Review: Eagle Rising

Eagle Rising

The Kirov series, of which Eagle Rising is the 47th (!) installment, is strange. If I’d read it three years ago, I’d probably have unfairly denounced it as the worst series of all time. In my more recent reviews, I’d sort of wavered from criticizing the individual books to admiring the ridiculous (in a good way!) plot and premise of the setting.

Now I have this weird feeling that’s settled. I unironically love the craziness and excess that the series gets into, while remaining just as critical of the many flaws of the individual books. I’ll take this flawed excess standout over a hundred “51% books” any day.

That being said, this book itself has essentially two set pieces spread out of over many pages and takes place in an entire arc with a forgone conclusion stated as early as the first book in the series. Whatever the author’s intention, the impression I got of this arc, with this particular WWIII having long since been established as ending in a nuclear fireball (hence the time travel and changing it in the first place…), was that it served mainly to show off wargaming set pieces.

The set pieces are a big Russo-NATO showdown in Eastern Europe and the shenanigans of the ship and its crew. The former is a strangely intriguing example of what happens when you rely on wargame simulations to an incredible and unprecedented degree. Besides the obvious issues with such a stilted de facto let’s play, there’s also problems when the simulations produce an undramatic (however realistic) result and there’s not much “cushion” of characterization or low-level danger to balance them. Another issue is that this particular conflict setup is not exactly undergamed.

The latter, a far more out there plot, involves the use of a time travel MacGuffin and some of the crew going onto an island and fighting a pack of wolves (it’s a bit of a long story). It also involves long scenes of clunky dialogue, which is less fun.

In a way, this book, with time travel shenanigans and wargame AARs, is its own series in a nutshell. Is this a good or bad thing? Well, it depends on what you want and/or like.

Front Defensive Operations

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From the Heavy OPFOR Operational, here is a picture of a front-sized defensive operation. My first thought upon seeing it and counting the divisions, besides any political concerns, is – “Does NATO even have enough forces to break through it without a huge amount of technological superiority”?

This particular diagram is something of an idealized best case, as the front has both a second-echelon tank army to counterattack and several independent divisions as “combined arms reserves”. But still. I’d have to ask…

  • How much of a force multiplier are the initial belts (which were expected to be overrun?)
  • How much of the artillery and missile forces can survive and fire effectively on the attackers as they approach?
  • Most importantly, what’s the overall context?

 

 

Autoloaders in Soviet tanks

Why did the Soviets so eagerly adopt autoloaders for their tanks? I don’t have any direct primary sources supporting it, but I have some hunches.

  1. Size. Soviet/Russian tanks have always had substantial size/weight limitations for transporting them along the entire length of the rather large country. This explains a lot, including why there was less (which is not the same as no) focus on tanks fighting other tanks, as opposed to using artillery and ATGMs. If the autoloader can make the tank smaller by removing one of the crew, it helps a lot.
  2. Making crew training less relevant. If you have a gigantic force of in-and-out conscripts, you don’t want to rely on something that relies a lot on individual skill.
  3. The third, which I saw in an intelligence piece on the Soviet tank company, stated “in understrength units there may be no loader in tanks other than those of the company and platoon commanders.” I’d really like to see more evidence for this, although it does say understrength.

There’s probably more like how it makes using bigger guns easier, but those are the biggest three that come to my mind. I also like to think of how the inevitable national bias would change if it was, for whatever reason, the opposite. Instead of tales of arm-wrecking autoloaders, there’d be sniggering of “we have high-tech auto-loaders, and the Soviets are still having people stuff the tank with shells-look at how they’d get tired.”

Adding A Tank Manufacturer

So this thought came to me from a throwaway line in Sidney Sheldon’s Master Of The Game about how the main character’s conglomerate started manufacturing tanks in World War I (along with other war material). How hard is it to slip a tank company into an alternate history?

There’s two boring solutions. One is that it’s easy if the story calls for it, with a focus on armored vehicle economics not usually being beneficial to a book (especially a Sidney Sheldon one). Another is that they can, especially during the World Wars, be just a contractor that built tanks designed by someone else (see a lot of railroad locomotive plants in World War II). A third is that they end up as the main winner for a gigantic wartime or Cold War contract and just become what General Dynamics Land Systems (to give one example) is in real life. A fourth is if severe politics (read-no reliable import partners) are involved.

But privately designed tanks for private sales? That’s tricky. There’s really only a few windows, the interwar and middle Cold War periods. Otherwise, you just have a glut of WWII surplus/early Cold War military aid or an equally huge one of advanced technology/later Cold War surplus.

