Review: The Zone Hard Target

The Zone: Hard Target

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In 1980, Hard Target was released. It was the first book in The Zone series of post-semi-apocalyptic World War III novels. Just that description alone gives the impression of the book being weirdly different. And in many ways, it is.

The background of this book is simple, contrived, and still somewhat novel. Basically, there’s a World War III, but now the fighting is limited to a contaminated zone in Europe, and the westerners have super-hovercraft for some science fiction flair. I was reminded of the Ogre board game/franchise, which has hovercraft and limited conventional nuclear war (it makes sense in context). That came out three years before this book did, and I don’t know how much influence, if any, it had over the writing.

This is a “have your cake and eat it too” kind of book. On one hand, the action is grittier and gorier compared to some other works in the genre, and the target MacGuffin is a tank repair unit and not some kind of superweapon. On the other, it’s still very much a cheap thriller with a premise, like Twilight 2000, that’s pretty much designed to be an adventure-friendly setting.

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and Hard Target is a good book for what it is. It checks the boxes of what makes a cheap thriller passable, and as obviously contrived as they were, the setting and tone were novel enough to take things up a notch for me.

Another opinion on this book can be found on the excellent Books That Time Forgot blog.

 

Review: The Seventh Carrier

The Seventh Carrier

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Peter Albano’s The Seventh Carrier is one of those novels that rivals even Lunnon-Wood’s Dark Rose for “most ridiculous premise yet”. In it, an American boat, and later a Coast Guard helicopter are attacked by something using World War II Japanese ammunition. There are rumors that it’s some kind of privateer using surplus weapons, but it’s not, as the survivors of the boat, held captive, can attest.

It’s the Yonaga, a fourth Yamato hull, turned into a carrier like Shinano. Kept hidden in a cove, it was frozen for forty years. According to the book it was because of a glacier rockslide, but I know a zombie sorceress froze it with her fimbulvter ice magic. They survived (not in suspended animation) by, among other things, tapping into geothermal steam power. Then they eventually attack Pearl Harbor anyway with their propeller planes and do better than they ought to. This is not the kind of book where thinking about how things in it would plausibly happen is encouraged.

The action is good, even if it’s somehow both a little kooky (guess why) and a little rote (a few too many exact descriptions of what the aircraft did). The characterization is not. To say that the portrayal of the Japanese is stereotypical is like saying that Manute Bol was a little tall, and the other characters aren’t much better.

It’s not the worst book ever, but like Dark Rose with its Libyan-Palestinian invasion of Ireland, The Seventh Carrier is better for the ridiculous novelty of the premise than the actual substance of the execution.

Review: Between Two Scorpions

Between Two Scorpions

Political columnist and journalist Jim Geraghty’s first novel was The Weed Agency, a fluffy tale of a fictional government agency that proved as enduring as its nominal targets. His second, Between Two Scorpions, is a far different beast. In it, a married couple of spooks travel around the world as they battle a decidedly unconventional terrorist threat.

Despite the very different genre I could see a lot of the same quirky strengths that brought The Weed Agency to life. Geraghty has a great sense of humor and it shows throughout the novel. The action is very good and the settings (including my personal favorite of Central Asia) are very novel. A big help is that the book isn’t as axe-grindingly partisan as one might fear one written by a conservative columnist would be.

The biggest issue I can pinpoint is a bit of thematic dissonance. Basically, the sincere, serious, and thought-provoking commentary on how a media culture can amplify hysteria is done well, but it doesn’t mesh the best with the witty globetrotting superspy adventure story. That being said, it’s not the worst offender in that regard I’ve read by far, it’s a forgivable lapse, and I can give Geraghty credit for trying to be topical in a way that’s more than superficial and still doing well.

There are a few other minor bumps, but it otherwise does well. Between Two Scorpions is a fun, solid novel that dares to stretch a little, and I recommend it.

Review: The Pact

The Pact

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Robert Patrick Lewis’ The Pact is the tale of Special Forces operators representing the only viable defense against a Russian-Chinese-Iranian invasion of the United States. The good news about this book is that Lewis is a Special Forces veteran who brings his knowledge to it. The bad news about this book is that Lewis is a Special Forces veteran who brings his biases to it.

