Review: Frontal Assault

SEAL Team Seven: Frontal Assault

By the time of Frontal Assault, the “Keith Douglass” behind SEAL Team Seven was veteran cheap thriller writer Chet Cunningham. To give an idea of how long and prolific his career was, Cunningham wrote half of the Penetrator books close to twenty years before this one.

Really, this whole book is “what if a classic men’s adventure novelist wrote a technothriller?” Because it is. It combines the very basics of a technothriller (high tech military weapons! Superweapons! Big-picture struggles!) with a bunch of set pieces as Blake Murdock and his team struggle to go against…. Saddam Hussein.

I admit to feeling just a little uneasy about books using then-living real people in them, even utterly unsympathetic dictators (Tin Soldiers and Proud Legions at least had fictional strongmen oust Saddam and Kim Jong-Il before beginning the plot). It’s not a deal-breaker, but it still feels tacky. Even if this genre is tacky.

There’s inaccuracies like “.25 revolvers”, the USMC still using M48 tanks in the 2000s, and other nitpicky designations, along with a strategic big picture that’s, um, well, less than entirely accurate. As for the actual battles, if original author William Keith tried to at least have a tiny bit of grounding and Direct Action at least got most of the designations right, this is just pure action spectacle with all one would expect from a classic pulp thriller writer. Any one of the set pieces could have made up an entire book on its own, so putting them all in makes this book feel both audacious and overstuffed.

But still, I had fun with this.

Review: Diamondhead

Diamondhead

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Patrick Robinson’s Diamondhead is in some ways the perfect book for this blog. Robinson was one of the few authors to get going as a new technothriller writer after 1991, when the genre was imploding. Robinson also has a reputation for being well, not very good. After reading Diamondhead, I can say that, at least judged from that book, that reputation is accurate.

But there’s more to it. This isn’t just a clunkfest like say, a later Tom Clancy or “Tom Clancy’s” novel. It was strangely fascinating in how so many elements of the “cheap thriller” had, by the year 2009, just sort of mushed together.

The military details are ridiculously inaccurate, from SEALS riding into battle inside tanks (yes, along with the regular crew) to Sidewinders being used as air-to-ground missiles. Where this is particularly bad is the MacGuffin of the book, the titular missiles. They’re a new, formally banned as too cruel (wha?) type of anti-tank missile that burns the crew of any vehicle it penetrates-you know, like any other ATGM with a shaped charge that shoots something very hot into something with a lot of fuel and ammunition inside it.

But even beyond that, the genre kind of comes full circle back to the vigilante style as SEAL Mack Bedford (those are two truck brands) gets excoriated by the EVIL MEDIA, subject to a court martial that reminded me, no joke, of Phoenix Wright with all the loud “OBJECTIONS!”, before he gets his revenge on the evil French businessman/politician who’s been providing these super-missiles to rogue Islamist groups-and personally aiding in the first deployment of them. 

This plot could very well have worked as one of the classic “Men’s Adventure” thrillers. But unlike those, it suffers from the two things that plagued the technothriller-bloat and self-seriousness. At least with one of those books, you tended to get a brisk, smooth, “when in doubt, fight it out” style. This plods and clunks through unsuspenseful “suspense”, and then Mr. Truck just turns into John Rourke when the time comes for him to actually fight anyway. It has cheap thriller implausibility but not cheap thriller whimsy or bombast.

And the sad part is that more and more of the big-name, big-published “mainstream” thrillers (the kind I could find in the small book section of a local grocery store) are like this. There’s a reason why I review very few “big-time big-name” authors. Part of it is expense and part of it is me wanting to highlight obscure authors who need all the recognition they can get. But to be honest, a big part is that most of these thrillers are like Diamondheads in the ways that count.

Review: Kidnapped

Kidnapped!

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The Twilight 2000 tabletop RPG is a classic of the Fuldapocalyptic World War III genre. So it’s a little disheartening to debut it on this blog with what could easily have been the nadir of the franchise. But the “Kidnapped!” module is still a very interesting example of just a bunch of things all going on a bunch of different paths until it all just breaks.

