Review: Sixth Fleet

Sixth Fleet

meadowssixthfleet

I look at the Sixth Fleet series by David Meadows. Looks like it could be to naval warfare in general what Tin Soldiers was to tanks and Raven One was to aviation. Then I look at the publication date-2001. I start to have a bad feeling. Still, I shouldn’t stereotype 2000s technothrillers, so I go ahead anyway. Then I read the book in full, and yipes.

It’s very much a 1990s technothriller at heart. Regional enemy (Libya) with a super-gimmick? Check. Hand-wringing over defense cuts? Check. COMPUTER DIGITAL WARFARE? Check. Even leaving all of that aside, the prose is just very, very clunky and any scene with a character who isn’t American is rather “dubious”.

Worse still is how the first book is meant as the opening act in a long series. This means the pacing goes from “bad” to “REALLY REALLY BAD”. I’ve seen better pacing in later Survivalist books than here, and instead of Ahern’s flights of fancy, there’s a generic “mustache twirlers with super-gimmicks” story with the usual technothriller viewpoint jumping.

I wanted to like Sixth Fleet but just couldn’t. The fundamentals are too iffy, the subject isn’t that conceptually interesting, and its pacing is just horrifically slow and uneven. In many way, it feels like the stereotypical late-1990s/2000s technothriller writ large.

Review: The Black Effect

The Black Effect

blackeffectcover

Harvey Black’s The Black Effect is the kind of book I thought I’d be reviewing en masse on this blog, at least in terms of basic plot. Namely, in 198_ World War III breaks out. Cue a lot of tanks exploding. This is the second book in Black’s _____ Effect series, and the first I reviewed at Sea Lion Press before this blog even started.

The Black Effect is what I feared Team Yankee would be before being pleasantly surprised.  It’s a mostly-conventional 198X WW3 book that happens to be a picture-perfect case for why a bowl of ingredients does not equal a meal.

Some of the individual ingredients (battle scenes) in the novel are good, if repetitive. Others are weighed down by things like Black constantly listing the full designations of every piece of equipment in overwhelming detail (fog of war? target fixation? Limited viewpoints? What are those?). But as a whole the book just amounts to a disorganized parade of various pieces of military equipment and graphene-thin Steel Panthers Characters differing only in what they’re crewing and how much ‘camera time’ that they get before being blown up.

There is an almost total lack of anything cohesive or coherent beyond “WW3 stuff happens”. It gets to the point where the intelligence photographers who were the high point of the previous installment turn into just another pace-breaking liability. This at least doesn’t have The Red Effect’s using up nearly all of its space on historical events with names badly changed (ie, Stanislav Petrov became “Perov”) before rushing to stuff a bunch of battles into the last thirty pages.

The Black Effect isn’t all bad. It’s more evenhanded than a lot of WWIII stories, it being written as an alternate history with decades of hindsight helps with some (but not all) technical accuracy issues, and it works at providing simple action scenes. It’s just I’ve read better, even in this very specific subgenre.

Review: The $3 Million Turnover

The $3 Million Turnover

I’ve been in a basketball mood recently, tracking the evolution of the sport from pre-shot clock clunking around to the 1961 superfast play to the grinding and “isoball” of the late 1990s and early 2000s to the current superfast play and three point launching. And of course the off-court drama.

So, having already heard of the “Pro” series of sports agent mysteries in the 1970s from Paperback Warrior, I read the initial hoops-centered installment, The $3 Million Turnover. Centered around a sports agent/private eye and a kidnapped star basketball prospect, I found it-iffy.

The prose is really, really dated and reads almost like an unintentional parody of old “hard boiled gumshoe” novels. There’s that and the basketball part of the story being mostly incidental to the main plot-the stuff like the then-present rivalry between the NBA and the ramshackle ABA is just window dressing and the player himself is really just a MacGuffin. I had a lot less fun with this book than I hoped I would, though to be fair I was stepping out of my comfort zone.

 

Review: Soldier of Gideon

Soldier of Gideon

soldierofgideoncover

The Casca series takes its path to the Arab-Israeli wars hinted at in the first book. Soldier of Gideon is a “modern” Casca, as opposed to the ancient Cascas. Taking place in the Six Day War, it’s typical of later Cascas-formulaic but good.

The action-packed book is in this kind of particular subgenre of war story that’s more gory and grisly than a John Wayne-style sanitized work, but still far more over the top and spectacular than a truly grounded novel. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s interesting.

(Sidenote: For whatever reason, historical war fiction isn’t usually my cup of tea. I’ve read good examples, but it just doesn’t grab me the way action-adventure or even technothrillers do. That being said, I have read enough to tell which slot Soldier of Gideon fell into)

The Arab armies seem to use primarily western equipment (to the extent that only Jordan did in the historical war)  with a few IS-3 tanks thrown in as level bosses challenging encounters. Casca and friends go to every theater of the war. In the process, Sadler demonstrated both his greatest strength and greatest weakness as the series dragged on.

