Review: Steel Gauntlet

Steel Gauntlet

Steel Gauntlet is Starfist at its most cheesy ridiculous. Take the MARINE FIGHTING MAN bias and add a bunch of other hangups and you get this book.

Who and What

So, the MARINES are sent to deal with a power struggle where Space Corporate Saddam Stand-In Marston St. Cyr has rebuilt an army of ancient, previously forgotten vehicles called “tanks” and used them to seize total control of a resource-rich world. Once they get past the weasely politicians and non-MARINES, the MARINES have to fight a giant tank army. And I use the term “tank army” literally.

You have the MARINES, the non-MARINE weasels, the puppy cute space pet-kicking (literally) supervillain, the damsel in distress.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

There are more than a few infodumps here, and not just of the “MARINES awesome, other branches bad” variety. The infodumps about the past of armored warfare in-universe are particularly cringeworthy-especially since I detected an author rant at more than one point.

Basically, tanks never tried to counter increasingly penetrative ATGMs through indirect means (active protection systems, jammers, or just better tactics), instead plopping armor on until the “M1D7” reached 360 tons, twice as much as the infamously unworkable Maus. It could barely move and the “Straight Arrow” anti-tank thingies smashed it anyway. Although in what I hope was a typo, the “Straight Arrow’s” stated penetration value is equal or less than second-tier Cold War ATGMs like the Dragon and Metis.

So tanks went bye-bye, until now. Now having to face “new” tanks, these centuries-old weapons (which are infodumped as having a guidance system, but are treated as ordinary bazookas in-practice) are reverse-engineered, so it’s like fighting people wearing armor with reverse-engineered big muskets.

Zombie Sorceresses

Well, the contrivances run very high here. The MARINE FIGHTING MEN have to face challenges, but the enemy has to behave in a way that doesn’t actually diminish the MARINE FIGHTING MEN. There’s a lot of “Oh look how much danger they’re in” statements that don’t sound credible, to put it mildly.

Tank Booms

There are lots of tanks booming. Their guns boom, and they boom when they explode. In the category of literal tank booms, this book has even Team Yankee or Tin Soldiers beat.

The action is not bad, but most of the first three-quarters of the book involve MARINE FIGHTING MEN destroying unsupported tank formations. The enemy artillery is stuff mounted on tanks, the enemy “infantry” is mentioned as dismounted tank crewmen (who still fall victim to our heroes as easily as their rides do), and the enemy tanks are prey for the MARINES. There’s a ridiculous “copy an amphibious landing with hovercraft” scene at the start which just seems redundant given that they’re landing from space.

The gap between theoretical and actually perceived danger is very big in this book. There’s lots of “Oh no, the undersupported MARINES are facing enemy reinforcements” statements, but almost every battle is just them hitting badly-handled tank-pure formations and wrecking them.

Then (after yet another swipe at the non-MARINE branches), the final act consists of a cloak and dagger plot and chasing Space Corporate Saddam Stand-In Marston St. Cyr himself through the mining tunnels. Here it declines a bit, as the axe-grinding combat gives way to simply decent-ish cheap thriller action.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is one of the highlights of the Starfist series. Seeing MARINES battle a strawman distorted tank force makes for a delightfully laughable tale. The tropes tip over into unintentional cheesy fun, and the book is all the better for it, helped by better fundamentals than the Starfist series sometimes has.

It moves so far so earnestly that I somehow enjoy it.

 

Unstructured Review: Starfist

Starfist

Ah, Starfist. I’ve wanted to do a piece on this series for a loooooong time. It is a series that deserves to be criticized, but with playful slaps instead of vicious claws. Starfist is something. That something is “military sci-fi cliche bingo”.

  • First is the technology, which is the height of “Vietnam but with a coating of laser and a gimmick or two”. It uses advanced technology neither in semi-realistic fashion (IE, drones, AI, etc…) or over-the-top fashion (giant mechs, etc…)
  • Then there’s the tone of the writing, which manages to be some of the most “MARINES!” type of prose I’ve ever encountered. I’ve read plenty of books by other veterans, and most don’t have a tone as “RAR! We’re MARINES, you know!” as this.
  • Then there’s the bias (to put it mildly) of the authors towards the MARINE FIGHTING MAN. It gets really, really, really bad.

That’s the baseline, which is enough to give this series a review. However, there’s something else that’s both a problem and an opportunity for giving individual books specific reviews. That would be the great inconsistency of the series. The prose is never truly bad by itself, and they never feel too long.

