Review: Hangfire

Hangfire

Sadly, Hangfire has to rank as one of the lower entries in the wildly uneven Starfist series. The basic premise-intrigue on a world that’s a combination 1950s Cuba and Westworld-style historical theme parks-is good. Unfortunately, this just makes the rest of the story worse.

Who and What

To infiltrate a mobster-ruled resort world of debauchery named “Havanagas” (I told you it was based on 1950s Cuba), the government turns to… MARINES, of course. Also, there’s intrigue on a colony world as aliens invade it.

The relative cohesion of Steel Gauntlet is lost, and the group of tangled, clunky subplots I’ve seen in worse Starfist books are in full force.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

There are a few infodumps here, but not that many. The problem is that the potentially interesting focus (The Space 1950s Cuba) gets sidelined.

Zombie Sorceresses

Hard to judge, save for all the MARINE contrivances.

Tank Booms

There really isn’t much action involving the MARINES. This is a shame because the chance to throw them into a Murderworld-style deathtrap amusement park would be amazing. Instead there’s intrigue that isn’t too well-written, a tiny bit of action, and an arena scene that is ridiculously foreshadowed. The barely related alien invasion is nowhere near as good, so of course it takes up a big chunk of the book.

The Only Score That Really Matters

While I’ve read worse Starfist books, this seems disappointing as well as bad. What should be a romp through Mobster Murderworld ends up treating that tamely while devoting a ton of time and space to uninteresting aliens invading an uninteresting world and fighting uninteresting battles to set up an uninteresting arc.

It’s a shame.

Review: Season of Slaughter

Season of Slaughter

It’s time to fast forward several decades from the debut of Mack Bolan. Now he’s the well-established king of the adventure novel with many spinoffs and many, many more novels to his name. A more recent Bolan, 2005’s Season of Slaughter, is the subject of this review.

Who and What

Bad guys do something very bad at the beginning. Mack Bolan and company move to stop them from doing more bad things. Simple cheap thriller plot, simple cheap thriller characters. Although I have to say there are a lot of characters here, contributing to the “overstuffed” feeling of the book. I have a slight hunch that some may have been there to let a casual reader notice that the spinoffs existed.

The prose unsurprisingly feels like an action movie in words. Characters firing Desert Eagles and skidding safely away from mammoth fireballs.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

There are the usual gun infodumps, and a very, very detailed infodump about a super-helicopter used by the protagonists. Only a few of these infodumps go to ‘waste’ in that they’re totally irrelevant, but many of them are gratuitous. Of course, this entire book is gratuitous.

Zombie Sorceresses

Apart from the action novel contrivances, the choice of villains is less zombie-sorceress than you might think in one way. It’s an alliance between Islamist terrorists and white supremacist terrorists. This is handled with a surprising amount of deftness-it’s treated only as a teeth gritted alliance of convenience against someone they both hate and nothing more.

Of course, they’re coordinated by a cartoon anarchist group and backed by supermercs, so the zombie sorceresses reassert themselves there.

Tank Booms

The “overstuffed” nature of the book is nowhere more apparent than in the action. There’s a lot of action scenes shoved together into this fairly small book, from fistfights to helicopter dogfights. The action can still be blurred and clunky at times, but one advantage of the many characters is that it allows for diverse fights.

And to be fair, this kind of book is the kind where you expect lots of action. I’d rather have too much action in a cheap thriller like this than too little.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is an assembly-line book, and it shows. But it works as an assembly-line cheap thriller. The first Mack Bolan was a late 1960s cheap thriller, while this is a 2000s cheap thriller. This has explosions and Mack Bolan action, and that’s what’s asked of this kind of story.

 

Review: Flashpoint Quebec

Flashpoint Quebec: Operation Joint Suppression

Lots of cheap action thrillers take place in the Middle East. Lots of cheap action thrillers take place in Eastern Europe. But Michael Karpovage’s Flashpoint Quebec: Operation Joint Suppression is a military cheap thriller that takes place in the exotic and ferocious land known as Canada. Just from the premise, I knew I had to get it.