The greatest strength is managing to maintain dramatic tension and fluid excitement in a story that features A: A historically decisive blowout victory, and B: An immortal protagonist. This is no easy task, and it’s a sign of Sadler’s proficiency that Casca never devolves into the “unironic One Punch Man” that it could have.

However, the other side of the coin is the almost complete lack of interest in using the immortal protagonist who’s lived for thousands of years, met every important Eurasian historical figure in that time, and is linked personally to Christianity as anything but a placeholder to build period pieces around. While cheap thrillers like these aren’t philosophical works, the wasted potential is still very high.

That said, as cheap thrillers, the Casca books still work, and work well.

 

Review: Hellfire in Haiti

Hellfire in Haiti

codysarmy2

If I had to pick a favorite entry in the seven-book Cody’s Army series, Hellfire In Haiti would easily win. Nothing else has the same mix of action, fun, and good villains. I never had as much entertainment out of a Cody’s Army book as I did here.

The entire Cody’s Army series feels to me like the action adventure novel version one of those knockoff fighting games that tried to piggyback on the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat-not bad , but the incredibly obvious influence is still there, and it could only have existed in the middle of a very big pack. Still, none of the Cody’s Army books are unreadable, and this one in particular is a highlight of the entire genre.

Hellfire in Haiti sort of recycles its main plot from an earlier Cody’s Army book, Philippine Hardpunch. There, a former buddy of Marcos plots to reconquer the Philippines. Here, a former buddy of Duvalier plots to reconquer Haiti. The former book simply didn’t punch as hard as it could (I had to say it). This delivers a Mike Tyson haymaker.

Army member Rufe Murphy is kidnapped and subjected to a voodoo ritual, adding to the over-the-topness of this book. The villains in this book are excellent action-adventure fodder. There’s main villain Clairvius Bourreau  the ex-death squad leader and drug lord who enjoys dressing in showy outfits. And there’s his American ally Wes Taggart, a psychotic former Vietnam unit-mate of protagonist John Cody. That brought a smile to my face as Taggart reminded me of some of the sort of dubious “hard man who breaks the rules” “protagonists” of more recent war-fantasy novel.

And the final battle featuring the Army vs. Bourreau’s stronghold stands as the literary version of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando. It’s easily one of the best climaxes I’ve read in an 80s action-adventure book. Cheap thrillers, especially ones of the time, don’t get much better than this.

Review: Eye Of The Storm

Eye Of The Storm

eyeofthestorm

The first book in the “Black Eagle Force” series by Ken Farmer and Buck Steinke, Eye Of The Storm is a delightfully cheesy exercise in Mack Maloney-style military melodrama.

Starting a Super Secret Task Force With Super Tech and Super Planes, the men, women, and high-tech aircraft of Black Eagle Force battle a Mexican billionaire whose last name is an obscenity in Spanish (uh…) and who has a private island with a pyramid-lair and a gigantic arsenal of soldiers and military equipment (ok…).

I was impressed. Oh, it’s not the best ever. Even beyond its cheesiness, cliche-ness, and dubious character names, it’s about a hundred pages too long. But its downsides are thankfully much fewer than its upsides. I just really like Mack Maloney-esque “over the top but not really science fiction” military action, and when the action happens, it happens well.

The nature of the story means any “errors” or “contrivances” are easily forgiven. The BEF gets opponents of an appropriately challenging nature-no small feat. It has just the right amount of threat and “look at ’em go.” This is an excellent “popcorn book” and one I was overjoyed to uncover.

Review: Death Run

Death Run

deathrrun

It was inevitable that my run of at-least “decent enough” later Mack Bolans would come to an end at some point.

The blurb was promising enough. To stop a nuke, Mack Bolan gets caught up in the world of motorcycle racing. It felt like the kind of zombie sorceress plot I enjoy, and I was wondering “So, how are these going to connect?” It reminded me of one of those missions in Grand Theft Auto games everyone hates where the boss-of-the-week forces you into this linear, nonsensical set-piece with dubious mechanics where a more direct approach is seemingly better. Something like:

“Ok, Claude/Tommy/CJ/Niko/Michael/Franklin/Trevor, the nuke is in a shack with only three guards. Last mission you killed thirty armed people, but you can’t just grab your minigun and storm the shack. No, you first have to win a motorcycle race against computer opponents who do everything but throw blue shells at you. What, that’s unfair? Well, we could have put trains in! Be lucky we didn’t do that!”

The actual book is not nearly as amusing as that hypothetical thought. The motorcycle racing plot is mostly just A: A way to set up the various Macguffins, and B: A way for the author to talk about motorcycles and motocross. Cue some of the most generic, third-rate action possible to defeat some of the most generic “evil terrorists” possible, and conclude with one of the most stereotypical “defuse the bomb” scenes.