However, even in the small sample size I’ve personally read, the series has zigzagged from “Decent time-passing cheap thriller” to “laughably enjoyable thanks to the ridiculous yet self-serious action” to just plain bad. One thing that doesn’t help this is the tendency of the books to have long, barely connected subplots. Still, I can’t be mad at Starfist, for it is quite simply something, if only something that becomes so cliche it stands out.

Review: The War That Never Was

The War That Never Was

After some diversions, it’s time to review something that I had in mind when I started Fuldapocalypse. I knew of Michael Palmer’s The War That Never Was from the Command: Modern Air Naval Operations scenarios based on it. These motivated me to get the book itself. Broadening the scope of Fuldapocalypse has been very good, but this is as “World War III novel” as it gets.

This is something of a cult classic. If works like Red Storm Rising, Team Yankee, and Red Army represent the most mainstream that World War III novels got, this, apparently based on the Newport Global War Games, is a more inherently niche, wargamey work. And after reading it, it’s understandable.

Who and What

There’s a sort of semi-plot here. A wargame occurs in-universe in the prologue as a vague husk of a fig leaf of a justification. Then it’s mostly just a detailed sequence of events. The Central Front is mentioned sometimes, but most of the book deals with the events on the periphery-the northern oceans, the Mediterranean, and other theaters. Then there’s an epilogue that’s kind of sour. It’s a mix of political tract, “do you get the point, reader?” infodump, and shining light on the graphene-thin setup. Thankfully the epilogue is very small.

The characters are essentially placeholder names there to command or crew pieces of military equipment and lighten up the “after action report” ever so slightly.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

The entire book is basically one big infodump. But it’s not trying to be anything else, so the question of relevance is tough to answer. I’d say that as much as this sort of thing normally isn’t my style, there isn’t too much pointless infodumping. Yes, there’s detailed infodumps about forces, but the forces fight equally detailed battles.

Zombie Sorceresses

There’s the classic zombie sorceress handwaves of the war starting in the first place (although there’s no political elaboration, something I’m grateful for) and it staying conventional. The latter is even mentioned in the epilogue.

There are a lot of other prospective nitpicks, but the book stays grounded enough that I felt it was unfair to go too much in depth. The wargaming link helps it here. Trying out different, even seemingly low-probability courses of action is one of the reasons wargaming exists, and none of the paths it takes are really that outlandish.

Tank Booms

The book starts with a booming tank battle, but one shouldn’t be fooled. This is in many ways the antithesis of something like Team Yankee. The level of detached detail in this book is so great that it’s little surprise how eagerly Command (and Harpoon, and no doubt other wargame) scenario creators moved to follow it.

So reading a wargame AAR/Let’s Play gives an idea for how most of the battles turn out. Lots of detail, lots of exact detail.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Save for a few “hiccups” and vignettes like the epilogue and a few “character scenes”, The War That Never Was sticks to a niche and is unapologetic about staying there. This book is not for everyone, or even a lot of people. However, it is what it is and it manages to be interesting as a detailed snapshot.

I’ll admit for me there’s a huge “seen so many imitators the original doesn’t seem so original” effect here, but even someone as slanted as me can still appreciate The War That Never Was and its influence.

Review: Battle Front (USA VS Militia)

Ian Slater’s Battle Front spun the 90s Technothriller Opponent Selector Wheel and it landed on “Militias”. While Slater has written some proper World War III novels, this is my first introduction  to him.

Who and What

Now, it wasn’t until sometime in that I found out this was one of the middle books in a five-book series. That explained some of the confusion, but I wasn’t that lost before. There is a Second American Civil War between the federal government and right-wing militias who are both cartoonishly racist puppy kickers and far more competent than they would have any right to be. On the federal government’s side is main character General Mary Sue-I mean, Douglas Freeman.

Now, the book kind of rambles and jumps around, but what was interesting (and good) to me was how it didn’t feel like an axe-grinding polemic. Nor did it feel like a parody either. It takes this crazy setup and plays it completely, sometimes boringly straight. Normally I’d praise a book for not being too political, but it just feels strange. Maybe it’s that the non-American Slater didn’t have a feel for American politics, but that doesn’t explain all of it.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

The book can get kind of infodumpy and it never seems to enter full gritty story mode. Furthermore, a lot of the infodumps are strange and frequently inaccurate (for example, one used ‘TOW’ as a generic term for anti-tank rounds. Not even missiles, rounds).

