Review: Red Army

Red Army

So I actually haven’t done a formal review of Ralph Peters’ masterpiece Red Army on this blog yet. I think I should, because well, it’s my clear choice for “best conventional World War III book of all time.” It has fewer competitors for that title than I originally thought when I first read it, but still manages to stay above them.

The story of a conventional WW3 in 198X, the book jumps between the perspectives of various Soviets as they carry out the war. One of the best “big war thrillers” at managing the viewpoint jumps, it never feels awkward or clunky in that regard. The characterization is very good, especially by the standards of the genre. And it works very well at avoiding an excessive focus on technology.

Of course, Peters has the Soviets win, and thus deserves extra credit for going against the tide. At the time the book was published, there was a (justifiable) sense of increasing triumphalism. Having them win and win handily was a good move. Especially since it doesn’t come across as being done for cheap shock value.

There’s a few sour parts. While the viewpoint jumping is good, the two messages of “humanize the Soviets” and “show how they can beat NATO” sometimes don’t work well, especially as the latter means characters done just to explain things (granted, as someone who’s read the translated Voroshilov Lectures and similar materials for fun, I understand it in ways a casual reader at the time almost certainly wouldn’t). There’s criticism of how the Soviets advance too fast, which is valid but which I consider a mild issue, no worse than Team Yankee’s similar problem with lopsidedness. My biggest complaint is how the situation is set up to let the Americans almost entirely off the hook for NATO’s defeat.

But these are small problems at most. Red Army is an excellent book, and I have no problem considering it my favorite “Conventional WW3” novel of all time. And it has one of my favorite book covers ever.

Why I Liked Them

Why I Liked Them

So, it’s been difficult for me to explain why I did like something, as opposed to why I didn’t. Hoping to do a very positive review, I found myself diverting towards whole paragraphs of nitpicks. So I’m deciding to take three books I liked-one a well-known classic, two obscure, and list only what they did right. The three books are Ralph Peters’ legendary Red Army, Kevin Miller’s Raven One, and Peter Nealen’s Frozen Conflict.

Besides me liking them a lot, I think they represent a sort of “big-medium-small” continuim. One’s an epic theater-spanning World War III, one’s a medium regional clash with a carrier squadron, and one’s the comparably small tale of a mercenary squad. Thus seeing how each of these stories works in a different subgenre is interesting.

I’ve talked about them before, but figure this challenge would help.

Red Army

Ralph Peters’ classic has many things right, but I view what it’s done the best is a flawed victory. It doesn’t portray every single thing about Soviet doctrine of the time as ideal,  it doesn’t have supertech effortlessly ripping NATO to pieces, and it especially doesn’t have the characters acting like it’s a cakewalk either. On the contrary, most of them die and die horribly. By allowing for vulnerability and failure, it makes the success all the more convincing. The Soviets have to earn their victory, it isn’t handed to them on a silver platter.

I don’t want to call anything my absolute favorite, but as of now, Red Army remains my favorite 198X WWIII story, and one of my favorite high-level, multiple viewpoint thrillers.

Raven One

Raven One, a recent thriller, is excellent at scale, managing to do a lower-end aircraft-centric story very well. It focuses on one squadron of F/A-18s and their pilots battling Iran, and manages to stay very tight. It doesn’t try to turn a regional conflict into a global one.

Furthermore, this leads to something else it does very well-antagonist equalizers. I think that Raven One has one of the best. Whether by accident or design, Kevin Miller created gimmicks-a MiG 1.42 super-fighter and some high-end ECM devices on the Iranian side-that serve to challenge the characters well without feeling too contrived.

The squadron is the centerpiece of the story, and what matters is the ability to challenge the squadron, not the US Navy as a whole. In this Raven One succeeds beautifully, and its pacing doesn’t hurt either.

Of all the post-1991 technothrillers I’ve read, Raven One is one of the best at managing the challenges of that time period well. This is no small feat.

Frozen Conflict

I could really use any of Peter Nealen’s thrillers as my example, but Frozen Conflict, where his mercs romp in the former USSR, is perhaps the most suited for Fuldapocalypse. Besides being well paced, they do several things excellently. These are logistics, tone, and characterization.

In terms of logistics, Nealen takes something generally boring and actually integrates it well into the story. As the ragtag mercs shop or scrounge for their weapons and equipment, it feels like it reinforces the rough and tumble plot rather than interfering with it.

And it also reinforces the tone. The tone is pitch-perfect. It’s gritty and grounded with some over-the-top feats, but it keeps the stakes in their proper element. I particularly liked how a simple BTR-60 in Frozen Conflict with only a 14.5mm heavy machine gun is rightfully portrayed as a devastating threat to the light infantry heroes.

For characterization, it makes me feel for the heroes. In one of the bloodiest books in the series, I felt for them when several characters died, even the one who was written as something of an ass.

Because of this tightness and caring, Nealen’s stories remain some of the best low-level “infantry” thrillers I’ve read.

Conclusion

So there you have my explanations of why I enjoyed several military thrillers as much as I did. This was a very fascinating exercise and I hope to do more of this positive regard in the future. It really helps me a lot with something I’ve long had trouble with.