Review: The Red Line

The Red Line

The Red Line by Walt Gragg is a recent WWIII book that happens to have been one of the few in the timeframe released by a mainstream publisher, Penguin Random House. However much I may criticize the actual book itself, the perseverance of its author, continuing for decades until he finally achieved the all-too-rare dream of such a publication, deserves nothing but praise.

As for the book itself, it would have been a routine (by my standards) cold-war-hot thriller with a few ups and downs. However, one thing made it either worse or better. That would be the way it was modernized.

Icelands

The path of the war is mostly following the understandable formulas-infodumps, viewpoint characters, a few plot-nukes, NATO winning, the drill. However, the only real twist isn’t formulaic-in a bad way.

Rivets

There’s some rivet-counting, and it doesn’t quite match the smooth flow of Peters’ Red Army in terms of removing almost all exact designations, but it’s not quite that bad. And yes, there’s the Conference Room Infodumps, which are out of place in what’s generally a low-level story.

What the “rivet” descriptions illustrate is how dated a lot of it is. I don’t fault writers for writing what they’re familiar with. But this is supposed to be a modern story, and the way it’s handled, well, see below.

Zombie Sorceresses

Oh, oh, boy. This book was, by its author’s own admission, originally written just after the Cold War, and initially imagined during it. But, at some point it was decided to make it “modern”. In practice this means nothing but changing the names of a few platforms to things like “Su-35s”, “T-90s”, and “F-22s” in a very shoved-in way.

What really made even the zombie sorceresses go “we’re gonna do what?” was the political backstory, engineered to turn the clock back to 198X while keeping things “modern” (quotes deliberate). The well-run trope of Russia turning red again is used, but that isn’t the weirdest and craziest part of the backstory. That goes to Manfred Fromisch.

So, the restored Red Russia tries to reclaim East Germany using street provocations, then Fromisch, a neo-Nazi leader and, according to the text itself, “evil man of no more than five feet”, tosses the Communists out of East Germany with his followers and, as a result, becomes a shoo-in for chancellor in the next election with an 80% approval rating. This angers the Russian (or is it Soviet) premier, who then plots the invasion of Germany. Cue the tanks.

The backstory combines the worst “set up World War III” parts of Cold War technothrillers with the most ridiculous contrivances of post-USSR technothrillers. While it doesn’t dominate the book, it’s still there in an embarrassing way.

The “Wha?”

So, with this background and scotch-taped “modernity” in mind, how’s the substance beyond the ridiculous backstory?

It’s alright. The prose is a little too flat-certainly far from being the flattest or dullest I’ve seen, but still a little flat. The characters, beyond the red and brown supervillains, aren’t that well developed. As for the action, I’ve seen better but also seen worse. Likewise for the pacing, which has the “big story in one small self-contained book” problem I’ve seen too often with other technothrillers.

Gragg has repeatedly said in interviews that he wrote the book as an anti-war novel. While I can definitely see that intent in the story, I feel it doesn’t work in that sense. At best, it falls victim to the “Truffaut effect” of trying to balance a sincere message with exciting action and not succeeding. At worst, the whole goofy supervillain backstory sabotages the message big time.

I’m not the most qualified to judge the small-unit actions, because I’ve read so many of them, but they have the same “not too good, not too bad” issue. This, of course, puts them in the category of merely decent. But decent is better than bad. It’s not unreadable and has its moments.

The Only Score That Really Matters

If you want a somewhat gritty cheap thriller involving tanks exploding in WWIII and/or want to take in the so-bad-its-good backstory and “modernization”, you could do worse than this book. Just don’t think of it as a modern story, and treat the “modern” unit names as typos the zombie sorceresses manipulated into the page, and it can work as a good enough time-passer.

But that backstory…

Review: Chieftains

Chieftains

Chieftains is an early WWIII novel (published in 1982, likely written before that) starring the titular tanks. I figured it’d be good for an initial review, as it falls nicely in the middle. It’s well-known but isn’t quite on the same level as some of the “classics” like Red Storm Rising itself. It’s also more in the middle literature-wise.

Icelands

Chieftains actually avoids many of the tropes that would make up the Iceland scale. It stays concentrated on the ground and ends in a nuclear blast. However, I believe this to more the result of its early publication, before the genre really gelled, than any degree of brilliance on Forrest-Webb’s part. It does have a lot of hopping viewpoints, mostly for the worse.

Rivets

The rivet-counting doesn’t (mostly) go into too much detail about which battalion went where, but it does go into heavy technical detail with unit designations and gun barrel sizes. Here’s where the sloppy, uneven quality of the book comes into being. The descriptions of British equipment are mostly accurate, but the American and Soviet equipment descriptions-aren’t. Especially with hindsight.

An East German Su-15 (an interceptor that served only in the specialized Soviet Air Defense Force, and which would never flown over foreign soil), fires an AA-8 missile (in reality a light air to air missile), at a ground target, to give one particularly egregious example. All sorts of prototypes and prototype names get to the front, and there’s even occasionally something like pure sloppiness, with a reference to a “T-60” tank. Including a lot of the detail and getting it wrong just seems pretty dubious-either do the research or be less “specific”.