Zombie Sorceresses

The zombie sorceresses made American militias number in the hundreds of thousands, be unified, and be competent. The latter part required the most zombie sorceress intervention.

Tank Booms

The action is mostly dull and somewhat infodumpy, but it gets the occasional ridiculous moment, like how the evil militia are preternaturally competent (to drive the plot) and the ridiculous stuff like over-effective reactive armor (except it’s described as if it was inert add-on armor) on pickup trucks.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This book is about 5-10% crazy goofy, and about 90-95% dull tedium. Yet I’m a sucker for even a little bit of crazy goofiness. A lot of other readers might not be.

Review: Protect And Defend

Protect And Defend

Protect and Defend by Eric Harry is a very good post-1991 technothriller, albeit one with the issues of the genre. I had mixed feelings about Harry’s Arc Light when I reviewed it here, but enjoy this newer book more.

Icelands

There’s viewpoint hopping, assassination conspiracies, and crisis overload. But there’s also a very novel setting that the ridiculous plot is used to set up-an old-style Chinese army invading the Russian Far East.

Rivets

The gritty infantry combat means the rivet counting is very limited, certainly in comparison with Arc Light. When infodumps happen, they’re generally more relevant.

Zombie Sorceresses

The setup involves an “Anarchist” takeover of Russia and mass assassination of world leaders that leads to an UN force in eastern Siberia, followed by a large Chinese invasion. Ok.

Then when the action starts, both sides have their technology downplayed. China should be several years into its boom-fueled military modernization, yet for the most part it’s treated like a Korean War-era infantry fieldcraft army. The UN, facing such an army, should leverage every technological advantage, but that’s not the focus.

In literary terms this is a good thing (see below), but I still raised an eyebrow more than once at this.

The “Wha?”

Protect and Defend keeps many of the some problems as Arc Light. The tinny, clunky politics get in the way too often. Some of the scenes are a little superfluous, with me thinking “is it really important to show basic training so many times?”.

When it gets to the action, though, it works considerably better. It’s down and dirty infantry combat that, however potentially anachronistic, serves as a nice contrast from the stereotypical technothriller and shows Harry’s resisting the temptation of making it (as Arc Light was) a technological knockout punch . The infantry fighting does get a little too repetitive by the end and the ending itself is kind of abrupt, but those aren’t deal-breakers by any means.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Protect and Defend is one of the better post-1991 military thrillers, and I liked it considerably better than Arc Light. I’d give more credit to changing styles than Harry improving in the fundamentals (although he still did), but the result is what it is-a good cheap thriller if you can get past the setup.

 

Unstructured Review: The Survivalist

Having completed the Herculean task of finishing the entire Survivalist series, I figured it would be ideal for my first unstructured review. The “formal” parts can be found in my reviews of Total War and Pursuit, and not that much has changed in terms of zombie sorceress contrivance or rivet-counting detail.

The first nine books are good fun for anyone who likes 80s cheap thrillers, and the overall arc provided the series with a natural stopping point. The Rourke family and friends ride out the fire wave around the world in suspended animation, and they wake up to await the return of the Eden Project, a similarly suspended group of people launched into space just before the nuclear war to return a long time later.

Ideally, they’d ensure the safe return (with Billy Thorpe’s “Children of the Sun” blaring? 😛 ) and that would be that.

_ _ _ _ _ _

Instead, after the tenth book, the series felt increasingly less post-apocalyptic and more self-indulgent. Ahern could finally write the sci-fi he wanted to, and the books felt like an author’s toy box. This is not a bad thing at all by itself-after all, more than two dozen books of Rourke flopping around in the wilderness would have felt monstrously dull and samey in its own right. However, the hearts of the books are still close combat with laboriously described pistols, bullets, and knives. It’s just occuring around a backdrop that by the end involves Nazi mad scientists, memory-implanted clones, and hypersonic fighter aircraft.

The soap-opera serial nature meant a clear-cut possible ending never emerged again after the ninth book (even the finale is kind of rushed). The characters almost never have to scavenge and can fish from convenient arsenals. The world has a “Fallout game” problem of everything working after sitting for centuries (and of course, everyone using either real or replica versions of centuries-old equipment). Convenient underground and underwater cities emerge when the plot calls for it. The series never was “plausible” and had ridiculous geology from the get-go, but the parade of gimmicks still felt contrived.

