Review: The Third World War, August 1985

The Third World War: August 1985

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John Hackett’s Third World War was, even more than Red Storm Rising, the book that started off the subgenre this blog was founded on. Thus I figured making it my first review of 2020 was an appropriate milestone.

This is incredibly hard to review. I was initially very dismissive of this book when I read it. And in an isolated “spherical cow” sense, I still feel that way.

Compared to Team Yankee, Red Army, Chieftains, and even RSR itself, it offers very little in terms of literary quality. It’s dated (there’s a reference to Abrams as “XM1s”, which is kind of like calling T-64s “Object 432s”). It’s a mixture of straight “pseudo-history” and clunky, sometimes dubiously written vignettes, all stuffed together awkardly. It has, with the Birmingham-Minsk “trade”, one of the worst examples of plotnukes ever. The whole thing is a political lobbying document in the shape of a novel.

And yet, this is perhaps the most context-affected book I’ve ever read. To someone like me who treated the Heavy OPFOR Tactical as casual reading and has seen many, many primary sources, it’s not novel in any way. To someone of that time period, especially someone who wasn’t an analyst, it definitely would be. The nature of this book makes its novelty even more essential than normal, due to its shortcomings.

Hackett’s Third World War has a few interesting scenes, like the chapter detailing how the general public saw the war. It deserves credit for being the first out of the gate. While I originally thought that it was a bad influence on later books of its type, a more thorough reading of the “big war thriller” subgrene reveals that it really wasn’t.

That being said, to a modern audience, it’s still really nothing more than an even more dated version of The War That Never Was, with all the baggage you might expect from it. It’s a very important historical piece and is worth a read for that alone, but it hasn’t aged well.

Review: The Second Voyage Of The Seventh Carrier

The Second Voyage Of The Seventh Carrier

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The Seventh Carrier series by Peter Albano continues in its next installment.

There, the plotline that takes up the rest of the series begins. As Japan and the rest of the world get to grips with the existence of the Yonaga and its aged but living crew, a haywire killer- satellite system launched by the Chinese begins immediately destroying anything with a jet or rocket engine. Then Kadafi (of all the spellings of the Libyan dictator’s name, Albano uses this one) buys up a bunch of WWII surplus equipment and launches a campaign against Israel. Suddenly a carrier with old propeller fighters is a valuable asset, and it sails into battle again.

Most of the issues with the first book remain. The characters are all national stereotypes, and now there’s more nations to stereotype. The premise is goofy and turns into an excuse to have another slugfest with World War II weapons (which include surface warships as well the carrier and aircraft).

In spite of this, the action is good, as long as one considers the kind of book that it is. Yet I felt a sinking feeling in me (pun partially intended) when I read it. See, this is the second book in an eleven book long series. I’m not sure I want to read that many of Albano’s adventures.

 

Review: Dragon’s Fury

Dragon’s Fury

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Jeff Head’s Dragon’s Fury is a very interesting book, and I mean this without any snark. Viewed in one light, it’s just a clunky 800-page self-published book with robotic prose, a “Heroic Eagleland vs. the Alliance Of Evil” (which somehow includes India) plot,  and a lot of axe-grinding, the kind that would seemingly be just forgettable.

But viewed in another light, it’s weirdly impressive how many technothriller cliches it has. They’re all there, even contradictory ones. Take something with…

  • The bloat and diversion into domestic politics for the sake of soapboxing of later Tom Clancy. (Although Dragon’s Fury’s politics make Executive Orders’ seem restrained, tasteful, and left-wing in comparison)
  • The sci-fi excesses of Dale Brown at his most out-there (there’s a battle in Dragon’s Fury featuring space battleships).
  • The “look out, it’s the MacGuffin superweapon” theme of many technothrillers, especially post-1991 ones.
  • Similarly, the “a thousand viewpoint characters and a million technical descriptions” style common to the genre.
  • The robotic “play by play” battle description of books like The War That Never Was.