The plot is the same kind of basic invasion novel plot that was old when Teddy Roosevelt was young. After the EVIL LIBERAL GUN GRABBERS have had their way with the US, the enemy alliance swoops in with computer attacks and unconventional warfare that naturally goes off without a hitch, save for the intervention of the special forces vets who’ve planned and built the lairs and stockpiled the equipment needed (against the advice of their nagging wives, of course). Then they fight back with the aid of a Freemason counter-conspiracy.

The first problem is that the action in this book is too realistic for its own good. I can’t blame a genuine veteran for writing what he knows, but come on. Axis Of Evil invasions and Freemason-operated super-bunkers do not exactly go well with detailed, nominally realistic operations. It also has a lot of “have your cake and eat it too”, such as one scene where it’s mentioned how hard it is to shoot down a helicopter with an unguided weapon-but oh look, they did it anyway.  Finally, realism or not, it isn’t the best written.

The second and bigger problem is that the main character is totally insufferable. He spends the entire first-person book monologing repeatedly about how awesome special forces are and how awesome he is. Repeatedly and constantly. It had the opposite effect on me, giving the impression of an arrogant swashbuckler who’d be foolishly overconfident if not for plot shields. The scene where the heroes find a former EVIL LIBERAL GUN GRABBER politician turned prisoner and execute her while smiling didn’t really help matters either. The icing on the cake is when the main character turns out to have the same name as the author. Really.

And those plot shields are there, from the “conveniently lucky” (the enemy neglecting flank protection) to the blatant (an M2 Bradley falling right into their laps). It’s a problem I’ve noticed in, of all things, some of the more out-there modules in Twilight 2000. If the mechanics/style is supposed to be realistic and grounded but the plot calls for the protagonists to do extraordinary things, you need a lot of pure contrivances for them to succeed. It’s a very tough tightrope to walk, especially when the premise is stretched to the level it is here.

Even by the standards of the “invasion novel”, there’s better works in the genre out there than this one. I’m not going to say it’s impossible to mix the concept of a Jerry Ahern novel and the rigorous execution of say, a Duffer’s Drift-style work like The Defense of Hill 781. But it would require a considerably better author than the one who wrote The Pact.

Review: PRIMAL Unleashed

PRIMAL Unleashed

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PRIMAL Origins was good. PRIMAL Unleashed is better. Here Jack Silkstone hits his stride with the super-agent supermercs as they fight warlords and arms dealers in a struggle from Afghanistan to Eastern Europe and beyond. To be honest, it felt a little like X-COM, only against terrorists instead of aliens.

It’s just a really good example of a cheap thriller that hit all the right notes. The plotting and pacing are well done. The action manages to be well done with just a touch of grounding even as spectacular feats are performed. The enemy is credible (from a challenge standpoint) and Silkstone isn’t afraid to have them do damage to the heroes.

There’s also, completing the puzzle, a diversity of action that fits very well. It isn’t just a classic Gold Eagle-style “a few guys with rifles”. There’s scenes in APCs, shootouts, and aircraft attacks. This feels closer to the ideal of “a more serious Mack Maloney” I’ve always sought than any other book I’ve read in quite some time.

It’s also an example of the post-2000 technothriller. Which is to say, it’s a story of super-technology and special forces as they fight to stop the villains from taking the MacGuffin. But here, it’s done right. I highly recommend this book.

Snippet Reviews: July 1-6, 2019

Ok, it’s time for the next round of snippet reviews.

Trident Force

Trident Force is one of those mushy, mediocre 2000s cheap thrillers, not bad so much as just dull. Not much action happens, and not much else interesting happens (it’s definitely not a Melville-style “slice of military life” book-it’s meant to be a thriller). A one sentence summary is “A lethargic version of SEAL Team Seven”.

I don’t know why I keep reading thrillers from this time period, but I do. Maybe it’s the hope of finding another Tin Soldiers, or maybe it’s a weird fascination with seeing a genre at its lowest.

Merchants Of War

Merchants of War is a decent mindless popcorn mecha action novel. It’s let down by a few weird perspective shifts, but still works if you just want to see mechs explode. You have to suspend disbelief about their effectiveness, but that’s true of almost all fiction.

Belfast Blitz

A middling entry in the Cody’s Army series, for the most part Belfast Blitz offers what one might expect from a second-tier 1980s action-adventure series. The “International Flashpoint” wheel landed on “Northern Ireland” for this adventure. The only standout is an incredibly telegraphed “tragic love story” between the British member of the Army and a local woman.

