Review: Fire Ant

Fire Ant

Jonathan Brazee has been prolific with his books, and so, not knowing where to start at first, I decided to simply jump into one of several. Fire Ant, telling the story of a woman explorer pilot turned fighter pilot in the far future, is an excellent sci-fi thriller tale.

Who and What

The story follows the saga of a pilot who has the long name of “Floribeth Salinas O’Shea Dalisay” but is thankfully just called “Beth” for most of the book. A corporate exploration pilot, Beth finds aliens, escapes from them, and gets sucked into the military as a fighter pilot, facing even more action.

It’s a simple plot but an effective one. Likewise, the characters, including Beth herself, are simple but as effective as they need to be for the sake of the story.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

Unfortunately, there are a few too many infodumps. Some are forgivable in terms of defining the mechanics of the universe, but some are less so. None are that bad, but it could have used a little more showing and a little less telling.

Zombie Sorceresses

This is the kind of book for whom the “zombie sorceress” scale isn’t that suitable. Enough contrivances to set up a science fiction tale are there, simple as that.

Tank Booms

The action here is crisp and involved. Moreover, Brazee manages a balancing act of keeping the tale mostly “soft” in science fiction terms without going all the way to “historical but with blaster rays”. It’s an impressive accomplishment.

The Only Score That Really Matters

If you want starfighter action that pushes a little, you can’t go wrong with Fire Ant. I certainly enjoyed it.

Unstructured Review: The Power

Ok, now I’m really stretching things with Fuldapocalypse. I’m reading and reviewing something that’s social-commentary supernatural fiction. Even if it does involve a war.

The book is Naomi Alderman’s The Power.

So, the premise of the book is that women gain the ability to fire blasts of electricity (the way Alderman explains the origins of this power reminded me of old comic books, and I really wish she’d kept it more deliberately mysterious than she did). The most oppressed are the first and most determined to lash out, and they end up taking over the world and showing that power corrupts (hence the title).

The geopolitics are weird (A Saudi-focused Moldovan civil war?) and clearly bent to fit the story even by the standards of a world where women can become she-Electros. The depictions of every conventional armed force are cringeworthy in the limited research, even if forgivable given the author’s background. There are interludes that serve as combination infodumps and “ok, do you get it now? DO YOU GET IT NOW?” reinforcements of the point. Worst of all, the prose manages to be exceedingly dull and exceedingly pretentious at the exact same time, plodding on with every chapter feeling the same.

I can’t fault the book for wanting to have a message or make a statement. The basic messages of “people who are pushed down will push back if given the chance” and “power corrupts” are true and worth sharing, even if they’re not exactly the most profound or unknown. But it’s just so blatant and so clunkily executed that I was soured by it.

Which is a shame, because both of the concepts (women suddenly gaining a physical advantage and/or superpowers emerging regardless of the context) would make for good serious speculative fiction if done right.

(For a somewhat different opinion on this book, see author Kate Vane’s review here )

Review: Festung Europa

Festung Europa

Festung Europa: The Anglo-American Nazi War is a very tricky book. Judged by one standard, It’s a World War III with the same participants as our World War II, fought with what amounts to Korean War-era technology. This kind of tale doesn’t have that much leeway in how it’s set up.

Who And What

Festung Europa tells of how, after a German victory on the Eastern Front in World War II, the Reich and United States have the inevitable confrontation.

This is not really a story, it’s a recitation of equipment and events. A routine cheap thriller is gigaparsecs ahead of this in terms of actual “story-ness”, and even an excessively infodumpy tale is still far close to a conventional story than this. I want to make clear that this is not necessarily a bad thing. This pseudo-historical document style can work.

That being said, I feel that there are several pitfalls to this style. First, it utterly demands the reader be already interested in the subject matter, for there’s no plot or characters to gain attraction to. Second, at least to me, it opens the work up for more plausibility criticisms, because beyond the blanket talk, it’s hard to criticize it on grounds other than “does it make sense?”

And the “prose”, such as it is, feels clunky in this case even by the standards of history books or historical genres.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

You will learn exact casualty rates. You will learn the exact details of tanks. You lurn because yu at tem wur cool leg to learn tem’s DEEP HISTORY. If the entire book is one infodump, which it is, can it be considered many infodumps or just one big infodump?

Zombie Sorceresses

The major contrivances are:

  • The German victory on the Eastern Front being done in an openly handwaved manner.
  • Allied firepower, particularly air power, being probably a little too effective given the time period.
  • The Germans sidelining the Heer, turning the SS into what amounts to their entire military, and devolving dramatically in terms of skill. (I’m one of the first to criticize the “super-military only beaten by the Allies throwing more Shermans and T-34s than they had antitank rounds” cliches, but still think it went too far in the opposite direction)

There’s more than that if I wanted to dig deeper.