The rough and tumble charm of the first few books is gone and the sci-fi action stuff doesn’t quite rise to the level of replacing it. If I had to give a reason, it’s a sort of “have the cake and eat it too” effect where there’s all this supertech but still the good old familiar (and of course, exactly infodumped) weapons. The science fiction tone isn’t really that much of a problem, but I still liked the original postapocalyptic one better and have read better military science fiction than the weird hybrid Ahern made.

And then there are the fundamentals. They don’t get that much worse, but often they weren’t the best to start with. That Ahern wasn’t afraid to shake up the character relationships and kill an important character off is a good thing. That Ahern devoted a lot of time to characters pondering about their lives and continued a love triangle for muuuuch longer than he should have is not. For the action and prose, Ahern’s definitely not the worst, but he doesn’t really try to grow that much.

The later books are still readable and still have the action feel -if they didn’t, I wouldn’t have finished them-, but the series definitely goes past the point of diminishing returns after the ninth or tenth book and the lack of “compartmentalization” means they’re less enjoyable on their own.

_ _ _ _ _ _

I’d only really recommend the first nine books to cheap thriller fans. I must emphasize I don’t want to be too hard on the later ones in spite of my critique. A much better author would still struggle with keeping quality up over a very, very long series. Ahern was clearly writing the way he liked and was making a sincere effort to be different. The books kept flowing well and did not devolve into total clunkers like say, later Tom Clancy ones.

But they’re still less interesting and unless one is really into Ahern’s writing or is determined to see the overall plot through to the end, I’d say that there’s better sci-fi or contemporary action novels out there than the later Survivalist novels. Still, nine fun goofy over the top cheap thrillers isn’t bad.

 

Review: Long Reach

Long Reach

What do you get when you take the scrambling paradigm of the post-1991 technothriller, a country that was always on a lower ‘tier’ to start with, and an interesting prose style? This. Long Reach by Mike Lunnon-Wood tells the story of a Guatemalan invasion of Belize, one of the British Western Hemisphere flashpoints-a far cry from the goofball Libyan-Palestinian invasion of Ireland in Dark Rose.

It’s an example of a story I wasn’t the fondest of personally, but can still see as well done.

Icelands

Long Reach follows the formula of the ‘national-scale’ cheap thriller fairly well. Viewpoint hopping, crisis, the like. That it has to be a British-scaled cheap thriller means everything has to be toned down compared to an American-scaled one, so it handles it.

Rivets

This book does have a lot of rivet-counting, although it’s mostly a symptom of the overall prose. I’ll talk about that more in “The ‘Wha?'”.

Zombie Sorceresses

Except for a bit of logistical handwaving on both sides to help smooth things along, the zombie sorceresses actually don’t have much to do here. They needed a break after Dark Rose, and they got one, for which I’m sure they’re grateful.

The “Wha?”

The plot is what it is and the characters are mostly flat, but the prose has the same issues Dark Rose has-it’s this (to me) overly lush, overly detailed, overly Hemingway-esque writing style that feels a little iffy for the boom-boom cheap thriller it is.

Thankfully, it’s a lot better paced and cohesive than Dark Rose.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is a somewhat tricky one. For all its issues, Long Reach is not badly written, and it manages to dodge a lot of issues that could have sunk it. The enemy is more plausible, the action detailed, and for all the prose gets clunky, it could have been worse. It’s readable and conceptually interesting. After all, if American post-1991 military thrillers had to struggle with scaling down their opponents, British ones with a smaller base had to go even lower.

I just didn’t find it the best myself, because of personal quibbles with his writing style. But it’s both more plausible and better-paced than Dark Rose, and you could do a lot worse if you wanted a military cheap thriller.

Review: Proud Legions

Proud Legions

Proud Legions is a book featuring another Korean War, the second of two feared “major theater war” locations in the 1991-2001 period. Its author, John Antal, had written several “choose-your-own-COA” ones beforehand and composed extensively for Armor Magazine. That combined with his own tank experience in South Korea made me eager for the book. I instantly thought of comparisons to Tin Soldiers, another armor-veteran composed book that ranks as one of my favorite post-1991 thrillers. How would it stack up?

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We get the usual supervillain opponents and the usual equalizer gimmicks-in this case, super-EW that scrambles all the high-tech doodads and “S-300s”. The action also hops around between a lot of viewpoint characters, but no worse than other technothrillers.

