Guns of Cheap Thrillers

I’ve found there are three main categories of firearms writers use in cheap thrillers. I want to note that all three can be done well or done badly, and that even them being chosen poorly is almost never a story-breaker on its own.

Category A: Generic

Common to people with little knowledge of the subject matter, Category A firearms tend to be fallbacks on the most generic, widely used, and widely known boomsticks. Stuff like “M-16s, AR-15s, AK-47s, Glocks”, and “RPGs”.

Done Well: Common weapons are common for a reason. In many, arguably even most cases, you don’t really need to know the exact details. Just “the guard had a Glock” or something along those lines can do in many cases. Or even less.

Done Poorly: When it’s clear the author wasn’t doing much research and just took what they heard. This is clear when it’s accompanied by an incorrect caliber or some other fairly obvious detail, ie, one thriller with a “.25 Glock”. Often this is a “brown M&M” (from an infamous Van Halen contract that had a request for a bowl of M&Ms but no brown ones to make sure the contractors were reading it closely) that shows something else is off.

Category B: Specific

This ranges from knowing the specific kind of what a certain country/organization uses to the kind of exact descriptions [certain obscure AR-15 variant by certain obscure company] in [certain obscure caliber] with [certain obscure accessories] firing [exact weight of the bullet].

Done Well: In many cases, it’s more accurate to have someone who, for whatever reason, doesn’t use the most common firearm. It can add legitimate flavor and be a “bowl without brown M&Ms” in a good way.

Done Poorly: Besides the inherent issues with overly detailed exposition, this can be jarring if its combined with bad research in regard to something else. That something can even be other weapons-I’ve found super gun-exposition and terrible detail in anything bigger than a belt-fed MG. It’s like a sports story where the car used to drive the characters to the stadium is overly detailed (“A 1999 Ford Crown Victoria LX with a 4.6 liter V8…”), but then once they get there, says “And then they watched the Yankees win the Stanley Cup with twenty dunks.”

Category C: Exotic

There’s a lot of overlap with the first two categories here, but I feel it’s worth mentioning. Basically, “exotic” weapons that are very big (Desert Eagles! .44s! .44 Desert Eagles!), operate on a very unconventional system (The infamous G-11), or both are a staple of classic action-adventure fiction.

Done Well: I don’t fault an author for wanting to throw in their favorite obscure “pieces”, I do the same in a lot of my CMANO scenarios with aircraft and ships, and especially if they know what they’re doing, it can be fun. Like knowing the impractically of a Desert Eagle but giving it to a Ziggy Sobotka-esque dummy as a sign of his style-over-substance personality, or knowing the legitimate advantages/capabilities of an exotic and using it.

Done Poorly: This can have the flaws of either category, amplified by the nature of the weapons themselves. The “common exotics” lean more to Category A, while ones the author has a specific liking to move more to Category B.

 

Review: White Jacket

White Jacket

So, the time has come to review someone I probably didn’t think I’d be reviewing when I started the blog-Herman Melville and his naval book White-Jacket.

Now, I’ve used the term “Herman Melville for _______” to describe fiction that is overly descriptive at the expense of other things , ie “Team Yankee occasionally devolves into Herman Melville for tanks”. Thus, White Jacket is Herman Melville for Herman Melville. To be fair a lot of 19th century novels are like that, it’s just the writing style of the time, but Melville particularly stands out.

Even at the time, Melville didn’t think very highly of this book, viewing it as something done purely for the money. Even a century and a half apart, I can see the reasoning “Ok, I need a book done, I’ll just slightly fictionalize my experience in the US Navy and send it to the printers.”

White-Jacket, in spite of its clunkiness, manages to stand out for two reasons. The first is its historical value in the life of a 19th century sailor and the operations of the US Navy at the time. The second is that yes, it’s realistic. You want a truly realistic military story, something like this with modern technology is what you’re going to get. I’ve said only part-jokingly that a truly realistic military video game wouldn’t be ARMA , it’d be Desert Bus. This is why I’m not a stickler for realism in literature.

Review: Return of The Starfighter

Return Of the Starfighter

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It says something about how crazy the Black Eagle Force series is when a book with the premise of a Chinese catamaran supercarrier leading a would-be invasion of the west coast prompted in part by the Federal Reserve’s loose monetary policy is one of the tamer and more grounded entries. And yet, that is how Return Of The Starfighter felt. The BEF fights alongside restored and upgraded Cold War aircraft (like the F-104) to battle the invasion fleet.

