Review: Exile

The Last Roman: Exile

Starting The Last Roman: Exile, I was struck by the extreme similarity of the gimmick to the Casca series. Namely, a Roman gets splattered during the Crucifixion, becomes healed and unaging as a result. I’ll let it slide because they’re both based on the Longinus legend that long precedes them both. Yet that’s not the biggest difference between them. Marcus, the protagonist here, and Sadler’s titular hero could not be more apart.

Basically, the Casca series after the second book used the circumstances of its main character as just an excuse for the pop-historical setting of the week. That he was connected to Christianity meant nothing, his background meant nothing, and each story was just a 51% effort (at most) historical thriller. This book is still a cheap thriller through and through, but everything in it is done so much better.

There’s a lot of flashbacks and jumping between eras, but it’s done very smoothly and effectively. The contemporary cheap thriller setting features a MacGuffin and plan that would do Jon Land proud. There’s an energy to it that Casca completely lacks, and I’m always glad to see a premise with potential done right.

Review: Encore

Kirov: Encore

Like every good concert, the 64-book Kirov series has to have an encore at the end. And so it was made in a book creatively titled Encore. I mentioned in my review of the final proper installment, Journey’s End, that the overarching villains of the aliens and Ivan Volkov were dealt with in an anticlimactic, rushed manner. This hoped to give them proper closure in proper battles.

It did not exactly work. By this point there was no way for the series to conclude in anything but a screeching halt, and all the big set pieces here did was change their fates from “short and contrived” to “long and contrived.” Then again, “long and contrived” describes the whole series well, so (shrugs).

This is only for Kirov completionists.

Review: Concrete Jungle

Concrete Jungle

Getting the latest Brannigan’s Blackhearts novel was about as easy a decision for me as a panda’s decision to eat bamboo. After devouring Concrete Jungle, where the Blackhearts go to Prague, what do I think? It’s very sad for me to say this given how much I absolutely adore the series, but I did feel this was lacking compared to past installments. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s still a decent 51% (or more?) cheap thriller. Everything I like about them is still there. And it’s very hard for any series to remain completely electrifying for twelve installments.

But I did feel that this is the (comparative) worst of the series to date. Most of the enemy gimmicks are either reused from earlier books or mundane. For instance, in the the bulk of the novel, the Blackhearts fight-Eastern European mobsters. Mobster-slaying is as 70s as disco and bad mustaches. And I felt that the lucky breaks/narrative contrivances the protagonists got this time were a little too obvious. Yes, they were always there, but they were concealed a lot better in earlier installments.

This series has been on a great run, and nothing can take that away. But still I hope it isn’t jumping the shark completely.

Review: Events

Events

The debut published work of Sea Lion Press author Charles E. P. Murphy, Events tells the story of alternate British prime ministers as they deal with the economy, other familiar problems, and, uh, alien invasions. The book is told in a deadpan pseudo-historical fashion, complete with footnotes that reference made-up history books. Anyone who knows internet alternate history will see the style being poked at instantly.

And this is the novella’s biggest issue: You need to be in an extremely small, insular community to really appreciate it. Otherwise, the obvious joke will just get repeated. “Oh, this prime minister dealt with an alien attack and then (insert mundane historical political problem here). And then this prime minister did (___)….” Even though it’s very short, the gag wears out its welcome by the third alien invasion.

But if you do know internet alternate history, the joke becomes better. A genre with a frequent rivet-counting “how many B-52s can dance on the head of a pin” obesssion and which cares absolutely nothing for conventional plot or characters gets skewered by Murphy treating made-up nonsense as if it was a meticulously researched order of battle for 1863/1942/1985.

Of course, the book also gets soured a bit by Poe’s Law (there is no parody of something that cannot be equaled in extremes by a sincere expression of the same). Since many internet alternate history timelines often portray events rivaling flying saucer wars in terms of divergence unironically, this can feel like just a handwaved in timeline that happens to be tongue in cheek. And (thankfully) without wikiboxes.

This is a first novel, so I can forgive its flaws. But it’s still made by and for those who follow a specific niche.

A Thousand Words: Scanners

Scanners

The 1981 David Cronenberg film Scanners, about people with psychic powers, is a perfect movie to review in October. It’s also an underappreciated movie. See, it has Cronenberg’s trademark twisted body horror done in a way that’s suspenseful and not overexaggerated. It also manages to be excellently paced and creepy.

However, most people only know Scanners for the scene where a man’s head explodes. While that is well-done, there’s so much more to the movie than that. It’s well worth a watch.

Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

Ok, so after I read Battle Royale, I knew I couldn’t just not read the other famous “teenagers in a death game” book. So despite not being in the demographic, despite having little interest in it when it first came out, and despite so much else, I read through Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.

What’s interesting is that it’s flawed in the exact opposite way of Battle Royale. That was too broad, focusing on the adventures of countless doomed students away from the main characters. This is too narrow, focused entirely on a first-person narrative from protagonist Katniss.

Especially because, to be frank, she comes across as a dullard. The kind of person who’d be bland trailer trash in anything but the post-apocalyptic semi-sci fi setting she’s written in. I’ve long thought that first person is one of the hardest perspectives to write action novels in, and this did not exactly convince me otherwise.