Rivets

I was reminded a lot of Team Yankee here. Normally this would be a very good thing, as Team Yankee is one of my favorite cheap thrillers of all time. However, this reminded me of one of the weaker parts of Team Yankee. Namely, the “Herman Melville for tanks” part complete with long detailed descriptions of what a tank unit commander would do, followed by a map illustrating the action-to-come in case we missed it.

And while it can get overly detailed in places, it can also get vague and/or inaccurate. For instance, part of its explanation for the lack of air power is the North Koreans having a huge number of “S-300” missile systems, something they have only acquired recently in real life. The problem wasn’t that they got them earlier, it was that they were treated like tactical systems running with the field forces instead of the operational/strategic ones they are.

They come across as being treated like SA-6/11/17 style battlefield SAMs from their description. While not that big a deal, I still noticed it.

Zombie Sorceresses

For most of the book, the zombie sorceresses don’t need to work beyond the usual limits of the genre. Yes, the foes are abnormally belligerent, yes, their scramblers potentially work a little too well. But both of those are easily justifiable for literary reasons.

What I felt was the most contrived part of the book had to do with the protagonists. Antal seemed to be working harder than ever to make the hero and his unit supremely (and probably unrealistically) relevant. This was especially true of the climax, where plotnukes are the least of its problems.

The “Wha?”

The characters and plot are serviceable by cheap thriller standards. I didn’t get much of a feeling out of them, but I wasn’t expecting to. The action on the other hand, is both good and problematic.

The good part is that it’s fast-paced and visceral. There bad parts start with it possibly being a little too gory for its own good. This isn’t to deny that war is brutal and gory, it’s just that I found the contradictions between “gore, grime, and oh this is horrible” and “look at the Abrams go! It made a company of BMPs go boom boom!” a little jarring.

A bigger one is straining to make a battalion of M1A2s more relevant by itself to the conflict as a whole than it probably would be. Team Yankee, however (over?)effective its protagonists were, was not trying to have a single company win World War III on its own. In Tin Soldiers, the “it’s all we got” protagonist force felt at least somewhat more justified in being decisive. So they’re at the main junction to prevent a super-breakthrough.

And-they perform a leadership strike at the end. It’s not “they went all the way up to Pyongyang.” It’s “The marshal of the North Korean army, who’s staged the coup and started the war, has moved south to take personal command of the decisive battle, and they’re there to fight against him.”

What makes this still more problematic is the location. Tin Soldiers was in perfect tank country against a mechanized opponent that had just a bit of effects. This is in more closed terrain against a lesser-equipped enemy. Seeing them deal with constant masses of infantry and artillery in an asymmetric battle would be more interesting than the (realistic, if better-case) scenario in the actual book where they smash up an enemy tank brigade that has far inferior equipment, but then that one battalion wouldn’t be as decisive as Antal clearly wanted it to be.

Having spent four paragraphs criticizing the action, I want to end this section on a more positive note. When there is close-in-infantry action, as opposed to the plot-action or Abrams’ destroying everything, it’s written very well. I especially liked a scene where someone in command of dozens of the most powerful armored vehicles still has to fight with a pistol at one point. It’s actually realistic-one time the colonel commanding a “Thunder Run” into Baghdad in the 2003 Iraq War had to do just that.

The Only Score that Really Matters

I’m being harder on this book than it deserves. It’s still a good read for anyone who wants a tank-exploding cheap thriller. The problem is that my expectations were higher than they probably ought to have been. There was Antal’s pedigree as a nonfiction tank writer, and I think that both it and the effectiveness of other novels by people with similar-but-lesser credentials made me think it’d be better.

It’s still readable, good for a first prose novel, and by the standards of cheap thrillers overall is effective. But it has issues, and those issues aren’t just that Harold Coyle and Michael Farmer left some big shoes to fill.

 

Review: Executive Orders

Executive Orders

I’ve never been that much a fan of Tom Clancy, though I admit a lot of my problem comes from a “seen so many imitators that the original doesn’t seem so original” effect. To me, The Hunt for Red October was just OK, and it’s very hard to judge Red Storm Rising because I’ve emerged in a totally different context (but if I had to give a rating, I’d say it’s OK as well).

Executive Orders is not “OK”.

