Review: The Black Effect

The Black Effect

blackeffectcover

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Eye Of The Storm

Eye Of The Storm

eyeofthestorm

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

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

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

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

Review: Death Run

Death Run

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

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

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

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

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

 

Review: Hunter-Killer

Hunter-Killer

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

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

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

Review: Northern Fury H-Hour

Northern Fury H-Hour

(note: I received a review copy).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Saudi-Iranian War

The Saudi-Iranian War

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As my first Command LIVE scenario was a conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, when I saw Ted Halstead’s The Saudi-Iranian War, I knew I had to check it out. I was sadly disappointed.

The Saudi-Iranian War is a technothriller through and through. Not only does it depict a military conflict with jumping viewpoints at all levels, but it does so through the lens of technological spectacle. It reads like a cargo-culted classic technothriller that manages to have even less of a human element than the stereotype would predict.

Halstead takes us on an all-tution paid semester in Rivets 205 at tem wur cool leg. The book just starts with character after character after character saying what they’re going to be doing, along with such important DEEP HISTORY details as the horsepower of a jeep’s engine. It’s the worst kind of knowledge-detail, the kind that goes “I know [or looked up] the exact designation of a Scud TEL, so I’ll write it out”, rather than leveraging any of it into making an actually better story.

The early part of this is rote description, metaphorical conference room scenes, and literal conference room scenes. It’s about as exciting as it sounds.

Halfway into the book, the “action” finally starts. If, by action one means “there’s descriptions of tanks, followed by descriptions of tanks firing, with a description of the exact shell [ie, M829A2] the tank fired.” Not only are the large battles treated purely as deterministic clashes of military hardware, but they’re also dull to the point where I’ve read more melodramatic Let’s Plays/AARs of various wargames. The smaller scale “cloak and dagger” stuff is also not ideal, but even it’s still better than the big battles.

Perhaps the most disappointing part is the setup. Iran hopes to defeat Saudi Arabia via a series of technothriller set pieces. Everything just feels like it’s one isolated, stilted technothriller set piece after another instead of anything that seems like it’s genuinely flowing. The tanks are a technothriller set piece. The aircraft are a technothriller set piece. The WMDs are a technothriller set piece. Not helping matters for a story so centered around military equipment is said equipment being a mix of “The Wikipedia page for Saudi and Iranian equipment”, plus a few shoved-in ‘exotics’ like T-14 Armatas and J-20s.

I’d recommend something like Raven One for a modern technothriller where an Iran with an expanded arsenal is the opponent. The Saudi-Iranian War just feels like a rote, box-checking IKEA Technothriller that has far more of the genre’s bad parts than its good ones.

 

Review: Worm

Worm

This is a weird story to be reviewing on Fuldapocalypse, and it’s a weird context. But Worm has been so crazy on Spacebattles to the point where the mods had to make a separate forum specifically for Worm fanfics.

Worm is a story about a teenage girl in a rough and tumble city who, after being shoved into a filthy locker by bullies, develops superpowers. Much, much, much more happens after that.

Worm has a lot going for it. It’s a superhero story that keeps the basic archetypes everyone knows and loves while shedding every last piece of baggage the big two comics have dragged over decades. The powers are interesting and distinct-for instance, the closest prominent figure you can find to the main character’s power set of insect control is a boss in Metal Gear Solid 3. There aren’t lazy “Superman” or “Batman” figures made with the minimum distinction. The characters are well developed and sympathetic in a truly dark world. It sounds very good……

 

……until it’s actually read. The fundamentals are ‘iffy’ enough that it becomes a slog. Especially early on, events happen and pass very quickly, not helped by the prose. But on the other side of the coin, the story as a whole is over one and a half million words long-longer than War and Peace and Atlas Shrugged combined. And I’ve found the prose to be simply dull.

In no small part because of this, every flaw in the worldbuilding comes up in a way that it wouldn’t in a better story. The biggest issue I’ve found is trying to have its cake and eat it too. Worm goes into a huge amount of in-universe detail to try and justify its common superhero-vs-supervillain tropes. To me the amount of raw effort required has the effect of making it seem less, rather than more plausible.

