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: Ice and Monsters

Ice and Monsters

When I saw that Peter Nealen was doing an entry in the same “Wargate” military isekai series as Forgotten Ruin, I knew I had to instantly get it. So I did instantly get Ice and Monsters. It has the same basic concept as Forgotten Ruin, only the deliberate expedition gives way to an inadvertent gate transport, as recon marines on an exercise near Norway find themselves in a Norse-themed horror fantasy world. It also has the same basic strengths-and weaknesses.

The strengths are that the action is good and the modern forces weaknesses and vulnerabilities are emphasized instead of their capabilities and advantages. The weaknesses involve not taking advantage of the potential for worldbuilding in favor of just an artificial swarm of trash mobs. What’s grated upon me after seeing it the second time is the nominal commander being a cross between a Gorman-style out-of-his-depth boss and a “we need to talk things out” nebbish. As the narrator even admits, you should have to see what local ties you can forge when severely outnumbered.

But nope, the captain is clearly duped by the Evil Magic Viking one-dimensional savages from the get-go, and all hints of moral ambiguity are tossed aside once the protagonists find a set of imprisoned “good guys”. How convenient! Yes, it’s a cheap thriller in what’s openly stated as an Adventure Friendly World. But a little more worldbuilding would go a long way.

Also there’s a personal stylistic nitpick, which is that Nealen clearly is comfortable writing in first person when I prefer his third person thrillers. But I kind of expected that. This is a decent cheap thriller but it still could have been better with just a bit more thought and finesse.

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: 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: Enemy Unidentified

Enemy Unidentified

enemyunidentifiedcover

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: Kill Or Capture

Kill Or Capture

brannigancover

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: Escalation

Escalation

 

Escalation by Peter Nealen is meant as a kind of spiritual successor to his American Praetorians series. It starts in a dystopian future world where everything bad in current society is made dozens of times worse, and every taken-for-granted part of the international order is going to crumble. I was reminded of an old classic alternate history timeline called “For All Time” , where in place of the postwar western world, we get…. something else.

I have mixed feelings on all this. On one hand, most of the time, like a lot of the best political commentary, the exaggerations are close enough to be genuinely chilling. On the other, that every single shoe drops stretches my credibility a little too far, and some of the pushing that does go too far stretches it even more. Still, compared to his axe-grinding contemporaries, Nealen is both more intelligent with the political commentary and  better at making it more important and relevant to the main plot.

Said main plot is a struggle to fight through a war-torn Slovakia. Nealen’s action is, as always from him, top-notch. The soldiers of the Triarii (the protagonist organization) face everything from tanks to ordinary enemy footsoldiers in well-written action that balances well between “just grounded enough” and “just spectacular enough”. The biggest problem is an insistence on a big-world, big-battle story told through a first-person viewpoint. This doesn’t really work as well, and it’s a credit to Nealen’s skill that it’s not an even bigger problem.

I still prefer the breezier, less political and lower-scale Brannigan’s Blackhearts books from Peter Nealen, but a lot of this is just preferring apples to oranges. It’s good that he’s willing to push the limits, and for all its faults, I enjoyed Escalation.