Review: Eagle Rising

Eagle Rising

The Kirov series, of which Eagle Rising is the 47th (!) installment, is strange. If I’d read it three years ago, I’d probably have unfairly denounced it as the worst series of all time. In my more recent reviews, I’d sort of wavered from criticizing the individual books to admiring the ridiculous (in a good way!) plot and premise of the setting.

Now I have this weird feeling that’s settled. I unironically love the craziness and excess that the series gets into, while remaining just as critical of the many flaws of the individual books. I’ll take this flawed excess standout over a hundred “51% books” any day.

That being said, this book itself has essentially two set pieces spread out of over many pages and takes place in an entire arc with a forgone conclusion stated as early as the first book in the series. Whatever the author’s intention, the impression I got of this arc, with this particular WWIII having long since been established as ending in a nuclear fireball (hence the time travel and changing it in the first place…), was that it served mainly to show off wargaming set pieces.

The set pieces are a big Russo-NATO showdown in Eastern Europe and the shenanigans of the ship and its crew. The former is a strangely intriguing example of what happens when you rely on wargame simulations to an incredible and unprecedented degree. Besides the obvious issues with such a stilted de facto let’s play, there’s also problems when the simulations produce an undramatic (however realistic) result and there’s not much “cushion” of characterization or low-level danger to balance them. Another issue is that this particular conflict setup is not exactly undergamed.

The latter, a far more out there plot, involves the use of a time travel MacGuffin and some of the crew going onto an island and fighting a pack of wolves (it’s a bit of a long story). It also involves long scenes of clunky dialogue, which is less fun.

In a way, this book, with time travel shenanigans and wargame AARs, is its own series in a nutshell. Is this a good or bad thing? Well, it depends on what you want and/or like.

Review: The Hunt For Red October

The Hunt For Red October

This is it. The book that started it all. The book that turned Tom Clancy into a juggernaut. It’s time to review The Hunt For Red October. How is it? In short, it’s well-ok?

What I can say about this tale of a loose super-submarine is that it doesn’t really pass the “if this had been published a year or two later by a different author, would it still be as popular as it was?” test. Many works of fiction are so good on their own terms that they’d succeed in that goal. This isn’t. If it had been written by someone else later on, it’d probably be barely remembered as a middle-of-the-road technothriller.

The novel itself isn’t bad by any standards, but it still has all of the issues that would drag Tom Clancy down later on. It’s just those are in a smaller and more manageable form. There’s some bloat, but it’s manageable here. There’s a few too many subplots, but they’re manageable here. There’s the bias, but it’s manageable here. You get the idea. It’s easy to see why it could be a success in its time, but with hindsight, and with me having read other technothrillers before it, I don’t find it that impressive.

It’s also a little dated. Some of it is technical issues that are understandable and minor (for instance, a western author could be forgiven for getting the type of reactor in an Alfa-class wrong). But some of it is the general “wow” factor, again that would have made them a lot more impressive to someone at the time than to a post-Gulf War reader for whom advanced military technology is familiar. This is of course an issue with all of his books and with technothrillers in general. However, it is not an issue with the lavishly-produced, well-filmed movie.

I would say that, like Red Storm Rising, The Hunt For Red October is more of a historical book than an enduring technothriller that can really stand on its own. However, Red October comes across slightly worse in that regard due to being in a bigger niche. While also smaller than I originally thought, the number of technothrillers is still considerably larger than the number of conventional World War III novels.

Review: Kirov

Kirov

Having started later in John Schettler’s massive series, it’s taken me quite a while to actually pick up the original book. I had very low expectations and somehow managed to still be disappointed by Kirov. This might seem strange, but it makes sense.

The book stars a “Frankenstein-Kirov” assembled from the rest of the class on a live fire exercise during a period of heightened tension before it’s timeshifted back to World War II. I’d heard this book was a tinny Final Countdown/Axis of Time knockoff. I suspected this book would be a tinny Final Countdown/Axis of Time knockoff. I was right.