And even then, for every success like the Vickers MBT, you have failures like the AMX-40 and Osorio, to say nothing of one-customer wonders like the Stingray. Both political power and economies of scale are tough to overcome. Yet there’s always the chance of getting an export order and then having the exported tanks do well enough to trigger more interested customers. It still isn’t going to come close to the T-55 or Patton, but it can work.

Review: Condition Zebra

Condition Zebra

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The (supposedly) final arc of John Schettler’s epic Kirov series, now exceeding even The Subspace Emissary’s Worlds Conquest in terms of word count, begins with Condition Zebra. This is the story of a contemporary World War III, after the Kirov timeshifted away from another contemporary World War III, possibly making it the first series to have multiple World War IIIs in it.

Having read two books in the 49-and-counting series, I figured it would at least be the same as before.  I was wrong. It somehow managed to be worse. And it manages to be worse in ways that might be considered contradictory at first glance.

One one end, the basic nuts and bolts writing has all the problems of the past Kirov books (characters who exist solely to operate military equipment, rote technical descriptions of the battles that give away the wargames used to sim them, and overall clunkiness) and just feels sloppier, with the dialogue, grammar, and even structure seeming worse.

On the other, the giant timeline tangles get bigger, more confusing, and somehow more pointless-seeming than ever. Knowing the end result and purpose, it just feels like the developers of Madden, 2K, or The Show making up a gigantic plot about time machines and time-traveling team general managers to explain why past players can appear in a game with current stars.

Maybe it’s those above flaws and maybe it’s just that the novelty of seeing the world’s longest wargame let’s play has worn off after three books, but this doesn’t even seem bad in a bemusing way anymore. It’s just bad.

 

Review: Red Phoenix

Red Phoenix

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Larry Bond’s Red Phoenix, telling the story of a second Korean War, is something I’ve struggled with for a while but now, after a lot of other books read, have the words to successfully describe. In short, it’s the Marine Force One of “big war thrillers”.

Every archetype of the small genre is there. The shifting viewpoints from top to bottom. Going into every part of the theater. And so on. And they’re executed with enough skill to not be bad, but not enough to be truly memorable or standing out.

What does stand out, and which I also have a more nuanced view of than I used to, is the long intro setting up the war. I’ve thought it, from a literary perspective, to be less than ideal. It’s taking a huge amount of effort to set up something the reader already knows will happen.

But from a plausibility perspective, given the massive unlikelihood of a Second Korean War even at the height of the north’s power, I can forgive it for putting in the effort to set up a situation where it could happen. It’s certainly better and less ridiculous than Cauldron at any rate.

And what else is there to say? This is very much a “if you like the genre, you’ll like this book. If you don’t, you won’t” kind of novel.

Review: First Clash

First Clash

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Kenneth Macksey’s First Clash stands as one of the most detailed books about a conventional Fuldapocalypse. Its “plot” can be summarized in one sentence as “a Canadian brigade group fights a Soviet division in the opening phases of World War III.”

This is not a conventional novel by any means. It’s openly stated to be a training aid with a lot of “controlling factors”. Even without that admission, it’s very, very obviously a “how-to guide for facing an attack as a Canadian mechanized brigade, from top to bottom”. This leads to a few issues because a lot of situations have to be included for the sake of training.

Some of the parts from the Soviet perspective are a little iffy. Even accepting that it’s a Cold War piece written by a westerner, they come across as a little too “Asiatic Hordesy”. Also for the sake of training, assuming the worst case about one’s opponent feels to me like the better strategy.

It could be that the Soviet advance had to be imperfect to give a single brigade with Leopard Is and M113s a fighting chance and present a tactical situation other than “they fight a desperate defense but are then overrun rapidly”. I would have cut the “enemy perspective” parts entirely and only showed what parts of the Soviets the Canadians could directly see.

This brings me to my second critique, which is that there’s a lot of detail, likely at an outright unrealistic level that hurts a book that’s otherwise rock solid in that regard. This is understandable as an “after action briefing tape recap” approach, but it doesn’t help with the rest of the book. Like The War That Never Was, this is one specific type of book, and if you don’t like it, this just isn’t for you.

I wanted to like this more than I did. I knew what it was setting out to do, and it accomplished that, but it’s a very niche, slightly dated book. I still think The Defense of Hill 781 manages to speak most of the same messages in a format that’s more readable.

Snippet Reviews: January 2020

New year, new set of snippet reviews.

Return of the Ottomans

Return Of The Ottomans is a clunky “Big war thriller” only distinguished by its premise. Turkey invading Bulgaria is more conceptually interesting and the action isn’t the worst in a nuts and bolts way, but jumping viewpoints and Steel Panthers Characterization at its worst bring it down.