Zombie Sorceresses

The zombie sorceresses are mostly in the background here. The war starting is glossed over, and the final nuclear blast is vague enough to not fall into my pet peeve of “plot-nukes”. To its credit, the explanation for the war starting is vague and contrived, (NATO will soon climb out of its pit and the Soviets must strike when they can) but still handwaved past quickly to get to the action. This is well-handled, and the low-level focus of the book keeps their hands from showing.

The “Wha?”

Like with the technical details, Chieftains is wildly inconsistent in literary terms. The same trend holds. British scenes and characters are mostly good, while the Americans are less so, to put it mildly. Given how Forrest-Webb portrays the Americans, I shudder to think at how he would have handled Soviet viewpoint characters. Thankfully, he doesn’t have them. The characters are serviceable by tank novel standards, and the disruptions are never that immense-the story still flows, and flows very well in spite of them. It does end too quickly even given the circumstances-its ending is like if Dr. Strangelove stopped right after the guy rode the bomb down.

The entire American segment could be cut without hurting anything. The occasional cut away from the British tank unit could be cut without hurting anything. And, finally, the “capture scene” could definitely be cut.

The action is gritting, bloody, and effective-except for the “capture scene” where the tank regiment’s commander is captured, has a flashback to sleeping with a colleague’s wife after being told of it by his interrogators, gets shot, gets up, and then shoots up the camp like an action hero, killing his torturer in a cinematic way with grenades. It’s out of place. Very out of place.

A small issue is the tone. A lot of the time it has an implicit anti-war tone simply by showing the brutality and gore first-hand, but it has a clashing explicit “this is why we need more money for the Army the politicians starved” message sometimes that also gets in the way. Bigger than that by far is the prose. Forrest-Webb’s writing is kind of clunky and he loves his exclamation points a little too much.

The Only Score That Really Matters

I liked this book. It’s a good tale of tanks exploding, and it’s got a degree of real grit to it that a lot of otherwise well-written books don’t have. I would have loved it if it wasn’t for the unevenness and sloppiness. But the sloppiness is there, and while some of the unevenness is forgivable, more of it is not.

This is a good tale, but it could have been a great one with some polish that it simply doesn’t have.

Welcome

Hi. I’m Coiler. What made me start up this separate blog when I already had one? Well, part of it was just to get the experience setting up a new, different, less casual-looking blog. But another part of it was to keep my reviews of military fiction stories from being “cluttered” amongst the various topics I like to talk and blog about on my own page.

In the past, I’ve done plenty of book reviews and comments on WWIII/wargame-friendly stories at my existing blog and elsewhere. But the hope is for these to be more “structured”. I’m aiming for specific categories:

-Icelands. This is based on an old thing I did called the “Iceland Review Scale”, to determine how formulaic this kind of WW3 fiction is. This examines how formulaic it is.

-Rivets: From the “Rivet-counting” description/insult, this examines how much technical detail is in it.

-Zombie Sorceresses. This is a weird one. Zombie sorceresses (they’re a reference to one of my childhood favorites, a Fire Emblem game), are a kind of catch-all for “handwaves”. In alternate history, this is known as “Alien Space Bats”, or “Random Omnipotent Beings” on Spacebattles. This determines how plausible or contrived it is-ie, how hard the zombie sorceresses had to work to set things up.

-The “wha”? This examines the plot and characters, and literary quality of it overall. It’s a slight poke at dry AAR-Let’s Play style stories.

-The Only Score That Really Matters.

How much I enjoyed it. The whole of a story can be a lot more than the sum of its parts, and vice versa. It’s possible to have a tale that’s formulaic even at the time, has lots of technical descriptions, has the zombie sorceresses working extra-time, and is imperfect in plot and characters-and that I still enjoyed.

So, a few things I want to say to set the tone. One is that criticizing a work, even harshly, is not the same as telling a writer to stop. I do not want any sincere, well-intended writer to stop at all, no matter how I rate their work. First, there’s always room for improvement-a lot of authors started out poor (in my mind) and got better from criticism. Second, even if I didn’t enjoy something, many other people will. Criticism should never be a signal to stop writing altogether. I know how it feels to hate one’s own writing-it is an absolutely horrible feeling. Don’t hate your own writing.

Another is my own tone. I’m trying to be somewhat lighthearted, but not too snarky. Hopefully I’ll get the tone right-I do want to experiment, after all. Trying in with the above, I tend to be very critical even of stuff I like, and can articulate what I don’t like about something more easily than I can about what I do.

Another is what I’m including.

-REVIEWS: Reviews are of either “cold war gone hot” narratives or other similarly big-scope military stories involving tanks, aircraft, and warships en masse. The lines will be a little blurry, but stuff like special forces or otherwise irregular thrillers probably won’t make the cut. The stories, or at least installments of them, have to be complete. I WILL BE INCLUDING SPOILERS IN THE REVIEWS YOU ARE WARNED.

-ESSAYS: Short (hopefully) posts on this kind of fiction, generally examining it from a literary point of view rather than a technical one. My perspective has been slanted (as everyone’s has) by several factors, so hopefully it can become a more valuable one.

With that being said, it’s time to launch the missiles at the gap.