None of these are too bad by themselves and some can be arguable. The problem is that, as mentioned above, there’s no “cushion”. This isn’t like “well, the setup is weird [if understandable] but the action/characters/pacing is good”. No, this is just a sequence of events, and thus every zombie sorceress handwave makes itself a lot clearer and a lot more blatant.

Tank Booms

There are no booming tanks. There are simply narrations of “this unit of tanks went boom.” The “action” is extremely clinical. And often repetitive.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is a stark example of an ultra-niche story. Do you want a hypothetical pseudo-history of a German-American third world war? Do you care if it’s drier than the Gobi Desert? Are you willing to accept unfiltered contrivances?

If the answer is yes, then Festung Europa is for you. If the answer is no, it isn’t. This kind of specialty alternate history has a very narrow audience base, and it’s no shame to not be in it.

 

Review: Issue In Doubt

Issue In Doubt

Issue in Doubt can be considered a spiritual sequel to the Starfist books, written by the same author. As a result, it shares most of the strengths and weaknesses of them.

Who and What

Well, the story is boilerplate alien invasion of a colony world and military response. The characters are in three categories. The alien hordes, the MARINES who do heroic MARINE things, and the inept weasels in politics or branches that aren’t MARINES.

I’m already used to this from Starfist. I was expecting this. That doesn’t make it any better, but it does make it less surprising.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

I counted several infodumps that fit this category exactly-a description of unit force structure that turned out to be utterly irrelevant, and another that was just barely on task.

Zombie Sorceresses

The category doesn’t exactly gel here. Being a science fiction story and a “Soft” one at that (I’ll just say the spaceship ‘physics’ described are more Star Wars than Kerbal Space Program) means the “plausibility” part isn’t there the way it is for a more grounded technothriller.

But if I had to list one obvious zombie sorceress contrivance, it’s the way every non-MARINE branch is obviously and ridiculously set up to fail. It gets annoying and seems counterproductive. The MARINES look worse instead of better if they’re compared to such contrived losers.

Tank Booms

If I had to describe the action in two words, it’d be “good enough”. It’s not spectacular or even above-average, but it’s not dull or bad. The anachronistic “Vietnam with space suits” technology and the MARINE FIGHTING INFANTRY bias drags it down a little, but it remains a readable cheap thriller.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Compared to the Starfist books I’ve read, this is firmly in the middle. It inherits the background snarky goofiness of the setting, but falls into the “decent cheap thriller” category, rather than reaching the over-the-top crazy high or just bad lows of some other Starfist books.

Review: Lex Talionis

Lex Talionis

Lex Talionis is the final book in Peter Nealen’s American Praetorians series. I had incredibly mixed feelings about it, some of the most conflicted I’ve felt about any book. I appreciate what Nealen was trying to do, but I think he aimed a little too high.

Who and What

The Praetorians are back on American territory as they are forced to flee their home base and struggle to deal with the uncontrollable tides unleashed by feuding conspiracies. It’s tricky because the book has a whiplash-y zig-zagging amount of tone.

It’s trying to be a pessimistic social commentary and a slam-bang thriller at the same time. As a result, it suffers from a problem that I typically associate more with video games than actual books-a considerable disconnect between story and action.

I like, having suffered through too many “apocalypse as wish fulfillment” stories, that Nealen shows how brutal and un-wish-fulfilly something like it would realistically be. But then come the stock cheap thriller characters and over-the-top action. I like political commentary that tries to be more sincere and does succeed in hitting a few right notes-but then comes the exaggerated apocalypse. It just wobbles a lot more than all of Nealen’s other work I’ve read.

There’s also some other, smaller issues. While the fast pace makes for a good thriller, there’s a little too much place-hopping and samey action. There are a lot of character deaths, but they felt more like losing XCOM units [little but names] than Fire Emblem ones [developed characters] . As the series finale, it has to tie up its loose ends, and does so too quickly.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

This takes the first-person viewpoint perspective to its absolute limit. It’s very easy (IMO) to see why Nealen switched to third person in Brannigan’s Blackhearts. There’s a lot of infodumps to move thanks to the intricate plot, and having to tell it in a first-person book is rather-iffy.

Zombie Sorceresses

Here’s where I’m the most conflicted. On one hand, the super-conspiracy (by far the biggest zombie sorceress part) is handled as well as it could be. It’s not in full control and stopping it doesn’t stop the underlying national problem.