All these come together into something worse than the sum of their parts. The bloating and tangling keep it from being a  breezy “51% book”, turning it instead into a total clunkfest. The sci-fi and superweapon components aren’t crazy-fun like Blaine McCracken taking one of his periodic trips into outer space, just out-of-place. The battles get uninteresting very fast, especially given the “show everything in every theater” aspect of it. The big, detailed descriptions don’t work in a setting that isn’t grounded.

If it had the same “political manifesto as told by an early, monotone text-to-speech device” prose but was half the length, and had only two or three of those technothriller staples instead of all five, I’d dismiss it as “forgettably bad.” However, by incorporating all of them, by somehow taking every military/technothriller plot device and using them so consistently poorly in a way that not even Patrick Robinson can manage, Dragon’s Fury manages to become something different. It manages to become unforgettably bad. That the book is an audacious, sweeping tale of a multi-year world war (in a time when many technothrillers were lowering their scope and/or stakes) just amplifies everything.

It’s not enjoyably bad. Even I had a hard time getting through this book. But it is indeed unforgettable in its ambition. It’s as if Florence Foster Jenkins tried not only singing but writing an epic Wagnerian opera accompanied by an unironic Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra. I’d put this book, alongside the previously mentioned Patrick Robinson novels, as an example of the depths the technothriller sunk to in the 2000s. Robinson’s works were the “conventional commercial publishing” side, and this is the “self-publishing” side.

Review: Lions of the Sky

Lions of the Sky

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The F/A-18 centric Lions of the Sky is naval aviator Paco Chierici’s first novel.

If I was to make a comparison, I’d say it’s like a modern version of Sweetwater Gunslinger 201 with a few more technothriller elements thrown in. Or, to use a less obscure pop culture reference, a modern version of Top Gun in print form with somewhat higher stakes.

I’m willing to forgive a lot of the roughness in a first novel, especially if I ultimately still found it enjoyable (which I did). Yet I feel obligated to point out that it is indeed there. The problem is that the sum of the parts seem like more than the whole. In particular, the entire “Spratly Islands Technothriller Plot” that winds in and out through the book is the least interesting part of it. What went through my mind as I read every section involving it was “it didn’t need to be like this. To set up the final action set piece, there doesn’t need to be a stakes-raising gimmick like what happens here.”

Beyond that, it doesn’t flow the best. There’s no real exact way to describe it and it’s clearly just the rough edges every first novel has, but the slightly clunky pacing is still apparent.

When the actual aircraft action scenes occur, they’re well written. Many of the on-the-ground relationship scenes are also well written. There’s definite talent here, and I hope, if/when Chierici completes any more books, he plays to his strengths and makes it a little more coherent in one direction or another. Lions of the Sky itself isn’t bad by any means, but it still feels like just a decent orange dish that has a few apple slices awkwardly stuffed in.

Review: Shadow Tyrants

Shadow Tyrants

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Deciding to try my luck with grocery store novels, I grabbed Shadow Tyrants, a “Clive Cussler’s” book written with Boyd Morrison. It was an Oregon Files novel, and it followed my rule of “go for the most out-there premise.” This had infighting amongst an ancient conspiracy, with only the Oregon and Juan Cabrillo able to stop them. What could go wrong?

The biggest problem is the prose. It’s not unread-ably bad, but still comes across as kind of simple and bland. Thus a premise that could have supported a delightfully goofy adventure ends up being hobbled and coming across as a 51% technothriller. (Although the super-conspiracy is still better and more capable than Casca’s Brotherhood ever was-those guys are the St. Louis Browns of super-conspiracies). There’s headline namedrops and clear “I know the name but not much else” descriptions of weapons systems.

There’s a lot of contrived deus ex machinas in close proximity to each other. I’d be more forgiving if the prose had cushioned it, but it instead amplified them. For instance, what could have been a excellent naval battle (the best use of the Oregon) ends up being just a disappointing clash of the technothriller gimmicks.

Worse, the “historical tie-in” seems even more forcefully shoved in. It’s not like the superweapons had an ancient component. It’s just that these ancient scrolls led to the super-conspiracy, and we get a shoved-in epilogue to remind us that Cussler books are supposed to feature grand adventures with historical artifacts, not just be middling technothrillers piggybacking on his reputation. Unfortunately, that ship sailed decades ago.