The big “problem” is that T2K’s later modules were a victim of the very success of its initial premise. The initial European setting was a good way to square the circle of “we want you to be in the military, but we don’t want you to just have to follow orders and sit around until an artillery barrage kills you.” It was also a good balance between “We want to give you limited resources unlike a contemporary setting, but we also want to give you more toys than a full post-apocalyptic setting.”

Yes, this led to issues between the two tones of a “grim struggle for survival” and “like a classic tabletop RPG, only with tanks instead of dragons”. But I have to give GDW credit for making something distinct and adaptable. Then the question is “how do you follow up on that?”

Enter the North American modules, which became increasingly theatrical and bizarre. The “Airlords of the Ozarks” module made me use the term “Arkansas vs. The Blimps” to describe any long series that veers into craziness. It got to the point where it wouldn’t have been too surprising to see the heroes venture into an Upstate New York bunker to retrieve Adolph Hitler’s frozen corpse (as happened in the later Survivalist novels).  But Kidnapped takes the cake both for pure dissonance and poor design.

  • It starts with a description of the super-drought about to strike North America. Too bad the actual main focus isn’t about this Frostpunk-style societal triage. No, it’s about a Hitman/Splinter Cell-style “go and get a high value target”. The target is Carl Hughes, leader of the authoritarian New America, in his Shenandoah supervillain lair.
  • Hughes, the target of the adventure, does not get official stats or an official portrait. But there is a page devoted to a gang of Native American marauders (oh, you 80s action RPGs) and several pages devoted to an abandoned New American facility that does nothing but give a “clue” and a “We’re sorry, Hughes is in another castle” experience.
  • Is Twilight 2000 supposed to be semi-grounded? Good. Now plausibly take on a fortified lair with over a hundred guards and a target who needs to be captured alive (so you can’t just snipe him).
  • Naturally, to fit this mammoth Cadillac V8 into a Smart Fortwo and make the module even slightly viable, there are gimmicks like convenient gaps in the security camera coverage, guards who’ve lived and worked together for years being able to fall for players in simple disguises, and Hughes never going any more than one level deep in the four-level underground complex even when threatened.
  • There are lots of descriptions of places that are either irrelevant or “beef-gated” (too well guarded to realistically challenge), and the “listing of important characters” not only doesn’t have Hughes, but also doesn’t have anyone else actually living in Hughes’ lair. But it does have lots of throwaway bandits-of-the-week!

So Kidnapped! is something I’d recommend only for Twilight 2000 completionists or people fascinated by “How NOT to make an RPG module.” It’s at the point where, if people were running a T2K game in North America and the GM wanted them to take on Hughes, I’d recommend just writing a scenario from scratch instead of consulting this.

For a second opinion on Kidnapped, you can check the the Twilight 2000 Wargaming Blog. That opinion is also not complimentary.

Review: SEAL Team Seven Direct Action

SEAL Team Seven 4: Direct Action

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The SEAL Team Seven series, however much I enjoyed the first installment, is not the kind of series where reading every book in order is the most appropriate. So I decided on Direct Action for two main reasons. The first is that the summary seemed a little interesting. The second is that it’s the first book after original author William Keith was replaced by another writer under the “Keith Douglass” house name.

So, Lt. Blake Murdock (it’s not quite Blaine McCracken but it’s close) has to lead his SEALS into Lebanon to destroy a plant producing counterfeit American money, fighting Hezbollah and the Syrian Army in the process. The prose is a little clunkier and the action somewhat more extreme than the first book, but it’s still a good cheap thriller.

In fact, this book manages to have its cake and eat it too in a good way. It manages to have its SEALS scything their way through enemy fighters, soldiers, commandos, BMPS, and helicopters while at the same time throwing semi-plausible bits of “friction” in their path to make them earn their mission-and not without loss.

A part of me has “glass half empty” thoughts where I think “what if the big-name technothriller writers did a slightly higher-brow version of this instead of clunking along with an increasingly obsolete Cold War thriller model?” and lament what wasn’t. But another part of me has “glass half full” thoughts where I can just enjoy this well-done cheap thriller for what it is.