Review: Crimson Star

Crimson Star

The third Maelstrom Rising book, Peter Nealen’s Crimson Star takes the action to the American west. With the collapse into anarchy and invasion underway, the Triarii have their hands full. Having read this, I feel like it is both a lot better and a lot worse than the first two books.

First, the good. It’s written in third person, which is so much more suitable for a work of this nature. So much. Granted, the viewpoints are a little too restricted (try telling pre-Fuldapocalypse me that I’d think that), but it’s still a huge step that makes it so much better to read. And of course the action takes advantage of the larger scope, with lots of vehicle units and large forces. It is as good as anything else Nealen has done.

Now, the bad. The annoying slobbering over the Mary Sue protagonists reaches new heights. Any alternative to them is viewed as a completely incompetent obstacle. The narration does everything but say that their training was a combination of “SEAL, Ranger, Special Forces, and gutter fighting.” It got irritating, and it would be even more so if I hadn’t adjusted my expectations. After all, it sold itself as Larry Bond. By now, it’s actually Jerry Ahern’s The Defender updated to the present with more realistic battle scenes.

Do they balance each other out? My answer is: I still want to read the next book in the series. Make of that what you will.

Review: Holding Action

Holding Action

Peter Nealen’s second installment in the Maelstorm Rising series, Holding Action is an attempt at a bigger-scope war than the small-unit ones that make up a lot of his other books. Here it’s a clash in Poland in a campaign very clearly inspired by Larry Bond’s Cauldron (which was reviewed by the author and read for inspiration). And I’m sad to say I found it somewhat lacking.

The first and biggest problem is that the book is both written in first person perspective and clearly wants to be a big-scope tale. This square peg and round hole do not exactly align properly. And it’s not like the reader gets an excellent character study from it: The biggest trait I remembered in the main character was him being Catholic.

The second is that the Triarii, the “military NGO” that the protagonists serve in, feel like Mary Sues in ways that Brannigan’s Blackhearts never did. The Blackhearts are a bunch of expendable, disposable people doing underground dirty work. These are propped up as the centerpiece of fighting, more so than the bumbling regular American army. And listening to the narrator extol their awesomeness and the regular army’s weakness doesn’t exactly help matters either. The third and least important is that the setting tries to walk a tightrope between “plausible” and “distinct” and doesn’t really stay balanced.

That being said, the actual nuts and bolts action is as good as always, and I don’t fault Nealen at all for trying something very ambitious. It’s just that when you aim high, there’s a greater risk of falling short. This is a definite “uneven 51%” book. And there are worse things I could have called it. Besides, it’s fun to review an actual conventional World War III novel and go back to the blog’s roots.

Review: Marque And Reprisal

Marque and Reprisal

I eagerly awaited the newest Brannigan’s Blackhearts book, Marque and Reprisal. After devouring it, I figured I had to review it. And it’s slightly disappointing. But only slightly. The issue isn’t the action or plotting (even if one “twist” of them getting betrayed is rather obvious). The issue is the setting.

Without going into spoiler-ish details, the villains feel like well, how do I put it? They feel like the kind of antagonists a mainstream action thriller would have. Which means the book fails to take advantage of both ends the series can go to-either gritty third-world mud fights or giant spectacles. They’re too out-there for the former and too mundane for the latter.

This is still my favorite thriller series ever, and it’s only a “disappointment” by the previous books massively high standards. But a part of it felt lacking nonetheless.

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.