It’s kind of a little hard to even criticize because of how shallow and generic it seems. But yeah, in short it’s shallow, generic, and the motorcycle racing plot isn’t taken advantage of in an amusing way.

 

Review: Hunter-Killer

Hunter-Killer

hkcover

Before I start my review of Hunter-Killer (or its original title, Firing Point), the submarine thriller novel about the rogue commander of the Russian Northern Fleet and the American submarine out to stop him, I must mention that I have not seen the movie adaptation. What I’ve heard about said adaptation from other people ranges from “bad, but in an amusing way” to “bad, and not in an amusing way.” But I wouldn’t know any better.

So, for the book itself, what I got was something that was neither bad (amusing or not) nor really all that good. It was a sort of middle-of-the-road technothriller (this is not an insult) that was too bulky for its own good (there’s a big plotline barely related to the submarine stuff about Russian mobsters manipulating the stock market that only exists as a form of additional ‘crisis overload’) but still managed to avoid the clunkiness of say, a later Tom Clancy book.

The submarine action itself? Passable. The SEAL action? Passable. The characters? Ehh, a little less than passable. The book was published in 2012, but feels incredibly 1990s in its depiction of Russia, some of its technology, and its overall tone. That’s one of the few really interesting things about it, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out that some of the drafts were written in that decade. Other than that, Hunter Killer/Firing Point is just a humdrum popcorn technothriller that unfortunately embraces length for length’s own sake. There’s a lot worse out there, but there’s also a lot better.

Review: Northern Fury H-Hour

Northern Fury H-Hour

(note: I received a review copy).

When I first got into Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations, I noticed a scenario set called Northern Fury, describing a third world war with a surviving USSR in the early 1990s. One of the first scenarios I played was one of the smaller ones there, called “A Cold And Lonely Place.”

Since then, I’ve been following the scenario set, and was delighted to hear that the novel had been announced. Having gotten a review copy and been cleared to post, I can say that H-Hour, the first book in the Northern Fury series, works well and dodges a lot of the pitfalls it could have fallen into. The August Coup has succeeded and the Third World War is not far off, with this story focusing not on Central Europe but in other theaters, particularly Norway and its waters.

First, it needs to be said: This book wears its technothriller heritage and inspiration on its sleeve, for better or worse. It has many of the prime technothriller elements in it. That being said, it handles them well, and in particular manages to escape-and escape completely- two pits that fiction like it tends to fall into.

The first is that it does not feel like just a rote let’s play/after action report of Command. Without giving too much away, focusing a lot on land makes it seem better, deeper, and out of the sim’s comfort zone, so to speak.

The second is more impressive and more important. Northern Fury manages to avoid what I call “Steel Panthers Characterization.” Named after how in the computer wargame “Steel Panthers”, units will have a rank and surname in the language of their nationality, Steel Panthers Characterization is when Character Name X controlling Military Weapon Y will appear in scene Z, with no characterization save for maybe a thrown-in national or rank stereotype. They will appear, operate the necessary piece of military equipment, and often die in the process. Then another flat character will appear.

In Northern Fury, this doesn’t happen. While there is a lot of viewpoint hopping, all the characters and their arcs have meat on their bones. This was an impressive feat that did a lot to raise my opinion of the book.

So, to briefly conclude, Northern Fury: H-Hour is both an excellent example of how a simulation can be used in the creation of a novel (like the original Harpoon tabletop version was for Red Storm Rising) and a very good throwback to the technothriller/WWIII fiction of days past.

Northern Fury: H-Hour releases on May 6. Its official website is here

Review: SEAL Team Seven

SEAL Team Seven

st7 coverjpg

This book about a certain amphibious special forces unit is quite possibly one of the best 1990s military/techno-thrillers I’ve read. It spawned a huge series, and I can see why. SEAL Team Seven is very, very good.

The book tells the story of Lt. Blake Murdock, the son of a powerful political family (while present, the clunky politics in this book aren’t too bad) and his titular team as they’re called to action in a big crisis. Because this is a 90s thriller, the antagonists are a zombie sorceress-assisted mix of renegade Japanese and renegade Iranians who’ve taken control of a freighter loaded with plutonium. SEAL Team Seven has good fundamentals and manages to have its cake and eat it too.

It starts with a well-written battle in post-Desert Storm Iraq. Then the opening act introduces and humanizes the characters. When the main conflict starts, the action is highly well done and manages, for the most part, just the right mixture of “grounded” and “fantastical”.

SEAL Team Seven isn’t literary fiction or anything like that, it’s still ultimately just a cheap thriller that has a lot of cheap thriller components and cliches. But it’s an excellent cheap thriller.