On the other, it’s still a super-conspiracy that can deploy armies of target goons that the heroes take out en masse, and one that ultimately sabotages the book’s own political message by taking it from a “somewhat exaggerated for the sake of drama and social commentary” that would be ideal for such talk to a cartoon gorefest.

It’s like trying to mishmash The Wire (declining human institutions) and the later levels of Payday 2 (action against conspiracy-led supermercs). Nowhere is this more apparent than the zombie-sorceress-licious ending, which manages to be both too bleak and too goofily contrived at the same time.

Tank Booms

It’s a Peter Nealen book, so the action is good. Unfortunately, it’s slightly worse than his other books. Mostly, this is because all the rest of the baggage takes it down. The action prose isn’t any better or worse than Nealen’s other books.

Normally, I’ve found, the dissonance between story and action is most notable in video games and has to do with the player’s freedom. IE, the main character is reluctant to resort to violence in-story but in-game you can nonchalantly mow down dozens of enemies.

Here, the setting argues for “low-end struggle for survival” but the action is country-hopping, truck-exploding, stronghold-storming, convoy-destroying, helicopter-gunning boom.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is definitely a book where the whole is worse than the sum of its parts.

The “careful what you wish for” apocalypse is brave and noteworthy, but it takes the edge off the political commentary.

The political commentary is more sincere and highbrow than a lot of thrillers, but it drives the plot in a way that scrambles the action.

The action is Nealen’s usual “gritty but high-powered”, but it jars the political commentary as well.

In spite of these, I can’t feel bad about this. An author should never be discouraged to go on a different path and try something else out. The action is still quite serviceable, and the entire American Praetorians series is something of a fresh writer seeing what worked. The Wayne Gretzky-attributed quote of “you miss all the shots you don’t take” applies here. If it fell short, it wasn’t for lack of trying, and as a new writer myself, I can sympathize.

Review: Doctors of Death

Doctors of Death

The latest Brannigan’s Blackhearts book, Doctors of Death, is finally in, and Peter Nealen launches another excellent book.

Who and What

The Blackhearts’ next mission takes them to Chad to search for missing doctors. Soon they find themselves entangled in a deeper, monstrous conspiracy. Lots and lots of action across multiple continents ensues.

The plot is very action-y and the characters interesting enough-they’re not deep, but have their own personality and, more importantly, they’re sympathetic and understandable.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

This is a very lean book. It either gets its infodumps over with early on or flows them into the narrative, and has fewer tangents. Even the plans of the conspiracy organization are told through more showing and less telling.

Zombie Sorceresses

Well, apart from the admitted exaggerations in the enemy plot and the way to get this small band over in the first place, the biggest zombie sorceress contrivance-by far-is the choice of main antagonists. It’s this giant international super-NGO conspiracy that’s appeared before, and I felt it a little annoying the last time. For a series that’s otherwise been mostly grounded, it’s somewhat jarring.

There’s also a few minor contrivances, like one of the main characters just happening to encounter a few gangbangers who naturally fall victim to his marksmanship in the middle of the book.

Tank Booms

The action here is excellent. Very, very good. There’s just the right combination of a little spectacle and a lot of grit. There are a lot of different enemies throughout the novel, and they feel both similar (the way any armed opponent would be) and different (their weapons and abilities).

While the conspiracy might be a little zombie sorceress in terms of background and tone, as an opponent it proves an interesting foe.

The Only Score That Really Matters

The Brannigan’s Blackhearts series is one of my favorite cheap thrillers, and this is another wonderful installment. My only concern is that the story might be getting a little too serial-esque (cheap thrillers work best in mostly standalone installments), but this is a small one.

 

Review: Faith

Faith

Faith, by Kay Hadashi is not the most typical novel I’d reviewed on Fuldapocalypse. Still, its setting fits the theme of the blog, and it’s always good to have a change of pace.

Who And What

The book follows the career of heroine Melanie Kato as she joins the Air Force, becomes a medic, and serves in a pararescue unit. She’s assigned to Osan in South Korea, and has to deal with her personal life issues as well as her jumps.

This is a very different book from a normal cheap thriller. It’s really a personal/relationship saga that has the parajumper adventures as a backdrop rather than a parajumper adventure saga that has personal/relationship issues as a backdrop. Thankfully, the characters are good enough that it can succeed as that.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

There’s comparably few infodumps here, and even fewer irrelelevant infodumps. Most of what’s stated ends up being used. There’s a bit of awkwardness with military technology Hadashi clearly wasn’t familiar with. On one hand, this prevents a “This was an S-200VE battery…” exactness. On the other, well, I gritted my teeth a little every time surface-to-air missiles were mentioned.

The real infodump depth comes from medical scenes that Hadashi is familiar with. These never feel like they’re irrelevant to the story, but can get a little overdescriptive and clunky at times.