Review: The Battle Begins

The Battle Begins

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So, a part of me, probably the same part of me that went “OK, read a long Jerry Ahern series in order”, said “OK, now read another, slightly less long Jerry Ahern series in order.” So it was time to go to the Defender series, namely the first installment, The Battle Begins.

Instead of John Rourke, ex-supercommando and high-powered gun nut, we have David Holden, ex-supercommando and high-powered gun nut. Cue a large amount of action as he and a group of “Patriots” fight back against a plot that can best be described as “Cyrus from The Warriors actually put his mega-gang war plan into action, and he was sponsored by the Kremlin.”

This has many of the same strengths as The Survivalist. Namely, it’s 80s action in novel form with a sincere attempt at humanizing its protagonists that isn’t seen as often as it should be. When the inevitable Detonics .45 pistol showed up, to me it was like the scene in a Zelda game when Link grabs the Master Sword. And the final battle is in a nuclear power plant with a computerized voice counting down the seconds until meltdown, with said meltdown able to be stopped by pushing one button.

Yet it has some of the Survivalist’s weaknesses as well, and then some. First, it’s a lot more politicized than the Survivalist ever was, and while the portrayal of the Soviets in Total War was decently evenhanded, the portrayal of the antagonists in this book is not. Ahern put a lot of effort into trying to dodge the uncomfortable racial implications by blatantly diversifying his heroes. He put very little in trying to make their opponents even slightly sympathetic. But then again, this is a 1980s action novel, and at least it’s not that much worse.

The phrase “at least it’s not that much worse” can arguably be applied to this book as a whole. Is it better than The Survivalist? No. Would I recommend it over the Survivalist to someone for their first Jerry Ahern book? Is it still a perfectly readable ridiculous over the top 1980s action novel? You bet it is.

 

Review: The Alpha Deception

The Alpha Deception

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It’s not Jon Land’s fault that his first Blaine McCracken book left big shoes to fill. How does the second, The Alpha Deception, fare? In it, Blaine McCracken has another crazy adventure as he fights a rogue Soviet general with a death ray and an army of cheap thriller flunkies.

The book starts with a scene where a Hind-D helicopter is treated like it’s some kind of Airwolf-style superweapon. It only gets more ridiculous from there, from a fight with a pet panther to McCracken being subjected to a combination Dr. Evil Deathtrap and Greek mythology reenactment to a giant submarine/crab-mecha.

There’s a few stumbles with the plot. First, the ending is, well, a little Indiana Jones-y, and not in a good way. More important is the plot centered around the villain’s takeover of a small town and the resistance of its residents, which is far less interesting than McCracken’s own exploits (until, of course, they intersect). But those stumbles are very small, and The Alpha Deception maintains all the charm of the first book and then some.

 

Review: Firefall

Firefall

Ed Ruggero’s Firefall was a disappointment.

On paper, it had a lot to recommend. It was written by a veteran Ranger. I heard good things about his premier novel, 38 North Yankee (which I still haven’t read yet). Because of these, I had high hopes for it.

Sadly, it was a let-down for two reasons. The first was the simple prose. It’s just ‘meh’. Not absolutely bad or unreadable. Just “meh”, a middle of the road cheap thriller that was firmly in the forgettable middle of the pack. The second is the plot, a rare case when the post-USSR scramble for different opponents turned out poorly. The zombie sorceress in charge of coming up with the opponent pulled “neo-fascist German militia” out of her hat.

This made me disappointed in it. It probably made me disappointed more than I should have been, but still. The zombie sorceresses were purely and simply unnecessary. The list of potential opponents that can credibly threaten a ranger company/battalion is much, much longer than the remaining national-level challenges that technothriller writers tried desperately to find. What would be a mild opponent (in big picture terms) to a heavy brigade is something far worse to a light, unconventional one. In many cases, the ranger unit would need every force multiplier available to not just get crushed.

So what I was hoping for was someone using genuine expertise to lend a slightly fanciful story a hand. What I got was merely decent prose in service to a story that exemplified a bad trend in action/technothrillers. Namely, taking an out-there concept/threat and treating it in a bland, po-faced way.

Firefall is not bad, and viewed in another context it would work as a “51% book”, but I still found it disappointing.