Who and What

A US Army unit of the 10th Mountain Division is sent into Canada to fight a battle against Quebecois militia that have been reinforced with stolen Abrams tanks and French-supplied missiles. They fight the battle.

This is an independent 2003 book, so it has some very rough prose and a general lack of polish. The best example of this is the excess of extremely long, blocky paragraphs throughout the entire book. The characterization is either nonexistent or extremely blatant (one Quebecois fighter is this beer-drinking teenager who shows up, destroys a transport plane, and then dies.)

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

This has the perils of “misdirected research”. There’s infodumps, including a very long one on the mast sight of the OH-58 Kiowa. Yet there’s also unforced errors like very off LAV gun calibers and a sabot round (CAPITALIZED in the book when it shouldn’t be) acting like a HEAT shaped-charge round.

Zombie Sorceresses

Just the entire premise of the book, for one. And the Quebecois having tanks and super-missiles.  And the whole ‘French Sphere of Influence’ thing. This is all handled very matter-of-factly without either comedy or drama.

Tank Booms

The action is sincere and detailed but unpolished. There’s some misguided infodumps, and the prose feels a little flat. In a well-intended but ultimately unsuccessful attempt at making it look “gritty”, Karpovage simply lays on the gore.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is a well-intended book that nonetheless takes a ridiculous situation completely seriously and doesn’t have much polishing. It’s not the worst, but I still view it, like Ian Slater’s USA vs Militia novels, as more of a novelty showing a strange opponent even by post-1991 thriller standards than anything else.

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.

Unstructured Review: Exultant

If The Big One was a miss I heard of from Spacebattles, Stephen Baxter’s Exultant was a clear hit. It’s the first military science fiction I’ve found fit to review on Fuldapocalypse, and it’s a bit of an oddball, both by the standards of its author and of the genre. But it’s a good oddball.

Stephen Baxter is usually a big-scope, big picture truly speculative science fiction writer, one who talks about exotic universal processes and has no time for heroic spacemen fighting aliens who look like humans in bad costumes. Baxter’s aliens are truly, massively alien. He also uses time travel in his big “Xeelee sequence”, of which Exultant is a part. This allows a semi-kinda-a-little-plausible form of FTL travel and also spares the need to worry about strict continuity between books (if something changed, well, a time traveler did it).

Exultant is a bit of a mishmash. Part of it is an exploration of alien and extranormal societies, biologies, and universal engineering. Part of it, though, is a conventional tale. Humans have regressed over thousands of years into a society built entirely around a sort of galaxy-scaled trench warfare as they battle the almost godlike Xeelee, an utterly alien race of invisible space-time defects completely integrated with their maple-seed like ships. One fighter pilot has managed the impossible-capture a Xeelee ship intact-and now must battle his own bureaucracy as a chance to end the war finally emerges.

Baxter manages this very well. While there’s speculative infodumps galore, the military part manages to break from the typical military sci-fi “current or recent past with a coating of laser” in both directions. On one hand, there’s time machine computers and deliberately “groundhog-daying” information back to the past. On the other, the actual fighting is deliberately reminiscent of the worst of World War I. Exultant juggles all this without really managing to drop anything, and I recommend it because of this.

 

Unstructured Review: The Big One

About a decade ago, I saw a thread on Spacebattles and got a self-published book that set me on a path. I still can’t make up my mind whether that path was for better or worse, or if that one thriller really had too much of an influence. But that book was Crusade, in The Big One series.

The thing about stuff like this was that it was part of my strange experience where I often experienced the imitators and follow-ons first, and only later looked at the originals.

So my initial view of it was that, after the somewhat forgivable first book, it was something as bad as it was implausible. Now it’s changed. The books themselves haven’t changed and I can still see the many flaws. What has changed in the context I see them in.