Zombie Sorceresses

The main character being a parajumper I could forgive for the sake of the story-she’s established (this is actually the second book in the series), and the author clearly wanted her in one. Some readers might complain, but I didn’t mind. Hadashi herself clearly states in the forward “liberties have been taken with the search and rescue drama.”

A full-scale Second Korean War never happens in the book. However, a lot of (frequently contrived) incidents that require her and her unit to jump north of the DMZ do.

Tank Booms

The action is kind of movie-ish. There’s surprisingly few North Koreans in any one place at any one time during the northern adventures. The medical infodumps are a little out of place compared to the vague action.

But it flows well and stays tense and gripping.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Faith is not a rip-roaring blast-away action-adventure novel. Once you have that in mind, it’s very good for what it is.

 

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: Task Force Desperate

Task Force Desperate

Task Force Desperate is Peter Nealen’s first novel in his American Praetorians series. It’s the same kind of gritty merc story that he would perfect in his later Brannigan’s Blackhearts series, one of my favorite cheap thrillers. This has some of the rough spots expected of a first-in-series, but is still a very good thriller.

Icelands

This is a classic “few mercs” story with a welcome hint of some, but not too much grounding. This sort of tale is as old as writing, and it has had a flexibility to it that the outright “technothriller” lacks.

Rivets

This is the kind of story that goes into great detail about what type of firearm each character is using and what accessories are on said firearm. Thankfully it doesn’t get in the way too much.

Zombie Sorceresses

By far the biggest contrivance is why, after a huge incident, the task of resolving it goes over to a few private contractors. The book’s explanation is budget cuts and wearing down of the regular US military, to the point where it’s compared to 1990s Russia.

While that made me somewhat skeptical, I could understand why that decision was made for storytelling reasons, and it didn’t really interfere. Some contrivance like this is inevitable in most small-unit stories.

The “Wha?”

The action is very good, managing a good balance of “just spectacular enough” along with plausible grit. Two things get in the way, besides prose that’s still being “broken in”. They’re contradictory to boot. It has a mixture of both first person narrative that I don’t think works as well as the author’s later third person books and the “look how the world changed” infodumps that seemed a little too tell-not-show.

That being said, the first person characters were good enough for a cheap thriller and the pacing, though not up to the level of Nealen’s later works, still worked well enough.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Task Force Desperate is a good cheap thriller by an author who would go on to write great cheap thrillers. I’d recommend going to the later Brannigan’s Blackhearts series if given a choice, but the American Praetorians books started with Task Force Desperate are still perfectly readable action stories.

 

Review: Not By Sight

Not By Sight

Time to read a spy novel. Not by Sight is a long-in-the-making debut novel by Ken Prescott, telling the story of Air Force super-agent Dennis Sandoval. It’s a debut novel in a genre I’ve only read a few books in and am not the biggest fan of overall… and I liked it.

Icelands

As a book where the focus is on preventing World War III rather than starting it, the Iceland scale really isn’t applicable. From what I have seen in the spy-thriller (and thriller overall) genre, it doesn’t break the most new ground-but doesn’t have to.

Rivets

This helps that it’s not an exact technothriller per se, but it’s less rivety and infodumpy than a lot of other books in its genre. They’re there, but it’s not that bad.

Zombie Sorceresses

Let’s see, some of Sandoval’s feats are a little action hero-y, the plot twists are likewise similar, and there’s a little too much “conspiracy entanglement”. Other than that and the basic premise, the zombie sorceresses didn’t have to do all that much work. They don’t have to prevent World War III from going nuclear if World War III never starts, after all.

The “Wha?”

This had the feeling of a well-executed first novel. It has a few first-novel stumbles. Some of the prose gets clunky at times, there’s a bit too much telling and too little showing, and some of the dialogue gets a little exposition-y, especially in the final showdown.

But on the important parts, Prescott nailed it. The first is tone. It begins with and maintains a consistent “semi-grounded” tone. The second is narrative flow. Not By Sight’s multiple viewpoint characters don’t get in the way of a coherent, cohesive tale at all. The third is characters I cared about. I had an interest in the characters.

In fact, one of the issues I felt was that the characterization and chase through East Germany was a little too good. I was invested in them, so while the stakes raising war scare was understandable and plausible, I felt it wasn’t necessary.  It didn’t take anything away from my enjoyment and didn’t feel contrived, but a smaller-scope tale could have been just as effective.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Whatever small issues I have with this book, I enjoyed it, recommend it, and eagerly await Prescott’s next one. It was a good genre shift away from both classic war fiction and Ahern’s cartoon novels.