The Fires Of Midnight

The Fires of Midnight is the last of the classic Blaine McCrackens, before Dead Simple knocked the series off course. While I now knew the formula in great detail, it doesn’t change that the formula is a good one-and that it includes an excellent finale in an excellent place.

Sword Point

I wanted Sword Point, Harold Coyle’s second novel, to be good, and it still ultimately is. Yet it has this awkward feeling of a one-hit wonder musician trying to make lightning strike twice. The same formula and theme is there, and it’s not bad. But it just doesn’t have the kick the initial installment has.

It’s still tanks going boom in a solid, flowing way. And the Middle Eastern setting is distinct. But it’s just missing something.

Review: The Third World War, August 1985

The Third World War: August 1985

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John Hackett’s Third World War was, even more than Red Storm Rising, the book that started off the subgenre this blog was founded on. Thus I figured making it my first review of 2020 was an appropriate milestone.

This is incredibly hard to review. I was initially very dismissive of this book when I read it. And in an isolated “spherical cow” sense, I still feel that way.

Compared to Team Yankee, Red Army, Chieftains, and even RSR itself, it offers very little in terms of literary quality. It’s dated (there’s a reference to Abrams as “XM1s”, which is kind of like calling T-64s “Object 432s”). It’s a mixture of straight “pseudo-history” and clunky, sometimes dubiously written vignettes, all stuffed together awkardly. It has, with the Birmingham-Minsk “trade”, one of the worst examples of plotnukes ever. The whole thing is a political lobbying document in the shape of a novel.

And yet, this is perhaps the most context-affected book I’ve ever read. To someone like me who treated the Heavy OPFOR Tactical as casual reading and has seen many, many primary sources, it’s not novel in any way. To someone of that time period, especially someone who wasn’t an analyst, it definitely would be. The nature of this book makes its novelty even more essential than normal, due to its shortcomings.

Hackett’s Third World War has a few interesting scenes, like the chapter detailing how the general public saw the war. It deserves credit for being the first out of the gate. While I originally thought that it was a bad influence on later books of its type, a more thorough reading of the “big war thriller” subgrene reveals that it really wasn’t.

That being said, to a modern audience, it’s still really nothing more than an even more dated version of The War That Never Was, with all the baggage you might expect from it. It’s a very important historical piece and is worth a read for that alone, but it hasn’t aged well.

Review: Himmler’s War

Himmler’s War

I decided it was time to read one of the most infamous names in alternate history. Entering one of my “moods”, I figured, “go for Robert Conroy, and reverse your order of preference.” Normally I’d pick out the most bizarre premise, and Conroy, with his flock of “US gets invaded” novels, certainly has a lot of those. But for this, I chose the most cliche and shopworn one of all-Himmer’s War, which features that obscure and understudied conflict, World War II.

The divergence is simple to explain-a lucky hit from an off-course Allied bomber kills Hitler after D-Day, the titular SS head takes over, and proceeds to change the war, viewed from the usual top-to-bottom viewpoint characters.

Now it was probably a big mistake reading one of David Glantz’s books on the history of the Red Army right before this, especially with the scenes involving the Soviets. This is one of the most pop-historical, “wehraboo” books ever.

  • In about a month, the Germans can conduct major reforms and become better (sort of).
  • Stalin agrees to peace just because Bagration is slowing down.
  • Stalin agrees to give the Germans huge numbers of T-34s in exchange for one collaborating general. Oh-K?
  • The Germans build an atomic bomb before Skorzeny sneaks it to Moscow and detonates it, killing Stalin.

And then in the later part of the book the Americans just bulldoze their way across the Rhine anyway and win quickly, throwing in a “noble Clean Wehrmacht Rommel” to save the day and neatly clean up the potentially messy aftermath, because Conroy realized he didn’t use that particular World War II alternate history cliche yet.

That part of the book is legitimately interesting because it’s where Conroy’s failure as an alternate historian intersects “perfectly” with Conroy’s failure as a writer. It’s the sort of thing that, ideally, would take two books…

…Or zero, because, alternate history aside, Conroy’s writing isn’t the greatest. His characters are all cliches of some sort. The dialogue is horrendous. And finally, his writing of battles leaves something to be desired. Given that he’s writing a book taking place during a war, this is a big problem. Add in too many characters for their own good and minor, useless subplots like FDR having a stroke and barely living to his next inauguration.

There’s a reason why Conroy has the reputation that he has, and it’s a justified one. Even as “soft alternate history” and as a cheap thriller, Himmler’s War falls short.