So, the Big One Series goes like this. In 1940, Lord Halifax stages a parliamentary coup and withdraws the UK from the war. So far, good enough. Then via zombie sorceress contrivance, the Germans seize Britain in what amounts to a Crimea-style sneak attack into already-guarded airbases. Moscow is overrun, Stalin is taken out in a coup, Zhukov rises to the top and decommunizes near-immediately, returning to just “Russia” (and quickly becoming a pro-American teddy bear). The US gets involved, fighting on the Eastern Front on the ground while its carriers pound western Europe. It devolves into a stalemate until 1947, when a stockpiled fleet of B-36s nuke Germany into utter ruin.

The goal is to show “throw Germany all the bones, and as long as the US enters the war, it’ll just end up nuked even if it does better.” It has many issues with plausibility, but is still accurate in the most general terms and isn’t too bad in terms of plot tangles.

Later, it devolves. The Germans fight on for years in the occupied USSR and flee into the Middle East, where they aid an implausible strawman “Caliphate” as it twirls its mustache and gets beaten up by the Americans. Farther east, China and Japan kind of meld into Communist Imperial Chipan, which proceeds to engage the US in an Easy Mode Cold War where the Chipanese (yes, really) have all the USSR’s weaknesses (and then some) but few to none of its actual strengths.

Meanwhile, immortal millenia-old manipulators have their adventures, and one of them, “The Seer”, serves as advisor to every single American leader. Under his guidance, the US sticks with the course of Massive Retaliation, with a military composed mostly of super-bombers like the B-70.

So, what changed? Well, I still view the series as subpar. It’s just no longer as distinctly subpar as I had initially thought, when stacked against its two obvious fellows in arms-later technothrillers and internet alternate history. Look at Crusade, my first entry, and where it was into its full goofiness. That has…

  • Multiple meandering plots that don’t really connect and get in each others way
  • Characters and scenes that exist solely for the author to give political rants.
  • A main character who exists to give the author a mouthpiece in a position of power.
  • Long descriptions of weaponry.
  • An implausible Middle Eastern superstate that beats up a few local jobbers before being effortlessly crushed by (awesome) American Weaponry.

Now, what does bestseller Executive Orders, by the technothriller king himself have?

  • Multiple meandering plots that barely connect and get in each others way.
  • Characters and scenes that exist solely for the author to give political rants.
  • A main character who exists to give the author a mouthpiece in a position of power.
  • Long descriptions of weaponry.
  • An implausible Middle Eastern superstate that beats up a few local jobbers before being effortlessly crushed by (awesome) American Weaponry.

I rest my case. And if I want to go into obscure works, well, I have the Arab invasion of Ireland or the aircraft-carrier spawning Middle Eastern superstate. In terms of plausibility, it really isn’t that much (if at all) worse than other military thrillers. Their wrongs don’t make it right, but at least they’re wrong together.

And in terms of characters and plot, it’s actually better than its contemporaries-especially internet alternate history. The series at least tries to have characters and a conventional plot instead of being purely pseudo-textbook. Whether or not that’s a good idea is a matter of opinion, but it earnestly tries. And it’s definitely not the only tale to star paper-thin and/or strawman characters. The prose is still clunky, but that’s both true of a lot of stories and understandable. The author is an analyst and it can be hard to leave the “analyst mindset” when writing fiction, particularly on a whim.

So what does separate it from the pack? I’d honestly say simple timing, both on my end (it was one of the first technothrillers I really read in depth, alongside Dale Brown) and in general. It was self-published in Lulu and managed to be self-published alternate history that arrived earlier before the Kindle/web machine really got going. Also, at the time, it was both detailed and controversial in the history/military nerd corners of the internet, and you know what they say about bad publicity. And it’s distinct from the “South/Germans win ACW/World War II” divergences that dominate popular alternate history.

But to be fair, I think there still is something that makes it stand out in a dubious way and it’s not the weird divergences or the immortal manipulator contrivance characters (who needs zombie sorceresses?)

The standout element is how ridiculously and incredibly one-sided it is.

Now, far be it from me to say that other thrillers aren’t or can’t be one-sided. They definitely can be and have been. But TBO has work put in to making it one sided. Lots of work. Detailed worldbuilding work on everything from force structure to force competence to technology to politics and constant mentions in-story about how awesome the Americans are.