So why the extra disappointment? Well, the structural issues from later in the series I saw were there from the start. The descriptions are over-detailed, the action scenes are too precisely described, and the dialogue is still extremely clunky. Worse, it’s more concentrated, for lack of a better word, instead of being incredibly spread out. The plot has the main characters acting in ways intended to set up battles in a forced way.

Finally, though the timeshifting, feuding and cosmic changes are there from the start, the main scenario of “modern ship fights a 1940s fleet” just isn’t as interesting as the the places the later books go. So even knowing what I was getting into, I found the first Kirov book to be a letdown.

Review: The Kamikaze Legacy

The Kamikaze Legacy

A sequel to The Yakusa Tattoo, The Kamikaze Legacy continues to follow hardboiled Ed Mulvaney as he moves to foil another international plot in a stereotypical Japan, this one concerning a deep-sea expedition with sinister motives. This is less the “crazy Jerry Ahern novel mixed with technothriller” of its predecessor and more “crazy Jerry Ahern novel mixed with Clive Cussler-esque technology/ secret history thriller.”

While it still has the strengths and weaknesses of The Yakusa Tattoo (strengths: good ridiculous action and an even more ridiculous plot-weaknesses: blocky prose and a million weapon descriptions), I found that this has a MacGuffin that by all means should belong in a boring “shoot the terrorist” novel, but ends up being just as crazy as the rest of the book. This emphasizes that, especially for cheap thrillers, execution is more important than concepts by far. As for what it is, it shouldn’t be too hard to guess.

This is a very stupid-fun Jerry Ahern book. It’s the kind of book where the mountains of technical inaccuracy and implausibility actually add to the appeal of it all. While it’s not quite as bizarre as its predecessor, it’s still a very fun cheap thriller.

Review: HMS Ulysses

HMS Ulysses

A rightful classic, HMS Ulysses is, in my opinion, the greatest naval action novel of all time. Author Alistair MacLean, a veteran of the Royal Navy in World War II, could draw on a lot of personal experience, and it shows in this masterpiece. People who know their naval history can look at the obvious parallels between the actions of the book and the ill-fated Convoy PQ-17 (which MacLean served on), but that doesn’t change its effectiveness.

The way MacLean sets a tone is hard to describe, but he succeeds brilliantly. The travails of the convoy, in no small part thanks to the PQ-17 historical experience, are both dramatic and plausible-seeming. The feat of squaring the circle cannot be applauded enough. Historical military fiction, at least to me, has had the issue of “it’s going to be either realistically dull and un-dramatic, in which case I’ll read a history book that makes no pretense at narrative, or it’s going to be exaggerated, in which case I’ll read a cheap thriller that doesn’t have to be bound to an existing war.”

This avoids both of them by throwing one (plausible) German threat after another at the convoy and emphasizing the wear and tear the climate and stress imposes on the sailors. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Review: Operation Sea Lion

Operation Sea Lion

The most infamous invasion that never was, Operation Sea Lion holds a special place in the annals of alternate history. Richard Cox’s book takes a 1974 wargame of it at Sandhurst and turns it into a Hackett-esque big picture tale. This can be described as a World War II version of The War That Never Was, taking simple wargame results and giving them a tiny fig leaf of “plot” via various vignettes.

Not surprisingly to anyone knowledgeable about alternate history, the wargame, despite deliberately going easy on the first wave (to have a substantive ground element at all) ends with the Royal Navy cutting the lines and the Germans defeated. It’s not Cox’s fault, but something with the outcome never in doubt is hard to make exciting for someone who knows the context.

That being said, this remains an amusing little historical alternate history footnote. It’s aimed at a popular audience who wouldn’t necessarily know the context, and is at least more literary than a rote after action report of the wargame itself would have been.

 

Review: Assault of the Super Carrier

Assault of the Super Carrier

supercarrierfinale

Peter Albano’s Seventh Carrier series comes to an ignominious end in Assault of the Super Carrier. The action has gotten incredibly repetitive, the worldbuilding feels like even more of a toy box, the novelty has worn off for a long time, the characters are horrifically stereotypical, and the base writing just isn’t good enough for eleven books.