But I don’t want to be too hard on Worm-I can see its appeal, and consider it “not for me” rather than outright “bad”. It just didn’t really “click” for me, and I don’t want to read a million+ words of something that didn’t do that.

 

Unstructured Review: The Valor Series

Valor Series

One of my first “get me through a vacation” books was an omnibus containing the first two volumes of Tanya Huff’s Valor series of military sci-fi. At the time, I was impressed by how an author who was clearly new to the genre could write something well. Now, some time later, I’m even more impressed. Other authors of either fantasy or (surprisingly) contemporary action have stumbled, in my opinion, when they turned to the difficult genre of military science fiction. Huff, for the most part, did not.

Oh, it has its pitfalls. Some of the prose is a little “flowery fantasy”-esque, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a line in one of the later books that about how drones were obsolete compared to a “good pair of eyes” because they kept getting shot down (when the alternative is losing those eyes). But those are tiny compared to the advantages.

Heroine Torin Kerr is a good enough protagonist, especially by the standards of the genre. Huff tends to keep her in smaller, fantasy adventure party sized engagements that she’s comfortable with and work very well. And the series takes out a lot of the “brown M&Ms” that plague the ‘spacesuit commando’ subgenre (that I groan at but still somehow read and like anyway). For instance, while other, worse military sci-fi books have the main character promoted ridiculously high ridiculously fast, Kerr starts as a staff sergeant and ends the series as a… gunnery sergeant.

For these reasons I recommend the Valor book. Sure they’re lightweight, but they’re lightweight in a good, solid way.

 

Unstructured Review: Blood and Tacos

Blood and Tacos

The “Blood and Tacos” book series is a playful mockery of and love letter to the classic action-adventure series. Something as big and pulpy as the Mack Bolan-style adventure fiction genre is both easy and hard to make fun of. Easy because it has a lot of obvious “flaws”, hard because it was so prolific that it frequently fell into the “Poe’s Law” pit of being an unintentional self-parody.

For instance, I can give a personal anecdote. I was flipping through Mack Bolan store pages and finding one where he was fighting genetically modified super-soldiers. Given the series started as a somewhat grounded tale of fighting mobsters, I went “a-ha, this must be an ‘Arkansas vs. The Blimps’ moment of craziness.” When I looked back, I found multiple ones where this happened.

The four ebooks in the Blood and Tacos series have a list of short stories and parodies/homages to classic adventure fiction, tales by obscure (made-up) authors that were later “discovered by” the actual ones. There’s also spotlights of either the most ridiculous or the most creepy real adventure novels.

Some of the stories are too forced in their humor, but others manage to hit the spot perfectly. My favorite is “Battleground U.S.S.A., Texasgrad”, for not only managing to spoof adventure novels, but technothrillers and invasion novels as well.

Review: Houdini vs. Rasputin

Houdini vs. Rasputin

I was in the mood for a change of pace, and upon seeing Houdini vs. Rasputin I felt I had to give it a shot. I was not disappointed.

Who and What

Harry Houdini makes an ahistorical second trip to Russia in 1911, brought over by the head of the secret police to try and deal with the mystic Rasputin. What follows is a book-long adventure as the mystic and the escape artist match wits and trade blows. Pitting the two larger-than-life figures against each other is brilliant.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

Almost all the descriptions are for something actually important to either the plot or scene at hand. Imagine that!

Zombie Sorceresses

This just isn’t the kind of book where this category is important or even viable. I could argue “not even memetic Houdini could escape from that” but this isn’t the kind of book for that. I could argue “is it a coincidence he runs into everyone from Stolypin to Lenin?” but this isn’t the kind of book for that. This is the kind of book where you just run with it.

Tank Booms

After dozens of books of red-blooded Mack Bolan wannabes, tanks booming, clinical technothriller battles, and spacesuit commandos, the earnest old-fashioned adventure here, beautifully written, is highly refreshing. I could almost imagine a John Williams score in the background for some of the scenes.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Houdini vs. Rasputin is a fresh, earnest, amazing tale. Not since the first few volumes of Jerry Ahern’s Survivalist have I read with such  totally along-for-the-roller-coaster-ride enthusiasm. I highly recommend it.