Any main TBO book will be filled with variants of “The Americans are awesome.” “We can’t attract the attention of the Americans, lest they destroy us awesomely.” “What we can do is nothing compared to what the [awesome] Americans can do.” “The Americans are ruthless and driving (and therefore awesome)” and so on.Likewise, there’s infodumps and conversations galore about how weak their current or potential enemies are compared to them. One one-sided encounter where an American fighter aircraft sinks a missile boat even says “it really wasn’t fair.”

I’ve said multiple times that TBO resembles an “unironic One Punch Man” in terms of how stacked the deck is in favor of its (awesome) Americans. To be fair, there’s battles that are nominally more even because they don’t involve the Americans-only there the clunky writing style really shows and I rarely felt interested. It never felt organic, and in every case I could tell who the winner would be anyway.

So was this worth my kind of fixation on it? Not really, with full hindsight and full knowledge of other books/series’ at the same time or in the same genre. I cannot emphasize enough how much more forgiving of other dubious military thrillers Executive Orders has made me-because if the most mainstream, most popular author in the genre sank that low, could you really blame any of the others?

I wouldn’t recommend anything beyond the original book for casual reading or anything except seeing what happens when an author goes “How can I use a lot of effort and knowledge to remove drama and tension?”.

Still, it’s not the absolute worst ever, and just happens to have been in a prominent place at a prominent time.

Review: Apocalypse Dawn

Apocalypse Dawn

Apocalypse Dawn is a military spin-off of the (in?)famous Left Behind series. It’s also one of the most blatant “this is a tie-in potboiler” books I’ve read. It’s been sitting on my shelf for years and I’m planning on giving it away (along with a lot of other books I don’t intend to take with me when I move) soon. So as it fits the theme, I figured I might as well reread and review it here before I do so.

Icelands

The plot is more “military thriller” than pure “technothriller”. So it’s less Tom Clancy and more well-John Wayne. When viewed from that perspective it and especially its characters are very, very cliche.

Rivets

What’s interesting about the description of military equipment isn’t the rivet-counting. That’s there but mostly mostly tame for someone who’s read a lot of military thrillers, with the only issues being annoying but forgivable things like caliber mistakes (the most common one is using Western calibers for Soviet equipment-like 105mm barrels on T-55s and 20mm ones on MiGs). No, what’s interesting is that it really feels like the work of someone who approached it with a paycheck attitude, took genre cliches, and researched juuuust enough.

There’s descriptions, infodumps about the weapons that clearly show “I read the reference material”, but enough discrepancies that show it’s a sort of “get the technical ingredients without the meal.”

It’s Army Rangers being deployed to take on a mechanized Syrian force that never attacks in any quantity bigger than what could serve as an action-hero set-piece. So M82 rifles and 40mm grenades have an awfully optimistic effect against enemy armored vehicles, you always get only a few tanks, and everything seems to be like a pop culture-friendly weapon (for instance, every single artillery rocket is a “Scud”.) And ASM hits from weapons light enough to be carried on “MiGs” cause Abrams tanks to not only be destroyed, but flip over. And the ranks and command structure are all wrong, etc…

Zombie Sorceresses

There really isn’t much point in arguing “plausibility” when the story explicitly takes place in the Book of Revelation. Or so it would seem. The issue isn’t with the Rapture, it’s with everything else.

The Rangers are in Turkey near the Syrian border doing what a brigade from the 82nd Airborne would normally do (out of pure rushed-in desperation) or what a cavalry force/motorized infantry unit would do (if given any time to prepare).

This sort of reminds me of an annotated version of the Far Side, one of my favorite comic strips. In it Larson explained with some bemusement that after making a comic with mosquitoes, he got letters explaining it was female mosquitoes that bite unlike the husband mosquito in the comic itself. Larson’s response was he knew that, but that they didn’t have a problem with the anthromorphic cartoon parts.

I think that readers can accept big implausible divergences as part of the story setup easily, but small ones get nitpicked. So thus it is with the apocalypse and the Ranger deployment.