So why did I read it? Genuine curiosity. Not snarky curiosity, but a sincere desire to both see if it was as iffy as I’d heard and see how far the apple fell from the tree. This is a long review, and not just because the book has lots of problems. I figured a big book by a big author deserved a big review.

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So, take a post-1991 technothriller, with the tropes of crisis overload and limited force. Then take a political thriller. Then take a medical thriller. Then add a second draft of a technothriller. Then shuffle all the notes together and call it a book. It’s several stock thrillers all stuffed into one book.

The tangled plotlines all take a long time to spool up. Sometimes it feels like a filler episode of a shonen anime where Ryan and the antagonist Daryaei spend half an hour yelling at each other and glowing so the manga writer can maintain a head start on the proper chapters.

Rivets

Clancy (and/or whatever ghostwriters assisted him) has to describe everything. When he gets a description wrong, it feels bad. And stuff gets described wrong. Predators, a workman basic drone, are treated like they’re RQ-whatever stealth aircraft that can just fly slowly at 10,000 feet above a heavy mechanized army without a care of being shot down, and tanks specifically designated as T-80s die as easily as early export T-72s did in the Gulf War.

Zombie Sorceresses

Coming on the heels of Debt of Honor’s Japanese-American War, this brings about a United Islamic Republic. So about par for the course in 90s technothrillers concerning the opponents. A lot of other stuff ranges from “implausible” to “very implausible”, but to be honest, my mind was either accepting it as part of a (supposedly) dramatic story or just not wanting to nitpick details that I’d handwave aside anyway when the literary fundamentals were that bad.

But I think the biggest zombie sorceress handwave is the series as a whole. Because it’s gone from Jack Ryan, everyman analyst who fights an evil cook, to Jack Ryan, President Mary Sue of the United States with a clean slate to remake the federal government. Now that’s a zombie sorceress plot.

“The Wha?”

As mentioned in the “Iceland” section, this is a very jumbled book. It’s the story of a new inexperienced president and his family getting the hang of the job and a political rant tract and a bioattack and a “normal” terror attack and a conventional war in the Middle East and a crisis in the Taiwan Strait and the story of rednecks with a bomb. All weaving in and out of focus, diluting what few plotlines could have had some potential. Then when they are resolved, it’s often done very, very quickly and sometimes anticlimactically.

It does get a little more focused at the end of the story, but the tame battle in the desert only served to remind me of how much better Michael Farmer did something similar in Tin Soldiers. There’s one late-war, late-book scene in Tin Soldiers where the American missiles and aircraft maul an Iraqi division but don’t stop it, it’s followed by a scare where enemy Hinds with guided missiles of their own do some damage, and is followed still by a ferocious close-quarters battle where one of the main characters loses his tank.

In a similar scene near the end of Executive Orders, a similar UIR force is just walloped by gee-whiz superweapons and finished off by those good ol’ Americans in an almost nonchalant way.

And then Jack Ryan drops a smart bomb on the UIR leader’s home on live television. The end.

I found only two real plotlines that actually seemed like they could be effective.

  • The bioattack. While the most effective on its own terms, it shimmies around the various plotlines in a way that loses its punch, it’s wrapped up far too neatly once the quarantine is established, and in a way it serves as an excuse for a smaller force to face the UIR invaders in…
  • The conventional conflict in the desert. The pacing and flow does improve significantly once it finally revs up. Except it feels like Clancy put in the minimum effort to create theoretical dramatic tension before going back to the stomp he was comfortable with.

As for the characters, not only are they stock thriller characters, they’re overexposed thanks to the long plot. They’re also the subject of many infodumps that characterize them by telling rather than showing (and which makes the book even longer and less coherent).

The Only Score That Really Matters

Executive Orders doesn’t work. It has the one thing that dooms a cheap thriller more than anything else-bad pacing. There’s the “slowly ramp up to something you know is going to happen” problem made worse by there being several plotlines that get in each others way and stop whatever momentum does develop. When action does happen, it feels second-rate. So I found it as bad as I heard it to be.

On top of that, it just feels exaggerated. A lot of the Ryan-as-president scenes are there simply to allow Clancy to rant about domestic politics. Instead of Iraq or Iran, it’s a union of both, turning individually plausible opponents into an implausible one. The American triumphalism that was always in his books reaches even greater heights. I think my “favorite” example is how Clancy mentions the rightfully successful NTC OPFOR in a way that gives as little credit as possible to the actual Soviet/Russian tactics they’ve trained to imitate.

