The first book in the Home Team series of thrillers, Undeclared War boasts another one of those amazing cheap thriller hero names. In this case, it’s Ted Reaper, SEAL turned vigilante out to stop a -ready for this?- terrorist. Unfortunately, the main character’s name is the only distinguishing feature about it.
This is one of the most generic “shoot the terrorist” books there is. It wants to have its cake and eat it too concerning realism, which leads to a bizarre situation where the preparations are handled in realistically drudgerous detail, yet the actual action manages to somehow be both out-there and dull. The whole “we’re scrounging vigilantes but hey, we get rare and exotic weapons from our convenient connections” contradiction doesn’t help either.
The lists of weapon descriptions get excessive even by the standards of the genre. I don’t know what I should have expected from a mid-2000s thriller, but this deserves a pass.
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.
Video game novelizations do not have the best reputation. Keeping that in mind, how does Diane Duane’s work on the classic video game X-COM turn out?
The story of X-COM commander Jonelle Barrett running a base in Switzerland, Duane seems interested in making a huge effort to write about everything except fighting aliens. This by itself isn’t too bad. In terms of accuracy, X-COM, particularly the original, is as much about managing resources as it was battling the invaders. In terms of plausibility, no one’s going to be spending every waking moment shooting Sectoids. In terms of characterization, they shouldn’t be automaton spacesuit commandos.
And yet they basically are, for the book is about 95% pure padding. Descriptions of Swiss geography fill most of it, alongside what seems like an obligatory mention of every element in the game. The rest consists of half-hearted “she just looked at the names and wanted to get them over with” battles with redshirts that are every bit as expendable and forgettable as the actual minions one controls in the games. This is one of the most blatantly obvious “I did this for the money with no enthusiasm” books I’ve read.
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.
It’s time for Fuldapocalypse to dive into the world of “William W. Johnstone’s” novels. Johnstone himself wrote (and apparently considered his proudest work) the original Last of the Dog Team in 1981. By 2005 he was dead, though he lived on as a “Tom Clancy’s”-esque brand name, with its sequel being written “with” “Fred Austin” (who I’m convinced is just a house name).
To be honest, this isn’t really that bad-or that good. Yes, the heroes are ridiculous unstoppable Mary Sues, but this is far from the only book to have that issue. Yes, the military details are frequently inaccurate, often to excess (behold the “A-130” gunship helicopter), but that’s also common. Yes, there’s axe-grinding politics and horrible stereotypes, but-you get the idea.
In a strange way, William W. Johnstone stood out. This doesn’t. It’s just “shoot the terrorist” mush that hundreds of writers have done better without the baggage attached to the name. It’s a little better technically than Johnstone himself, but still. People remember the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. They don’t remember the 2002 Kansas City Royals.
Chet Cunningham’s Covert Action was one of his last books released, out on a small independent press. While I didn’t think too much of it upon my initial readthrough, now I think it clarifies something that’s been bothering me.
Having read some of Cunningham’s SEAL Team Seven novels, the book itself is basically one of those. The names are obviously changed, but the plot structure of hyperactive zipping around the world and constant action remains unmistakable to someone who’s read the “Keith Douglass” books helmed by him. The problem is that thanks to even iffier fundamentals and considerably worse proofreading, it goes from “ok” to “bad.” The book itself I’d just leave and not really recommend.
But what was the “a-ha” moment for me was how this affected reviewing. This is an example of how some cheap thrillers can feel interchangeable-because in some cases they are. There’s this. There’s the same author doing most of the work on both the MIA Hunter and Cody’s Army series. And finally, in one of the most extreme examples, the “Sharpshooter” and “Marksman” series of ‘shoot the mobster’ novels in the 1970s shared so much and were so rushed that manuscripts from the latter were used for the former, to the point where the main character’s name didn’t stay consistent.
There’s going to be a lot of overlap in a genre that’s formulaic by nature. And not all, or even most of the books I read reach this extreme. But there’s an undeniably sour feeling I’ve been getting as I reach for the keyboard.
The kind of “51% book” that Marine Force One still stands as the best example of can still be perfectly fun to read. But I’m finding, much like I’ve found with books in the same series, that repeated examples of those are getting harder and harder to actually review.
William W. Johnstone’s Destiny in the Ashes is the 32nd (!) book in the series. Released near the end of Johnstone’s life, there are legitimate questions as to whether it’s the work of Johnstone the person or “Johnstone”, the pen name used by his niece and an army of ghostwriters behind ironclad NDAs since his death. I will only say that it reads like the real Johnstone and certainly isn’t any better than anything unambiguously written by the real Johnstone.