I don’t want to be too hard on this, since I’m obviously not really the target audience. It’s written well for what it is, but it’s an orange read by someone who likes apples.

Review: The Last Great Death Stunt

The Last Great Death Stunt

Clark Howard’s The Last Great Death Stunt is perhaps the strangest and most bizarre book about a man deciding to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge imaginable. Written in the 1970s, it’s basically to Evel Knievel-style feats what the movie Rollerball was to football and other physical sports. It’s a future where the world is so peaceful that conventional sports with winners and losers are so boring and out of focus, they’ve gone under.

Instead, the public’s eye is on ever-crazier “Death Stunts”. However, there is a backlash against even this, and the book begins with the government planning to outlaw them. Before they do, legendary Death Stuntman Nick Bell aims to do one mega-stunt on the final day of legality-leap off the Golden Gate Bridge and survive! The book centers around him, rival Jerry Fallon, and the authorities trying to stop the stunt from taking place.

The execution is only adequate, with prose and plotting worthy of a 51% cheap thriller. There are sleazy secenes you’d expect from a 1970s mass market novel. There are a few too many padding infodumps in a short book.

But the concept, taken completely seriously, is so great that adequate execution still makes for an excellent, if weird book. But I like weird. So I loved The Last Great Death Stunt.

Review: The City, The Village

The City, The Village….

Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi fancied himself a writer and authored a collection of “short stories” that were translated and complied under various names. The stories (if one can call them that) are extremely bizarre, an example of the depths to which dictators can sink in terms of writing. First, there is “The City”, a tirade against urban cities where such horrible things as music and sports interest people, as compared to the glory of “The Village” (where people are nice and so on…)

The most famous story in the collection is “The Suicide Of The Astronaut”, where an astronaut returns from a bare moon to the earth, where he cannot find a job due to not having the right skills. After trying and failing to impress a farmer with his knowledge of outer space, the astronaut kills himself (SPOILER ALERT).

The “Escape To Hell” story is only interesting in that Gaddafi seems to foreshadow his own later fate (not exactly a surprising one) by bringing up the execution of Mussolini. Other than that, it’s rambling incomprehensible gibberish, as is “The Blessed Herb and the Cursed Tree” and the navel-gazy “Death”. There’s a pseudo-environmentalist screed in “The Earth”, and finally a reversion to talking about Abrahamic figures in “The Cursed Family of Jacob and the Blessed Caravan”.

This is, well, something… It’s just not a good something. But you probably expected that.

Review: PROMIS

PROMIS

Jack Murphy’s PROMIS series tells the story of wandering mercenary Sean Deckard as he makes his way around Cold War battlefields. A collection of short, action-packed novellas, it kind of reminded me of, well, Barry Sadler’s Casca of all things. Just replace the immortality curse with a super-prediction computer equation thingy in the background (the titular PROMIS system) and you have these books-kind of.

It’s like Casca in that it was created and written by a genuine special forces veteran, and like Casca in that it sets out a justification to plop the main character in action set pieces. The three published locations are Vietnam, Rhodesia, and South Africa. Not that it’s much worse than any other cheap thriller in practice, but I’d prefer a slightly less iffy location than both of those two. Even Central America would be better…

…Especially because, unlike Casca, there’s no real attempt at creating the surrounding scene outside of action sequences at all. While Casca had theme parks and parades of famous historical figures, this doesn’t even have that. Even by cheap thriller standards the characterization is really, really, really bare. The action is at least decent, even if it has the “try to have its cake and eat it too by trying to be both semi-grounded and spectacular” problem. But that’s not enough to raise the series to even a “51%” level.

Thankfully, I know that Murphy can do a lot better. Go read the far superior and awesomely titled Gray Matter Splatter instead of these.

Review: Red Flag

Red Flag

I was intrigued by Mike Solyom’s Red Flag, a novel set around the titular air combat exercise. After reading it, I found it rather underwhelming. There’s actually more than one main plot. There’s the air combat exercise, there’s the backdrop of the author’s other books and ridiculous geopolitics with a de facto WWIII against a “Caliphate” armed with Cold War surplus stuff, and there’s a boilerplate science fiction UFO thriller.

The book isn’t bad at all. The author has genuine expertise, and it shows, even if sometimes it falls into the twin banes of Herman Melville Exposition and “Let me tell you how it really is, unlike on that TV” statements. What it does feel is dissonant. Because of the details and what’s supposed to be grounding, whenever there’s iffy geopolitics and/or weapons choices, it feels extra-off. And when there’s alien spider robots, it feels off even more.

I feel like truly weird, alien, Stephen Baxter-esque beasts would work better with a more grounded novel like it tries to be in air combat. I also feel like the aliens in this story would work fine in a more bombastic, Mack Maloney-type tale. But together they just don’t feel right.

Still, this is still a cheap thriller, and since when do cheap thrillers care about “dissonance”? As a cheap thriller, it may be a “mean 51%” book of varying degrees of quality instead of a “median 51%” book of consistent adequacy, but it still works.