There’s two things that make this last entry especially disappointing. The first is the “girl of the book” subplot becoming its sleaziest, most useless, and most distracting yet. The second is that there really isn’t an ending. There’s a battle that feels like every other battle in the series, a victory that should have been an arc-level one at best, and then the novel-and the whole series- just ends quickly.

What I’ve found after searching out books with novel setups is that they alone can’t carry a series. And this is the best example. Take away the goofy “carrier thaws out, jet/rocket engines get insta-zapped” setup, and all you’d have is something like Ian Slater, only with (even?) worse writing and a fixation on World War II military equipment. And like Slater, that’s not enough to sustain a huge amount of books by itself. Maybe the Seventh Carrier saga could have worked with three books. It couldn’t with this many.

Review: Super Carrier

Super Carrier

supercarrier

Peter Albano’s “epic” series about a thawed-out Shinano fighting in a world where the clock is turned back lasted for eleven books. With me not considering the first two of be of the highest quality, and hearing that they got very repetitive, I jumped to the second-to-last installment, Super Carrier.

And I probably didn’t jump far ahead enough, for the tenth book is very much like the second, only worse. A gigantic chunk at the beginning is devoted to a overly long mission in a B-24. A smaller but still horrendous portion consists of a tank battle that is not exactly the equal of Team Yankee or Tin Soldiers. Then there’s the “romances” and the girlfriends getting killed horribly for “poignancy”. Neither is written well.

The retro dogfighting also appears clunkier than I remembered it being in the first two books, and the list of horribly written national stereotypes grows even larger. This book is only recommended to people who really liked the past Seventh Carrier entries.

A Thousand Words: The Hunt For Red October

A Thousand Words: The Hunt For Red October

Probably my first exposure to technothrillers came on the screen, when I watched The Hunt For Red October long ago. The movie is both a classic and, in my controversial opinion, better than the book.

Yes, I said it. The movie distills the essence of the book into one brief tour de force. The main plot is simple enough to distill into screen form without most of the clunkiness that Clancy had even back at the beginning. Yes, there’s more “Hollywood-ism”, but there’s also less of Clancy’s bias.

Technothrillers in general are hard to adapt to the screen because they require a big budget to be effective. In this case, the filmmakers got the budget, got the actors (Sean Connery’s accent notwithstanding), and knew how to separate the wheat from the chaff. The result is one of the best film adaptations of all time.

Review: Covert Action

Covert Action

Chet Cunningham’s Covert Action was one of his last books released, out on a small independent press. While I didn’t think too much of it upon my initial readthrough, now I think it clarifies something that’s been bothering me.

Having read some of Cunningham’s SEAL Team Seven novels, the book itself is basically one of those. The names are obviously changed, but the plot structure of hyperactive zipping around the world and constant action remains unmistakable to someone who’s read the “Keith Douglass” books helmed by him. The problem is that thanks to even iffier fundamentals and considerably worse proofreading, it goes from “ok” to “bad.” The book itself I’d just leave and not really recommend.

But what was the “a-ha” moment for me was how this affected reviewing. This is an example of how some cheap thrillers can feel interchangeable-because in some cases they are. There’s this. There’s the same author doing most of the work on both the MIA Hunter and Cody’s Army series. And finally, in one of the most extreme examples, the “Sharpshooter” and “Marksman” series of ‘shoot the mobster’ novels in the 1970s shared so much and were so rushed that manuscripts from the latter were used for the former, to the point where the main character’s name didn’t stay consistent.

There’s going to be a lot of overlap in a genre that’s formulaic by nature. And not all, or even most of the books I read reach this extreme. But there’s an undeniably sour feeling I’ve been getting as I reach for the keyboard.

The kind of “51% book” that Marine Force One still stands as the best example of can still be perfectly fun to read. But I’m finding, much like I’ve found with books in the same series, that repeated examples of those are getting harder and harder to actually review.