Review: The Man With The Iron Heart

The Man With The Iron Heart

One of my theories about Harry Turtledove is that, for all times he’s been labeled “the master of alternate history”, he never had the most enthusiasm for the genre. It goes like this: Turtledove wanted to write Byzantine/Eastern Roman-themed fantasy, but after Guns of The South, alternate history became the money-making niche that he was stuck in. Turtledove would be neither the first nor last writer to have their most successful fiction be considerably different from the type they actually wanted to write.

Or maybe he did have enthusiasm for the genre, but didn’t have the mindset needed to really take advantage of it. Or maybe the nature of alternate history and needing to appeal to a generalist audience who doesn’t have the most knowledge of history forced him into a corner. Whatever the reason, The Man With The Iron Heart symbolizes the weaknesses of his style vividly.

The plot is simple. Reinhard Heydrich survives, gets the Werwolf resistance movement up and running, and launches a horrifically hamfisted/anachronistic Iraq War analogy. In reality, the German populace at large had no stomach for continued resistance, and the Allies, who came close to turning Germany into a giant farm, were prepared to crack the whip. The Werwolf plan was doomed from the get-go by the scarce resources and infighting that was baked into the Nazi regime from day one.

The execution of the book is done just as clumsily and clunkily as the setup. Much of Turtledove’s writing has the problem of what I frequently call the “technothriller without technology or thrills”, and this is no exception. It uses the “alternate history as a genre format” where there’s a big-picture, broad-viewpoint look at the situation and changed world. However, if the changed world is nothing but an unrealistic and worse, uninteresting analogy, that format is the worst possible.

Alternate history is a very divided genre. There are a lot of reasons for this, from the vague nature of what it even is to the different desires of different fandoms to how it’s frequently not considered advantageous to label a work as such. But that the “mainstream” end often consists of books like this doesn’t help.

Maybe there’d be more overlap if someone really did extensive research, made it more character focused, and kept it feeling substantially different while providing still noticeable but far more subtle commentary. Instead, Turtledove wrote this book, which I do not recommend.

Review: A UN Legion

A UN ‘Legion’: Between Utopia and Reality

Stephen Kinloch Pichat’s A UN ‘Legion’: Between Utopia and Reality is a very inconsistent book. This may be due to its subject matter, which involves the various proposals for a UN standing army, proposals made since before the formal United Nations Organization even existed.

About half the book, at least figuratively, is written in a particularly bad form of “academic-ese”. I had trouble getting through it and I read long dissertations for fun (seriously). Even if unintentional, the problem is that the political obstacles to such a force are so obvious and so easily explained that any long statement will become unfulfilling.

That being said, the other half of the book is a concise, well-written, and well-sourced example of various proposals. They come in two categories. The first is a gigantic “World Army”. The earliest proposals, made during World War II, fit this category, with numbers that seem big to a modern reader but weren’t back then. “World Armies” frequently were capped by a standing high-readiness force (think the 18th Airborne Corps or maybe the USMC/VDV).

The second is a smaller and more theoretically practical “UN Army”, a comparably small force designed for specific contingencies. One of the most detailed examples, which Pinchat describes, is the ‘Vital Force’/’UN Legion’ proposal amounting to several brigades of light to medium troops. Others amount to similar versions of the same thing-something that can conduct most normal peacekeeping missions, but without the ad hoc nature of existing setups.

I’m a little reluctant to recommend a book that sinks to such lows, but it’s still a good resource. It’s just a bit of a shame it’s not better laid out, but this is an academic history and the text is still good when it counts.

Review: The Protocol

The Protocol

The initial book in J. Robert Kennedy’s James Acton series is The Protocol. This secret history conspiracy archeology thriller comes at sort of the tail end of my reading binge of this “genre”. Having read a lot of them, I’ve returned to more conventional cheap thrillers and have moved on for now.

This book embodies the reason why. A 51% book with an ancient mystical MacGuffin and super-conspiracy is still a 51% book if it has middling, mundane action. Especially if the MacGuffin itself is an unoriginal ripoff (as this is-I’ll just say there was an Indiana Jones movie that had the same kind of artifact and leave it at that). Just because something seems more outlandish than the blandest “shoot the terrorist” novel on paper doesn’t mean it comes across that way when actually reading it.