This is still a good enough “51% technothriller”, and it’s still more engaging and fun than just a rote “shoot the terrorist” thriller novel. But it, much like a lot of the other Oregon books, doesn’t live up to its potential.

Review: Advance To Contact

Advance To Contact

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In the early stages of Fuldapocalypse, I reviewed Andy Farman’s Stand To, a World War III tale. Or rather, a sleazy spy tale that became a World War III tale that involved everything I thought I’d be seeing en masse on Fuldapocalypse, and then some. Lots of descriptions. Lots of viewpoint characters. Lots of meticulously described battles.

Now I’m in one of those full circle moods. I still had the remaining books in the series left unread, so I decided to return to that mostly untapped World War III vein and read the second Armageddon’s Song book, Advance to Contact.

Farman has had decades of legitimate expertise as a soldier and police officer, and indeed the infantry fighting scenes in this book sometimes actually work. The key word here is “sometimes”. Often they blur together (since the characters are so forgettable and interchangeable). Often Farman fills it with infodumps on the exact levels of equipment and/or author lectures on whatever topic is technically relevant. Often the viewpoints are yanked away and yanked back. Often they’re overdescribed to the point where it loses its focus. Still, I should give legitimate credit where credit is due. There’s one scene with doomed Belarusian soldiers where he actually writes well, doesn’t get too infodumpy, and keeps the ‘camera’ focused on them instead of jumping a continent away after a few paragraphs.

Another instance of deserved credit is that the plotting and pacing is a little better than in Stand To. The war is underway, so the goofy spy plot is less prominent and the viewpoint jumping merely at the level of “exaggerated technothriller” rather than the wrenching shifts of Stand To.

That being said, it still has most of the problems mentioned over a year ago in the review of Stand To. The times when details are gotten wrong (given the ridiculous amount of description) are annoying. Farman doesn’t focus on where he’s most skilled and comfortable but instead gives giant air/sea battles. There are bizarre events like B-2s being used as tankers and Tu-160s as special forces insertion craft. The dialogue for anyone not in the military is frequently awkward. And the pacing is just glacially slow.

Still, like with the first book, I couldn’t feel mad about this and frequently felt amused. This is an earnest series by a first-time fiction writer. It’s just that what could have been at least a rival to Chieftains with some more focus turned into this clunked-together technothriller kitchen sink.

Snippet Reviews: October 2019

The Press Gang

Kenneth Bulmer (as “Adam Hardy”) wrote the Fox series of age-of-sail adventures in the 1970s. The Press Gang is marked as being the second in the series in the modern Kindle format, but it was the first actually printed (chronological vs. publication order?).

In any case, the tale of George Abercrombie Fox is not the best one to ride across the waves. Bulmer’s prose, which I recognized from the Dray Prescot books, isn’t the best, and the setup is this weird hybrid of cheap thriller and Herman Melville “this is what an age of sail ship is like”.

The Enigma Strain

Nick Thacker’s first book in the Harvey Bennett series of thrillers, The Enigma Strain is a solid thriller, if a 51% one. The book features the titular park ranger and a CDC scientist as they fight to stop a plot that involves an ancient, exotic disease and multiple nuclear bombs.

On one hand, it’s in the awkward uncanny valley that plagues a lot of cheap thrillers. It’s clearly too ridiculous to be realistic, but it’s not bombastic enough to be the gonzo silly thriller that it deserves to be. On the other, it’s still competent enough to be a passable, fun reading experience, and that’s what cheap thrillers are supposed to be.

Review: Deep Blue

Deep Blue

Reading Deep Blue, one of the later John Schettler Kirov books, brought a strange feeling to me.

Reading it, I encountered all of the issues with Homecoming, the previous book in the series I’ve read. And then some. The almost interchangeable battles are over-detailed and underwhelming to an extreme. The plotlines are clunky and shoved together. By all “normal” accounts, I should have been dismissive at best and disliking at worst. But I just wasn’t. As I read through tons of time-travel shenanigans, I felt a sense of “woah. Wow”, for lack of a better phrase.

