Review: The Return of the Dog Team

The Return of the Dog Team

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.

Review: Destiny In The Ashes

Destiny In The Ashes

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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.

Weird Wargaming: Introduction And Raines’ Rebels (Ashes)

 

Weird Wargaming

Welcome to a new feature on Fuldapocalypse that I’d like to call “Weird Wargaming.” The question I seek to answer is “what if you tried to wargame out an armed force from a strange and/or bad piece of fiction? What if you tried to apply a kind of logic to an illogical setting?”

Why do this? Why not?

I’m starting at the bottom with William W. Johnstone’s Ashes series (see the first installment’s review here). This strangely fits because, in spite of its nominal billing as a postapocalyptic adventure, a lot of the books are de facto “big war thrillers.” Very bad big war thrillers.

Led by super-Mary Sue Ben Raines, the “Rebels” take the fight to the enemy of the week, who range from elements of the US government to cannibals to foreign invaders to “punks”. Although their political background shifts from the doomed “Tri-states” of the first book to the “Southern United States of America” in later ones, they’re consistently referred to as the “Rebels”, so I’ll be doing the same in this piece.

Equipment/Organization

Raines’ Rebels use Cold War American equipment, although there’s lots of gimmicks and, to put it mildly, lack of rigor (for instance, one later Ashes book has an “Abrams M60 tank fitted with a flame thrower”) . Their organization ranges from four-battalion independent brigades to “Several divisions”.

If in doubt, fall back on Cold War American organization and weapons-not surprising, since the books started being published in the 1980s.

Proficiency

Let me just let Johnstone himself explain.

“The armed forces of the Tri-states ranked among the best in the world, their training a combination of Special Forces, Ranger, SEAL, and gutter-fighting. Every resident of the Tri-states, male and female, between the ages of sixteen and sixty was a member of the armed forces. They met twice a month, after their initial thirty-week basic training, and were on active duty one month each year. And the training was a no-holds-barred type.”

(Out of the Ashes, pg. 356)

(Incidentally, I think this paragraph gives a good impression of the literary quality of the Ashes books.)

So treat the Mary Sues right and give them the highest proficiency scores possible, however applicable. (So, in Command Modern Operations, they’d all get the “Ace” proficiency setting).

Other Notes

  • Ben Raines leads from the front. A lot. This makes him a good human MacGuffin/figure with max stats in a small-scale game.
  • The Rebels typically blast their opponents away quickly with tanks and artillery. Of course, what modern army doesn’t?
  • The Rebels, and to be fair, their opponents have this ability, despite a seeming apocalypse, to use huge mechanized armies without any issue whatsoever.

Conclusion

In larger-scale games, use Cold War American equipment and the highest proficiency setting the ruleset will allow. Sometimes use four-battalion brigades if that matters for the game. In smaller-scale games, Raines himself can feature in all his Mary Sue glory.

Review: Out Of The Ashes

Out Of The Ashes

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William W. Johnstone’s The Ashes series (not to be confused with the cricket series) is one of the worst long-running series ever. I might even be bold and say that it’s the single worst chronological series made by a mainstream commercial publisher that I’ve read. Even if it isn’t, it’s certainly up there. They, along with the The Big One novels, were some of my first exposure to “bad books” as I knew them.

In a fashion strangely typical of me, I read the later Ashes first, finding them via the ancient 2000s method of buying them in a bookstore. Somehow these monstrosities were successful enough to reissue after their initial publication date. So a curious thought came to me. Was there a chance, in spite of what I’d heard and read in other reviews, that the early Ashes might have been good, or at least not terribly bad? Could they have started as second-rate but readable Survivalist knockoffs and then devolved into the rambling political screeds and one-sided, toothless battles I knew them as? Did they have merit?

Well, now I’ve finished Out Of The Ashes, and I can confidently give an answer to that question. N-O-P-E.

  • The book starts with an introduction to paperback pulp author (hmm….) and former supermerc Ben Raines nobly turning down a chance to participate in a coup attempt against the EVIL LIBERAL GUN GRABBERS.
  • Then the General Jack Ripper-style conspirators, in an overlong “first act”, trigger the apocalyptic nuclear war everyone who saw the covers of the book knew would happen. It’s like if someone watched Dr. Strangelove and read the opening of a Larry Bond novel at the same time while glugging down bottle after bottle of whiskey, and then wrote something down while drunk.
  • Then Raines wakes up and experiences arguably the lamest and tamest Easy Mode Apocalypse ever, where he has no problem finding supplies (including weapons in a convenient arsenal) and bedding one beautiful woman after another while he battles and effortlessly kills all sorts of stereotypes. After this, any attempt to truly be considered post-apocalyptic stops. For what seems like the rest of the series.
  • Then the political tirades start getting even worse, with Raines starting his authoritarian Huey Long-on-steroids paradise utopia where unemployment is 0% and everyone is educated “properly”, and no one can be truly rich. But it’s not communism or socialism because of guns. Yes, he uses that exact argument in the book.
  • Then the strawman journalists, in a scene that seemed, and probably was longer than any of the actual battles, are taken to the Tri-State Glorious Peoples Democratic Republic Utopia for another exposition.
  • Then the federal EVIL LIBERAL GUN GRABBERS, in a scene that dials up the gore and squickiness (but not in a good way), slaughter the “paradise” and force Raines to return to guerilla warfare, setting up the rest of the series (don’t worry, he’ll be back commanding unrealistically huge armies and ruling Utopia 2.0 soon enough).
  • Finally, some of the Tri-States survivors and allies kill the EVIL LIBERAL GUN GRABBERS. The end, but not of the series, with its 34 (!) more installments.

Whew.

So what are the issues that plague this book and its XXXIV sequels? If I had to choose only three (and there are a lot more than those), I’d say these.

  1. Johnstone cannot write action well, and he cannot pace well, the two things cheap thriller writers need to be able to do. Pretty much every single fight amounts simply to “and then Raines shot them”, they almost never last more than a few paragraphs, and the tone of the book is such that removes the “well, they’re realistically short” justification. There are a very small number of exceptions, but it’s not worth digging through 34 books of slop when even a mediocre cheap thriller leaves Johnstone in its dust.
  2. The story frequently goes from “product of its time” to “ugly and creepy” in terms of offensiveness. The prose doesn’t help one bit, with it sounding clunky, creepy and oddly juvenile.
  3. Johnstone is not consistent or coherent in the slightest with his political tirades. Not only that, but they make the main character look pathetic, like a grumbler instead of Jerry Ahern’s stoic badass John Rourke.

This book, and this series, is one of the worst of all time.