I’m not against ancient bizarre MacGuffins and super-conspracies in the slightest. But just having them doesn’t make them the equals of the best thrillers any more than using a similarly shaped bat makes one equal to a baseball Hall of Famer. It’s a lesson I’ve learned throughout my binge, and this is a good, even if not the most pointed, example of that.

Review: Area 51

Area 51

The first book in a long series, Bob Mayer’s Area 51 (originally published under the pen name “Robert Doherty”) is a “secret history” flying saucer thriller story. By itself, it’s a decent enough 51% book. What brings it down is, weirdly, the plot. Oh, there’s a few technical inaccuracies like having F-16s be around in 1970 and putting them on aircraft carriers, but the real issue I found was structural.

What my binge of Cussler-esque “find the ancient MacGuffin” books has taught me is that premise alone doesn’t make for a good read. And this is definitely the case with Area 51.

Here, there’s two problems with the alien technology. The first is that it’s too powerful in context. Not only does it function as a convenient plot enabler and deus ex machina, but it basically turns the entire book into watching a tale of the aliens. And that tale is dull and cliche. The second problem is that flying saucers don’t embody majesty and secrecy, but rather goofy Plan 9 From Outer Space kitsch.

The result is that the book is little but a throwaway curiosity.

Review: The Fourth K

The Fourth K

fourthk

Fuldapocalypse now turns its attention to Mario Puzo’s The Fourth K. Puzo was most famous for writing The Godfather. In one of his later books, he writes of a fictional member of the Kennedy family becoming president before facing a crisis overload. I was reminded most of Sidney Sheldon’s “gilded trash” with this novel.

So little of it makes sense to anyone really knowledgeable,which makes its supposed prescience backfire. Instead of going “A-ha, that foresaw (vaguely related event) “, I went “Well, in real life (vaguely related event) didn’t happen anything at all like this”.

The political details don’t make sense. The military details especially don’t make sense (Puzo seemed to have no idea how big a “division” of troops would be, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg). But when did not making sense stop me?

The bigger problem comes from the prose. Sheldon’s writing was very simple and flowed freely and easily. This is incredibly blocky and clunky. The plot feels like a badly-flowing sequence of events, and isn’t helped by the “crisis overload”. Imagine House of Cards, The Sum of All Fears, pure sleaze, and a bit of science fiction all jumbled together.

It’s easy to feel the “one man’s descent” storyline that Puzo was sort of aiming for, but there’s nothing to really reinforce it. It just comes across as wandering, vaguely coherent, gilded sleaze.

A Thousand Words: Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Coming on the heels of my last post about beat ’em ups, one of the more interesting examples came from Capcom. The 1994 Alien Vs. Predator arcade game is fascinating. As a game, it has the same beautiful spritework you’d expect from a Capcom game of this time period. Its mixture of enemies is not exactly a bunch of street punks led by a well-dressed man with a gun.

But what the most interesting thing is is that it does what an adaptation needs to do. Granted, in many ways the setting tone is kind of incompatible with the game-you aren’t an outmatched human facing horrific, inhuman monsters, you’re beating up hordes of them en masse. But in terms of the pure essence, it distills all the convoluted lore into one simple goal. Humans reluctantly ally with monsters who sometimes want to kill them against both monsters who always want to kill them and a government/corporate conspiracy foolishly trying to use the latter monsters.

And this is done so well that Capcom could put a bubbly-voiced kounichi in and have it work.

 

 

Review: The One Who Eats Monsters

The One Who Eats Monsters

monstercover

Once again, Fuldapocalypse takes the plunge into a new genre. After seeing a good review of it on Spacebattles, I decided to read Casey Matthews’ The One Who Eats Monsters for myself.

This of course, is an “urban fantasy” novel, where you have supernatural entities hidden inside the modern world. Ryn, the protagonist is one of them, an ancient humanoid creature and vicious ‘hunter of monsters’. Throughout the book she alternates between being a vigilante and protecting a politician’s daughter she begins to develop very human feelings for.