The Black Eagle Force series is kind of like the literary equivalent of the Postal 2 video game. It’s rather “dubious”, makes no sense,  always teeters on and sometimes crosses the line from “tasteless” to “offensive”, and isn’t the best set up, but the pure spectacle is what makes it enjoyable.

Lose the spectacle and the series loses its appeal, turning into a too clunky, too descriptive, too infodump-heavy technothriller. Return of The Starfighter, coming on the heels of Sacred Mountain’s goofy-crazy ridiculousness, tones it down ever so slightly and ends up looking a little like an avant-garde band’s attempt to play “normal” music. That some of the plot and battle elements are inevitably repeating by the third installment also doesn’t help.

It’s still over the top and still has its sense of wonder. This series, thankfully, isn’t devolving into later-Clancy levels of over-seriousness and pretentiousness by any means. But for a series that runs on crazy, going closer to mundanity takes away the greatest fun. Even if the mundanity comes in the form of a two-hulled mega-aircraft-carrier.

Review: Strike Vector

Strike Vector

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Strike Vector is the the second book in the Marine Force One series. Whereas the first book was a 51% book, this feels a little worse.

The plot deals with Marine Force One going on a mission to stop smuggled superweapon MacGuffins from reaching Saddam Hussein (this book was published in 2002). The opening part has a lot of badly written sexual sleaze to it (guess how much that adds to the novel), and the main action portion, as Maj. Saxon and his team fight their way through the Middle East, has such wonders as an AC-130 engaging MiG-29s in aerial combat and managing to destroy one of them before being shot down.

As for the main event, it has three problems. The first is the devolution of its main character. In the first book, Saxon was an ass. Here he’s an undeveloped trigger-puller who’s just there to fight and be present for the battles.

The second is that the battles themselves never really rise that high. The writing on them is still very much at the “51% level”, and the main characters are a little too capable for the tone. The character of Maj. Saxon may be toned down, but the fighting capability of Maj. Saxon is still very, very great. The third is that there are a few too many gimmicks in the action scenes, a few too many fights for the sake of fights.

The result is a slightly worse-than-normal entry in a middling series.

Review: Scythian Dawn

Scythian Dawn

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I’ve always had a soft spot for the underused Central Asia in fiction. So when I saw P. K. Lentz’s Scythian Dawn, I knew I had to pick it up. It’s a self-proclaimed “barbarian space opera”, and I was intrigued from the start. That sums it up-it’s nomadic warriors against spaceships. And no, it’s not a stomp or a lopsided game of Civilization.

The execution of the book is merely decent, but I’m willing to accept a decent execution for a very imaginative premise. After all, a Central Asian princess-turned nomad-turned enhanced fighter is more interesting than a spacesuit commando by far.

 

Review: Contract For Slaughter

Contract For Slaughter

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The first book in the “Eagle Force” series, Contract For Slaughter was released in 1989 by Dan Schmidt, a veteran of the action-adventure genre who wrote literal dozens of Mack Bolan tales. Coming close to the tail end of the 80s action-novel boom, it provides a very, very good example of it.

It’s a team-centric book where a group of colorful mercenaries in the low single digits (in this case four people) form and fight. This is both a first installment (so it has a not insignificant space devoted to the “forming” part) and it’s short (so there’s less room for the final fight). Though to be fair, a lot of the “forming” segments involve fighting too. Lots and lots and lots of fighting. The action is solid for a book of this genre, even if not the absolute best, and Schmidt wasn’t afraid to throw a curveball in terms of the plot and enemies.

What stood out to me, at least a little, was how the weapons were basically 80s Action Novel Bingo. What felt like every single flashy and exotic writers toy showed up in the pages of this book. Ooh, big MM-1 grenade launchers! Ooh, super-advanced G11 rifles! And of course, the classic giant pistols (can’t forget them). Even Jerry Ahern’s beloved Detonics show up as well.

This was one of the cheapest of the cheap thrillers, but I had lots of fun with it nonetheless.

 

Review: Any Means Necessary

Any Means Necessary

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Jack Mars’ debut thriller in the Luke Stone series, Any Means Necessary, was interesting to comprehend. The way I appreciated it was something. The book itself stars super-agent Luke Stone as he battles a Cheap Thriller Evil Plot, and it’s the kind of cheap thriller that has one foot in action movies (read, the protagonist can stay awake for days and jump from a helicopter to a car, crash said car, and still be fine) and the other in 24.

