credible threats, whatever their qualities. This can be tough to do, but it works here.

If I had one small quibble, it’s actually for something I’ve previously pointed to as a strength of these books. The opening acts almost always feature the dirty business of getting a job, rallying the crew, and seeing their off-duty jobs that makes them more human and less action hero robot. Yet this time I felt it dragged on a little too much. I wouldn’t mind one installment where the “Team Yankee Model” of going straight to the action was used. Other than that, this is well worth a read.

Review: Enemy Of My Enemy

Enemy Of My Enemy

It’s been a long wait, but Peter Nealen’s Brannigan’s Blackhearts have finally returned in Enemy Of My Enemy, the latest installment in the series. The crew heads down into the Caucasus on a mission that’s dubious and ultra-risky even by their standards, and the result is a typically solid thriller. By now I know the structure used in the series, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing.

What’s interesting is that I’ve read this series so long that my tastes have shifted against its trends multiple times. When it was doing a giant multi-book arc, I’d gotten a little annoyed that it had abandoned light, easy standalone pieces. Now that it’s back to standalone books, I’ve gotten a little annoyed that it’s moved past big, ambitious arcs. But these are only small annoyances. They’re understandable and the works underneath are still excellent.

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.