It hit me when the ship time-warped from the current near-future World War III to another near-future World War III, only with different equipment and different sides. Everything just then clicked suddenly into place.

This is kind of like the later Survivalists-if Ahern had meticulously simmed every clash in Advanced Squad Leader or something like that and recorded the verbatim results in the books. And the time travel isn’t just a small throwaway part-it’s a a big central element, with a huge effort towards enabling this kitchen-sink wargaming. It’s like having a zombie sorceress start a Fuldapocalyptic World War III, and devoting a lot of effort to her, her rivals, and her powers as you move from 1985 to 1988 to 1981 to a 1986 with the YF-17 chosen as the light fighter and the British using a different divisional structure.

I still don’t recommend the actual books, unless you like lots and lots of barely disguised wargaming AARs. But if I had to choose a series with a lot of novelty and effort put into it or a series that just clunks along without any of those, I’m definitely picking the former. The sheer excess of the Kirov series makes it at least interesting.

Review: SEAL Team Seven Direct Action

SEAL Team Seven 4: Direct Action

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The SEAL Team Seven series, however much I enjoyed the first installment, is not the kind of series where reading every book in order is the most appropriate. So I decided on Direct Action for two main reasons. The first is that the summary seemed a little interesting. The second is that it’s the first book after original author William Keith was replaced by another writer under the “Keith Douglass” house name.

So, Lt. Blake Murdock (it’s not quite Blaine McCracken but it’s close) has to lead his SEALS into Lebanon to destroy a plant producing counterfeit American money, fighting Hezbollah and the Syrian Army in the process. The prose is a little clunkier and the action somewhat more extreme than the first book, but it’s still a good cheap thriller.

In fact, this book manages to have its cake and eat it too in a good way. It manages to have its SEALS scything their way through enemy fighters, soldiers, commandos, BMPS, and helicopters while at the same time throwing semi-plausible bits of “friction” in their path to make them earn their mission-and not without loss.

A part of me has “glass half empty” thoughts where I think “what if the big-name technothriller writers did a slightly higher-brow version of this instead of clunking along with an increasingly obsolete Cold War thriller model?” and lament what wasn’t. But another part of me has “glass half full” thoughts where I can just enjoy this well-done cheap thriller for what it is.

Review: War Breaks Out

War Breaks Out

When I got Martin Archer’s War Breaks Out, I was expecting a plodding Cold-War-Turned-Fuldapocalyptic-Hot story. The initial premise and the mediocre experience of the previous book I’d reviewed, Israel’s Next War, made me think that. Instead, I got one of the most crazy and just plain out-there examples of a World War III story I’ve ever read.

  • The timestream got scrambled. There are Eurofighter Typhoons and people who were injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but at the same time there’s a 1980s WWIII and everyone is using M60s and T-62s. Oh and Belgium has F-15s for some reason.
  • We’re introduced to the main character (who frequently appears in a weird form of first-person similar to that present in Israel’s Next War) immediately. He’s a one-star general who gets a quick promotion worthy of spacesuit commandos. The president decides he’s just that good, and needs a fighter, not those deskbound bureaucrats! (To be fair, this is officially the third in a series with the same main character, but still).
  • Said main character promptly comes up with a bunch of gimmicky tricks and special ops to turn the tide of the impending war against the USSR. These range from tricking Soviet AWACS with mass transponder changes to landing troops with ferries in the Baltic. Naturally, they all work.
  • The actual battle scenes themselves are the least amusing and most clunky and repetitive. Except for something I haven’t seen in a while-the attempted Soviet invasion of Iceland! It’s been a while, Ísland. I missed you!
  • The book ends with one of the most ridiculously blatant examples of “Foreshadowing” for the next installment in the series that I’ve seen. It’s not foreshadowing so much as building a city of giant neon signs indicating the plot point, then causing it to be lit up in a giant fireworks display that’s internationally televised, telling the plot point in a Super Bowl commercial, and then carving the plot point into the moon for good measure.

 

This was an experience. It’s probably as bad as “World War 1990” in terms of pure writing quality, but I had a lot more fun reading (and reviewing) it. I guess a better example would be an even more rough version of Ian Slater.