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.

 

Review: Conquistadors

Conquistadors

As far as post-apocalyptic invasion novels go, Black Autumn: Conquistadors is surprisingly good. Oh, it certainly has all the political baggage of the genre, and at times it’s too realistic for its own good (for instance, giving the villain a fleet of tanks to capture, then hampering them for lack of fuel), especially given how it’s ultimately still a story of Heroic Americans Fighting Back.

But it has legitimate advantages. The antagonist comes across as one of the best I’ve seen in this type of book, even if he leads from the front far too often. The action and pacing are effective. Finally, it being a postapocalyptic invasion novel instead of a “normal” one, like the Survivalist, actually makes it more “believable”, because removing the conventional opposition via apocalypse takes away the biggest objection.

The authors have the experience and writing style to make it stand above the pack. Not dramatically far above, but still better by cheap thriller standards. And a lot of the issues are with the genre as a whole, not the specific writing.

Review: The Chosen One

The Chosen One

Walt Gragg’s The Red Line was one of the first books I reviewed on Fuldapocalypse-and how could I not, with it being a Russo-American World War III, the kind that was supposed to be the blog’s bread and butter? Now his second book, The Chosen One, is out. And I felt I had to review it.

So, an Algerian man somehow becomes recognized as the “Madhi”, gets a huge army, is able to unify most of the Middle East, equip said huge army, and launch a conventional World War III. It doesn’t take place in the Fulda Gap, but the book does have all the hallmarks of the “big-war thriller” that I had in mind when starting the blog.

It has tons of viewpoint characters from top to bottom, lots of battles, a focus on air, land, and sea (via a cruise missile strike on the American fleet), and the general tropes of the subgenre. So I can say I feel very comfortable in declaring this a World War III book.

A lot of the big-picture stuff doesn’t make much sense (even in a spherical cow lines on a map way), which I’d be more forgiving of if it wasn’t brought up repeatedly in conference room exposition scenes. It’s not quite at the level of The Red Line’s convoluted way to turn the clock back to the 1980s, but it’s still there in force.

There are a few too many viewpoint characters for the book’s own good, they’re not exactly the least stereotypical, and they make the pacing jumbled (the kind of thing I sadly expected). Part of this is a cutaway to the antagonist’s stereotypical childhood. I’ll just say that A: I was reminded of Life Of Brian, and B: you shouldn’t be reminded of Life of Brian in what’s supposed to be a serious story.

As for the actual action, it’s strange. The prose descriptions are ridiculously melodramatic (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but still, given the tone, it clashes), but it also has more than its share of dry weapon over-description as well. There’s also anachronisms with the weapon names (which isn’t so bad if you don’t mind every enemy tank being an “M60” or “T-72”) and tactics (which is understandable but still a little out of date to see carrier aircraft flying at low altitude and having trouble hitting hardened shelters).

It’s not the absolute worst, but it’s still not what it could have been. The conclusion is also a stumbling point, which has a firefight inside an Egyptian pyramid (Ok?) that’s taken seriously and focused on while a big tank battle occurs elsewhere and is only mentioned in passing (not ok), and ends with a really, really blatant sequel hook.

This is a sort of oddball novelty-it has the roughness and er, “quirkiness” of some of the more uneven independent “big-war thrillers”, yet it’s a mainstream publication. And regrettably, its fundamentals just aren’t good enough to be more than an oddball novelty.

Review: Operation Zhukov

Operation Zhukov

It’s been a while. But John Agnew’s Operation Zhukov has brought me back. Back to the time when I started Fuldapocalypse.

So in an alternate 1992 with the USSR still going, the just-reunified Germany clashes with Poland, and it expands into a (conventional) Fuldapocalypse. And yes, there is a reference to the Fulda Gap, although most of the action follows British units farther north.

And this brought a weird feeling to me, a feeling of strange comfort and nostalgia. This is a book of constant clunky jumping around between paper-thin Steel Panthers Characters who exist purely to operate military equipment. This is a book of conference room and makeshift conference room infodumps. This is a book of clashes too grounded and technically “realistic” to be over the top fun but too detailed to be genuinely realistic (what fog of war?).

Because of all that, it’s a callback to the day where I was expecting to review books in a spectrum so narrow that I’d highlight the (in)accuracy of tank unit TO&Es to see how the book differed from the others in the pack. Here, I can say that it has more accurate T-80s in the GSFG arsenal and not the more commonly used but technically inaccurate T-72s. A similar pattern exists throughout the entire book-while there’s undeniably some issues somewhere in the “there’s this many roadwheels on this type of tank” type of description, I didn’t see any big red flags (no pun intended).

I would probably have been frustrated with this book had I read it some time ago. Now, knowing that there are many individual authors who’ve written more books than the entirety of the “Conventional World War III” genre, I feel strangely nostalgic.

This kind of book isn’t crowding out any genre and isn’t setting any bad trends. This specific book isn’t badly made for what it is, not having any truly massive errors or truly gigantic bloat. Yes, I consider it a little flat, but “flat” isn’t the worst thing a book can be. Operation Zhukov can be summed up as the World War III version of Marine Force One, a “51% book” that fits its (in this case, narrow) genre with the most basic competence but doesn’t go above or beyond it.

Review: Advance To Contact

Advance To Contact

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In the early stages of Fuldapocalypse, I reviewed Andy Farman’s Stand To, a World War III tale. Or rather, a sleazy spy tale that became a World War III tale that involved everything I thought I’d be seeing en masse on Fuldapocalypse, and then some. Lots of descriptions. Lots of viewpoint characters. Lots of meticulously described battles.

Now I’m in one of those full circle moods. I still had the remaining books in the series left unread, so I decided to return to that mostly untapped World War III vein and read the second Armageddon’s Song book, Advance to Contact.

Farman has had decades of legitimate expertise as a soldier and police officer, and indeed the infantry fighting scenes in this book sometimes actually work. The key word here is “sometimes”. Often they blur together (since the characters are so forgettable and interchangeable). Often Farman fills it with infodumps on the exact levels of equipment and/or author lectures on whatever topic is technically relevant. Often the viewpoints are yanked away and yanked back. Often they’re overdescribed to the point where it loses its focus. Still, I should give legitimate credit where credit is due. There’s one scene with doomed Belarusian soldiers where he actually writes well, doesn’t get too infodumpy, and keeps the ‘camera’ focused on them instead of jumping a continent away after a few paragraphs.

Another instance of deserved credit is that the plotting and pacing is a little better than in Stand To. The war is underway, so the goofy spy plot is less prominent and the viewpoint jumping merely at the level of “exaggerated technothriller” rather than the wrenching shifts of Stand To.

That being said, it still has most of the problems mentioned over a year ago in the review of Stand To. The times when details are gotten wrong (given the ridiculous amount of description) are annoying. Farman doesn’t focus on where he’s most skilled and comfortable but instead gives giant air/sea battles. There are bizarre events like B-2s being used as tankers and Tu-160s as special forces insertion craft. The dialogue for anyone not in the military is frequently awkward. And the pacing is just glacially slow.

Still, like with the first book, I couldn’t feel mad about this and frequently felt amused. This is an earnest series by a first-time fiction writer. It’s just that what could have been at least a rival to Chieftains with some more focus turned into this clunked-together technothriller kitchen sink.