Urban fantasy isn’t really a genre I read much of, although more for matters of admitted personal taste than any actual, inherent dislike. With that in mind, it was good for what it was. It definitely has some notable flaws. The human dialogue was often, er, “subpar”, and there were dramatic contrivances that made sense in-universe but still felt forced from a storytelling perspective.

But that’s more than made up for by the book having exactly what a cheap thriller needs to succeed-good action and good pacing. This definitely has both, although the sequel hook segment at the end is incredibly rushed.

The characterization is mixed but still ultimately positive. Many of the other characters are either shallow, stereotypical, or both. However, Ryn’s “monster with a conscience” is well-done, and that’s what matters most. Even the romance (and this is not a romantic fiction blog) is done surprisingly well-done.

One interesting note is that this is technically an alternate history novel. Among other things, supernatural shenanigans prolonged the existence of the Soviet Union (ah, those Fuldapocalypse zombie sorceresses). It reminded me, alternate history reader and writer, of this very big phenomena where a lot of fiction could be reasonably labeled “alternate history”, but because there’s no real incentive to do so, it isn’t.

I’m still not exactly a fan of urban fantasy, but I don’t regret taking a chance on a different genre with this book.

Review: Sandstorm

Sandstorm

sandstormcover

James Rollins’ Sigma Force series begins with Sandstorm.

I might have a little bit of “hype backlash” because of the way this series has been praised so much. I might also be used to ridiculous thrillers because of the way I’ve actively sought them out, so what seems utterly crazy to a less prolific reader might not be that way to me.

That being said, this was a very good, very out-there cheap thriller. I’d describe it as a more tacticool version of Clive Cussler. The ridiculous technobabble and ancient puzzle-solving is there, but the action (which is both incredibly frequent and often janky) is more conventional and, for lack of a better word, “tactical”, save for an amazing scene where someone dual-wields pistols on horseback. While I like it, it’s not the best ever in my eyes.

 

Review: Opening Moves

Opening Moves

At the start of this blog, I thought that William Stroock’s World War 1990 was the worst World War III work of fiction I’d read. That is no longer the case. Colin Gee’s The Red Gambit: Opening Moves now holds, as of this post, that dubious “honor”.

Why have I made such a bold claim?

First, the prose is very poor and the book incredibly long and clunky. (And it’s just the beginning of a series!). This alone would have been enough for me to not recommend it. However, there’s more. Like Dragon’s Fury, it manages to stumble into seemingly all of the worst parts of the “big war thriller” (overdescription, characters that are too flat and too many at the same time, etc…) all at once. I mean, it has two conference room scenes in a row just at the beginning.

It also has the issue of being very close to World War II. This is one of the trickiest time periods to write a World War III in (for reasons of both military logic and storytelling) and it’s safe to say, especially given just how early Stalin attacks in-universe and how Japan allies with the Soviets (!), that Gee doesn’t do it right.

Although the biggest problem is how horrendously stereotyped everyone is. After reviewing Gee’s Atlantisch Crusaders, I kind of expected this, but that doesn’t make it any better. While terrible stereotypes don’t break a cheap thriller by themselves (if they did I’d have never read a single Casca book), this doesn’t present itself as a cheap thriller.

It presents itself as both a “crunchy” tale of military detail and as a sweeping war epic. For the former, the stereotypes, contrivances, and extreme premise counter whatever technically accurate rivet-counting details appeared. For the latter, the storytelling is just far too clunky for it to work.

Thus the stage is set for a truly gigantic mess. There’s stereotypical pulp, there’s overly rote “lines on a map” fiction, there are overlong big-picture doorstoopers, and then there’s this, which somehow manages to be all of the above.

 

Review: The Nash Criterion

The Nash Criterion

After three stumbles, Erec Stebbins suddenly struck the right note with The Nash Criterion.

After one bad and two middling thrillers, Stebbins suddenly turns into Jon Land-if not Hideo Kojima- with this ridiculously overstuffed tale of a second American Civil War and ancient world-controlling super conspiracies. This book just was so over-the-top that I grinned at every single later page.

A lot of times it’s hard to review additional books in a series. This is not one of them, as it offers a distinct change. Many more times, if there’s a distinct change worth pointing out, it’s a negative one as the series drops in quality. Here, the opposite is thankfully true. The INTEL 1 series has gained in quality with this book, and I was very glad to see it.