Without spoiling anything, the antagonists shift midway from one cliche cheap thriller foe to another cliche cheap thriller foe. It’s very, very much a “21st Century Thriller” where the technothriller and action adventure genres (always closer than it sometimes seemed) kind of mushed together. And it’s definitely a “51% book”, the kind that’s perfectly fun and adequate, if not excellent even within its genre.

But as an independent novel it’s a different kind of “51% book”. If a mainline commercial 51% book is like a packaged pastry on a store shelf, independent 51% books like this are like the kind of homemade scratch-baked dessert that may not be the most sophisticated or even best-tasting, but still is good and has a kind of “heart appeal”. And this describes Any Means Necessary very well. It’s a homemade apple strudel of a book. And you could do worse than homemade apple strudels.

Review: Retribution

Retribution: A Team Reaper Thriller

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Brent Towns’ Retribution is the inaugural book in the Team Reaper series, intended as a modern continuation of classic action-adventure novels. Here, the titular team forms and battles a Mexican drug cartel, along with its crooked political allies.

This is not high literature by any means and takes its time getting going. I felt the early pacing was slightly sluggish, though not nearly enough to really hurt the book overall…

…especially since the main pacing, once the action really starts, is excellent. As is the action itself. This is an unashamed homage to classic action adventure fiction and works very well at recreating the feel of the genre. The action is good, and that’s what matters in a book like this.

Retribution is a book that I recommend for anyone who likes classic action novels.

Review: The Red Collusion

The Red Collusion

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David Yaron’s The Red Collusion is a tale of rogue Soviets in 1981 attempting to start World War III, leading to a climax where they attempt to attack an American ballistic missile submarine.

This book is mostly pedestrian but has managed to surprise me in one regard-the sheer number of conference room scenes. The ratio of “people talking” scenes to “people actually doing something” scenes is very, very, high.

It’s realistic to have people talking and arguing about a big plan before they (attempt to) carry it out, but it’s also realistic to have cars stopped at red lights. Imagine a travel book where the author described every single red light, stop sign, and gas station the car stopped at, as well as every single argument the occupants of the car had about where to stop for gas or food. And then in the final action, there’s a time limit-so they urgently, reluctantly, and desperately stop at those traffic lights.

This is the technothriller version of that. Much of the book, apart from a few decently-written if generic spy fiction scenes, consists of the conspirators talking. It amounts to chapter after chapter of…

“Let’s do this.”

(cue long explanation of and preparations for what they want to do.)

“Actually, it would be better if we did this.”

(cue long explanation/plot thread)

“No, we should really do this.

(you get the idea).

Once they finally get going, the rushed “action” isn’t the worst, but isn’t exactly good either. This leaves the book as a strangely amusing novelty. The Red Collusion is saved from  simple mediocrity by taking a genre trope to ridiculous excess. I’ll leave it up to the readers to decide if it’s a good or bad thing.

 

Review: Raptor Force

Raptor Force

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Bill Yenne’s Raptor Force is a case of a book that dips into multiple action subgenres and seems determined to take the worst parts of each while being unable to grab the best. It’s the kind of commandos-vs-terrorists novel that might seem simply pedestrian if it didn’t have the premise it did.

See, the reason the task of hunting down bloodthirsty and effective terrorists is entrusted to this mega-top-secret band of off the grid commandos (based on the Flying Tigers in-universe) is because the US (along with most other countries) gave the UN veto power over its military power projection (!). This is the kind of thing that zombie sorceresses were made to do.

The heroes are all flat space-fillers, the villains are the most cliche terrorists straight out of Command and Conquer Generals, and the stock supporting characters are exactly who you’d expect them to be. This wouldn’t be a big problem if the fundamentals were good, but they’re not.

Raptor Force has the constant perspective and place-hopping of a technothriller but none of its technology or great power conflict. It has the focus of a small-unit book but none of the spectacle or “punch” that a good one has. The actual action scenes are decidedly underwhelming, the worst thing a cheap thriller can be.

This was not a good novel. Even the potentially over the top premise wasn’t run with, opting for the overly serious technothriller style instead of a shameless spectacle.