Clancy was the author at the very top, the king of the technothriller, the writer who stayed at the top of the bestseller lists while other technothriller authors faded or changed genres entirely. If he had become like this, does that mean the imitators would go from mediocre to bad, or from bad to worse?

I actually don’t think so. I believe Clancy to be a victim of his own success. Certainly most of the negative trends I could find before in other thrillers written before Executive Orders’ publication date in 1996. I think he simply was so popular that there was no perceived need to make his work “tighter”, and thus all the flaws compounded each other.

It’s just that the end result of a self-published writer working without strict editors and the superstar author having the editors lighten up on their strictness is mostly the same-a big, aimless tale. Clancy faced the same pressures everyone else in the genre he played no small part in creating did. He also faced the fall of the USSR and maintaining novelty in a large series.

About the only thing I can safely say Executive Orders did was help popularize, even before 9/11, the Middle Eastern Coalition antagonist set, but even with that I don’t want to credit it too much. After all, the 90s scramble for new villains would likely have turned up something similar.

I felt no schadenfreude at this book, and felt legitimately disappointed that I considered it as bad as I’ve heard. It’s sad to see the face of a genre decline so noticeably, but decline he did. Thankfully, there are better post-1991 technothrillers out there.

 

Review: Dark Rose

Dark Rose

I’m used to having technothrillers with dubious backgrounds, especially ones written after the fall of the USSR. But Mike Lunnon-Wood’s Dark Rose, set in Ireland, takes the cake. The zombie sorceresses were strained to their limit here.

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Well, at least this isn’t formulaic. Sure, this has the general literary pattern, but in terms of variance from the thriller genre, it’s big. This book is also a very good example of why being formulaic isn’t necessarily bad, and why diverting from the formula isn’t necessarily good.

Rivets

The rivet-counting doesn’t really pick up until the action starts, but when it does, it does so very hard. Furthermore, the rivet-counting infodumps are exacerbated by Lunnon-Wood’s writing style, which I’ll get to.

They have the effect of being “look how much I know” telling rather than experienced showing.

Zombie Sorceresses

Oh boy. Palestinian-led Arabs seize control of Ireland, first financially, then militarily. Their goal is to use it as a bargaining chip in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, for the Irish lobby in American politics is extremely strong.

They and their Irish puppet government are countered by having Irish-descended soldiers in armies around the world volunteer for the resistance, led by the newly crowned queen of the restored Irish monarchy. It’s mentioned as being little but a legal trick, but still. This makes Cauldron look like a meticulously researched counterfactual.

This is one of the most “zombie sorceress”-dominated stories I’ve read. There’s a lot of emphasis elsewhere in the book (and in the rest of Lunnon-Wood’s work) of interviewing military personnel, of being detailed and accurate. But it’s all the service of this ridiculous plot.

The “Wha?”

So, this book has two problems independent of the crazy zombie sorceress backstory. The first is its pacing. The book’s “action” doesn’t start until about halfway through, and it only really intensifies about three quarters of the way through.

The second is its prose. Lunnon-Wood’s writing style is this take-your-time, talk-it-out lush slow system. It’s almost as if Hemingway wrote ridiculous cheap thrillers. Because of that, the small-unit actions (when they start) are tricky. They’re detailed, grounded, and sometimes gory,  but the nature of the prose doesn’t make them feel very visceral, for lack of a better word. The characterization suffers from almost the exact same problem. Characters get so many drawn-out conversations that they feel like blurs, and Lunnon-Wood isn’t the best at distinguishing them.

Applying conventional technothriller infodumps to this style makes them worse, and when the “resistance forces” (a giant multinational technicality that includes the USMC) finally do mobilize en masse, it’s a (realistic) never-in-doubt Gulf War-style crush. So despite the slow pace, this book is also kind of too fast as well when push comes to shove.

Also, there’s a lesbian seduction subplot that stops about halfway through the book. I will leave it to the review readers to guess as to whether it’s an important part of the story or just cheap sleaze.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Dark Rose could have been worse. It could have been unreadable in its prose. It’s not. It could have been more axe-grindingly political than it was. It could have been even longer.

As it stands, the actual substance of the book is a little aimless and clunky, but the concept is so completely ridiculous that I feel it’s still worth taking a look at. That it’s not too political makes it more pleasant to read, and you don’t see “grounded” stories with setups this ridiculous every day.