The “Wha?”

So there’s two main plots. The first is the conflict in southeastern Turkey (With a lot of hindsight, it feels so weird having Syria as an intact, conventional threat of a state), and the second is the main character’s wife fighting charges (she was trying to keep a kid from falling, he fell off but was raptured before he hit the ground, and they think she kidnapped him even though every single young child in the whole world disappeared.) Pretty much everything with the main character’s wife feels dull and just gets in the way, with very little attempt to even establish a solid connection or link between her plot and the military one.

The military plot is kind of just an array of set pieces that fumble around between infodumps and what looks “cool.” The religious plot is both (obviously) prominent and feels like it was shoved in. They come to a head when the military protagonist is saved at the end through ridiculously obvious divine intervention.

About the only good bit of characterization is Odom’s writing of the main series villain, Antichrist Nicolae Carpathia. (As an aside, I hate that name, it’s like calling someone Saddam Euphrates). That character is written with an appropriate slimy slickness that suits him well, arguably better than in the original books.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This, by itself, is a mediocre tie-in. It avoids the controversy around the actual series simply by being nothing but a phoned-in cash grab to maybe, possibly, broaden the audience just a little bit.

What I think makes it slightly interesting is not how it’s an exercise in writing for a paycheck. There’s absolutely no shame in doing that, and it’s not exactly unique.

It’s how it have a “51%” approach to just checking off all the necessary boxes. Military action with Rangers and infodumped equipment-check. Family drama-check. Christian religious themes-check. Not really much of a need to tie them together or sharpen them as long as they’re there at all. I’ve read other tie-ins, and most of them aren’t as blatantly going through the motions as this. Some of what I’ve read (and even reviewed) has been leaders in a genre. This is a genre follower that deserved the obscurity it got.

 

Review: World War III: The Beginning

World War III: The Beginning

By the early 2000s, while the mainstream technothriller was declining, the self-published one was on the rise. In time this would lead to a very unique paradigm that I definitely wish to explore. But it also got some stinkers, like this. Despite the title, I could find no other books by Fulgham.

This is a submarine book, so it has the perils of submarine fiction. Or at least it would have if it wasn’t so badly written that any genre problems become secondary.

Icelands

The structure of this book is rather cliche and technothriller-y, albeit applied in a very, very sloppy way. What it does is have its cake and eat it too with a “Islamic Republic” that has a giant carrier navy. (The first edition was in 2000, after 9/11 the author tried to claim it was prescient.)

So yes, we get Conference Room Infodumps. Rushed and sloppy conference room infodump.

Rivets

A lot of the technical designations for aircraft and the like are just made up, but where this book shines in rivet-counting is in submarine operation commands. I hope you like reading submarine bridge commands, because it feels like 3/4 of the book consists of them.

Zombie Sorceresses

The antagonists-a Middle Eastern superstate with three times as many aircraft carriers as the US Navy (!), are the perfect zombie sorceress state. Very little else really comes close.

The “Wha”?

Well, the characters are mostly flat, the biggest issue being that they’re always referred to by their first names. The plot is a confused vague mess of technothriller mush and some submarine bridge commands. Oh, and a romance. Mustn’t forget the romance between the female commander and her male XO (who I suspect strongly is an author Mary Sue). Yeah.

The Only Score That Really Matters

As a book itself, this is forgettably bad, one for just the self-published slush pile. But as an example of a certain kind of book, it’s a good early case study. The self-published thriller that lacks both the polish of a mainstream book and the attention to detail of an enthusiast story is one I’ve seen too much of.

So while a mainline technothriller, especially a later one, will have somewhat exaggerated gimmicks (IE, Dale Brown’s “stop the superlaser”), and an enthusiast one will have detailed, at least nominally grounded forces (The 20th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade and 2nd Tank Brigade crossed the border…) , this just goes “unite the Middle East and plop down dozens of aircraft carriers”. In a way it’s actually endearing.

One slightly redeeming quality to Fulgham’s book is that it’s short, unlike the somewhat similar but utterly unreadable Dragon’s Fury by Jeff Head.

