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: 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

saudiiranianwar

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: Terror Descending

Terror Descending

terrordescending

When I browsed the Stony Man Executioner spinoffs on mackbolan.com , I followed one of my personal rules-when in doubt, go for the most ridiculous. Upon seeing the ridiculous commentary about Terror Descending, I went “go for it” and got it.

A 1960s relic left-wing terror group is using B-52s disguised as 707s to hit targets around the world with the aid of Cray supercomputer-launched cyberwarfare, and the Stony Man Farm team must stop them. This zombie sorceress-licious premise made me get the book. One reviewer compared it to a Mack Maloney book-this especially made me want to get it.

Terror Descending has the problem of “going into big technical detail and getting it wrong” with a vengeance. “F-17 Eagles”, F-22s staging from aircraft carriers, B-52s being “common” with thousands built, B-52s being disguisable as 707s, “Chinese-made Stingers”, and “MiG-8” fighters. And that’s without the “interesting” aircraft procurement this world has made (Austria uses F-14s). Oh, and despite the book being released in 2009, “Yugoslavia” still exists. This would have been more of a problem if I had the slightest expectation of genuine realism out of this book. Fortunately, I did not. The Mack Maloney comparison is very apt indeed.

Terror Descending, like the previous Gold Eagle Bolan Season of Slaughter, is rather overstuffed. There’s everything from skinhead gangs to airstrikes to a dogfight over Chad to every single flashpoint in the world from the Aegean to the Korean DMZ flaring up to South American prisons. And that’s just the villains. Having to use both Able Team and Phoenix Force as the heroes doesn’t help matters. While workable, the action isn’t good enough to really compensate for all of these flaws.

Still, I’d rather have “fun/crazy bad” than “dull bad”, and Terror Descending is definitely the former.

Review: Fortunes of War

Fortunes of War

While Stephen Coonts is one of the classic technothriller writers, I’d actually never read any one of his books in full until now. Picking Fortunes of War, a late 1990s technothriller after his sales had peaked, is kind of like wanting to start listening to Yes with Big Generator.

Now that that shoved-in prog rock reference is out of the way, I was interested in this because of its depiction of a second Russo-Japanese War. One of my Command Live scenarios deals with such a thing itself, so I was curious to see how a spectacularly successful author handled it.

Who and What

Let’s see, an unconventional opponent (Japan) with some sort of super-gimmick weapon (Super fighter aircraft),  attacks a helpless Russia for zombie-sorceress induced reasons. This is very 1990s technothriller. In fact, this is one of the most 1990s technothrillers that ever technothrilled in the 1990s, even more so than poster child Cauldron. The 90s contrivances are there, and the technothriller “snapshot and superweapons” model, going from aircraft to submarines to dogfights to knife/fistfights is there.

Apart from that, it’s a little iffy with characterization (even by the standards of the genre). The American “Volunteer” F-22 pilots are too numerous and the book too short to really examine in depth. One final bit of serendipity happens in this novel. The villainous Japanese Prime Minister is named “Abe“-I was reminded of The Hunt For Red October having a “Putin” in it as well.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

This is slightly less infodumpy than the absolute worst the genre has to offer, although it’s still very, very description-heavy. One interesting part is that Coonts can leverage two pieces of genuine but “new enough to be exotic and techno-thrillery” technology-the F-22 and JDAM-style munitions.

Zombie Sorceresses

Ok. Apart from the geopolitics (Belligerent Japan, Russia being worse than it was even at its 1990s nadir), and the technology, the big zombie sorceress contrivance is in nuclear weapons. Russia has disarmed (almost) all of its nuclear weapons as a foreign aid condition so that the conventional invasion of Siberia, but kept a few for the plotnuke climax. Japan has developed a few in secret, also for the plotnuke climax.

Tank Booms

There are two types of action scenes in this book. The first are the aerial combat scenes, something which the Distinguished Flying Cross recipient Coonts knows very well. The second are the technothriller/action scenes like fistfights or anti-submarine warfare that he doesn’t have as much firsthand experience with. And it shows.