It took over ten books for Jerry Ahern’s Survivalist to stop being truly post-apocalyptic. It took Johnstone less than one. Instead it was focused entirely on societal commentary, if the commentary came from a pretentious, incoherent redneck.
The “plot” of this book is a Middle Eastern terrorist is striking the “US” run by the EVIL LIBERAL GUN GRABBERS, and they are forced to call upon Raines in the Great People’s SUSA Utopia for help. Raines steps up, in part with lectures about the inferiority of helicopters for troop insertion compared to HALO jumps. Naturally, the Americans go in with helicopters and get killed, while the Rebels HALO drop with ease.
The “military action” in this book (and the whole series, I must add) is legitimately strange and not just poorly written. It would be one thing if, by accident or design, it involved unrealistic and overly cinematic action. There’s some of that, but there’s also hunched strategy sessions that just make no sense and end in Mary Sue stomps.
The conclusion of this book involves an effortless jaunt out to Iraq in a passage that reads like a far worse version of a Chet Cunningham SEAL Team Seven novel. This continues the trend made far earlier in the series when Johnstone ran out of domestic “punks” for Raines to kill and had to send him abroad to get more.
The writing is terrible, the pacing is only somewhat bad, the plotting is terrible, and the characterization is extra-terrible. Yet, if it makes sense, the Ashes series is genuinely and distinctly terrible. A horrendous writer got a conventional publisher to produce and distribute literally dozens of his picture-book war stories and become successful enough that he endured as a “Tom Clancy’s” -esque brand name. That’s what makes it stand out.
One of the biggest problems with using paratroopers besides the limit on airlift, and why they’ve just been high-readiness/at-least-theoretically higher skill infantry in real practice, is the cost-benefit with their operations. This is very tricky.
The Practical Reasons
Apart from situations where there just is no other way to move in quicker (ie, over bodies of water/other gaps), airborne landings, particularly on a very large scale, have faced the issue of either being unnecessarily risky and complicated for the task at hand or simply being too weak to accomplish anything (especially in a situation where everyone has a lot of heavy forces).
The impression I’ve gotten is that anything bigger than a company-sized landing force is dicey, and anything bigger than a battalion is really, really dicey. Yes, if everyone had giant Mi-26 sized helicopters and/or the landing forces had mechanized equipment of their own (ie, BMDs/Sheridans) it would help, but only somewhat.
The Literary Reasons
On the other hand, the literary reasons for big airborne operations are obvious. Just look at Band of Brothers, to say nothing of considerably more obscure works of fiction that range from Marching Through Georgia to Northern Fury H-Hour.
They’re big and dramatic all by themselves.
Because they’re often centered around (seemingly) important targets, it makes the actions of the protagonists look bigger.
Because airborne forces are inherently limited, it means drama can be maintained against a seemingly weaker opponent (a pretty extreme example of this is Marching Through Georgia, where the Draka are otherwise utterly superior to their opponents and paratroopers against a panzer force are the only way to have something even slightly even).
Eric Meyer and Todd McLeod’s SEAL Strike: Black Sea Terror is a short story. The story of SEALs preventing a shipment of S-400 missiles to Syria, it reminded me of Chet Cunningham’s SEAL Team Seven novels. Or rather, it reminded me of a hypothetical Chet Cunningham SEAL Team Seven novel that was shrunk to a fifth of its size to fit in a magazine.
The S-400 system itself is treated as a multirole missile that’s somehow incredibly dangerous on its own (and no, it doesn’t have any kind of different warhead) instead of just being a high-end SAM. The action is just passably good enough, in a “small bag of potato chips” way.
In fact, a “small bag of potato chips” accurately describes the entire book. It’s tiny, insubstantial, and not truly “good” by any measure, but it’s still quite “edible”.
Take a stilted first novel, add a difficult genre, and you have Brad Carlson’s The Gambit. This tale of Iranian plots and the Americans out to stop them reminds me of, if anything else, an even rougher version of Gavin Parmar’s Unseen Warriors. The problem is that technothrillers are harder to do right than small unit thrillers. I don’t want to be hard on the author. This is a first novel, I know firsthand how much effort writing any kind of long fiction is, and everyone has to start somewhere. But I have to be hard on the book.
There’s the clumsy prose, but there’s also the awkward pacing. There’s the action that falls well below even the standards of Marine Force One, but there’s also a ton of conference rooms and really rote instances of military equipment doing its thing (I hesistate to use the term “action” for the scenes describing it). There isn’t even an out-there premise. It’s just “shoot the terrorist” and stopping the most basic and mundane plots, all the while moving through something horrendously unpolished.
There are good independent first novels. This is not one of them.