I cannot recommend World War III: The Beginning, unless you like submarine steering commands. Then it’s the best book ever.

 

Review: Tin Soldiers

Tin Soldiers

I’ve talked before about Michael Farmer’s Tin Soldiers on my main blog, and his debut thriller pictures a regional war quite different from a Fuldapocalypse. But it’s worthy of a detailed review for two reasons. One is that it, published in the early 2000s, remains a picture-perfect example of the tropes of post-USSR technothrillers. Another is that it, although hardly flawless, is by and large an example of how this can be done right.

Icelands

Tin Soldiers, sadly, manages to be both divergent and cliche at the same time. A rejuvenated Iraq is making another go at Kuwait, and the first line of defense is the main character’s comparably small unit.

What makes this interesting is how it follows the classic “balancer tropes” mentioned here almost to a t. The American forces present are small at first, and the Iraqis have sneaked-out satellite footage and, more importantly, advanced Abrams-busting ammunition for their tank guns. The “crisis overload” is also there to a degree with a small subplot about a rapprochement with Iran that goes nowhere and ultimately is handwaved away.

Political shenanigans are there and “make up” for being less important to the plot by being horribly written. So is a shoved-in “save the helicopter pilot damsel in distress” subplot that rivals even the capture scene in Chieftains for being out of place. Perhaps fitting for a genre on its last mainstream legs, Tin Soldiers manages to fit the formula exceedingly well.

Rivets

This isn’t too bad in terms of rivet-counting. There are mostly familiar platforms, so there’s less need to describe them, and I didn’t feel that bothered by the infodumps that did take place. It’s not perfect and it’s not vague, but somehow most of it flows.

Zombie Sorceresses

This is a book that has all of the usual technothriller contrivances, all the odds-equalizers, and all the stock characters to set up. And yet the final nuclear-chemical escalation was the only one where I went “come on”.

Somehow it felt like the zombie sorceresses didn’t need to intervene as much as they had in other books. Perhaps using a country that was already suited for a regional conflict as the antagonist made it feel better than say, Cauldron did. Perhaps using an “equalizer scenario” of a stronger enemy force in theater against a limited reinforcement that has been feared since the time of TF Smith works better than some of the goofier ones.

They’re still there, but the zombie sorceress hand isn’t as visible in Tin Soldiers, I found.

The “Wha?

The characters are mostly stock. The hero, the supporting hero, the generals, the slightly sympathetic villain, the inept weasel ally, and the politicians. The scenes with politicians on either side are cringeworthy. Farmer’s fictional American president comes across as a figure written as a “bad dude with bad taste” by someone whose cultural clock stopped in 1979.

The low-level characters, while less developed, are at least sufficient for the course of the book. But the real treat is the action itself. Barring the “look at the stealth fighter go” scenes, the final Dale Brown style WMD escalation, and the save-the-girl side-plot, the tank battles are well written. Yes, the book has its share of technological gee-whiz. But it also has more than its share of basic grit, where tanks are very vulnerable.

Also like Team Yankee, a limited theater means that the story becomes more focused and tight.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Tin Soldiers is the perfect example of this category. On paper, it’s got every flaw a military thriller in general and a post-1991 one in particular would have. Its digressions into romance and politics go from awkward to slightly disgusting and offensive. The prose and flow isn’t the smoothest. And yet, in spite of all that, I like this book.

When the tanks get to exploding, it’s at its perfect height. The tank battles themselves are, for the genre, well-done. It manages to maintain a decent scope in those parts, not feeling like it hops around too much and succeeding at the difficult task of making a viewpoint between either “squad in the dirt” or “big picture”. And while it may have just been a happy coincidence, the tank battles against the early T-72s with super-ammo have just the right level of threat, showing that there’s much more to a tank than just how strong the gun is and how thick the armor is.

Tin Soldiers is still a cheap thriller with more than its share of unforced flaws. But it does a lot right, and is one of the best post-1991 “regional war” thrillers I’ve read.