Even the former are let down a little by a few too many exact-detailed “and the missile exploded in exactly 2,003 fragments, turning the enemy plane into 1,200 fragements and its pilot into 320 fragements” scenes.

The Only Score That Really Matters

By the standards of 1990s technothrillers, this is very good for what it is. It’s technically competent and has its authors expertise in his subject matter carry it above the pack. But in some ways it feels more artificially stilted, like its creator’s most vigorously creative days are behind it. So, suspiciously like 1980s Yes (to swing back to progressive rock).

Still, it makes me want to check out Coonts’ earlier books, and that’s endorsement enough for me.

Review: Strikemasters

Strikemasters

Mack Maloney’s Strikemasters follows in the footsteps of his earlier “Wingman” books, being set much later and with a much different background, but maintaining the elements that made that novel so much fun.

Who and What

The book can be summed up as “Special Operations Forces in super-powered C-17s fight terrorists in a super-powered mountain fortress.” It’s the sort of bombast that characterizes Maloney’s work and makes it able to navigate the dark technothriller decade of the 2000s without many problems.

And to his credit, Maloney is not afraid to throw challenges and imperfections at his super-characters and super-planes. He’s not afraid to kill central characters off. Doing this while going full-crazy ahead might be dissonant on paper, but it works here, being a writer who can have his cake and eat it too.

Of course, the characters, good and evil, are little but shallow stereotypes, but this is the kind of book where this isn’t that big a deal. And the last part of the book is a little rushed. But this also isn’t that much of an issue.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

Yes, we do get huge, loving descriptions of the super-tech. Why did you ask?

Zombie Sorceresses

Like every Mack Maloney novel, this book is full of bombastic, ridiculous super-contrivances. But it strangely doesn’t feel as contrived. A lot of technothrillers are stuffed with what Nader Elfhefnawy rightly calls the “illusion of realism” . As they became steadily more ridiculous, this issue amplified. The pure bombastic unrestrained “go for it” attitude of this book and Maloney’s others solves the problem.

Tank Booms

The action, as mentioned above, manages a good balance between “over-the-top” and “challenging”. It could have failed in either direction. It could have had a jarring effect of flaws clashing with the “look at the superplane go!” It also could have had the superplane effortlessly cakewalking to victory. Strikemasters did not fall into either pit, and is all the better for it.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is another excellent Mack Maloney title, with him being able to leverage his strengths to make a tale of super C-17s doing superpowered feats in a well-told fashion. Highly recommended.

 

Review: Carrier – Enemies

Carrier: Enemies

The “Carrier” series was a long-running series. When searching for books in it to read and review, I followed my famous rule: When in doubt, go for the most outlandish. The enemy of this book, the fifteenth of the series, is…. Greece. How could I resist?

Who and What

As the Greek-Macedonian conflict (at least a strange version of it) heats up and a news helicopter is brought down by a Greek Tomcat on a false-flag mission, Admiral Matthew “Tombstone” Magruder and the carrier USS Jefferson goes to the region to enforce peace while a reporter who survived stays on the ground amidst the Macedonians. And that’s about as coherent as it gets.

There are really two parts of this book. The first is essentially applying the technothriller “top-to-bottom” viewpoint style to the “low budget assembly line book” quality level. So there’s the conference rooms, the scrambling reporter, the subplots, and the aviators themselves, all done in a slapdash style. For instance, the main antagonist is a general but is called an “admiral” in one passage. Then there’s the small problem of the book’s ending being abrupt and simply unfinished. That’s the boring, bad part.

The second is the goofy part. Greeks with bad names flying F-14s. An evil general launching a ridiculously obvious (to the reader) false flag plot. A main character with the nickname “Tombstone.”

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

There really aren’t that many “The F-111F triggered the Pave Tack and dropped a GBU-12B straight on the Spoon Rest” moments in this book. There are, however, a lot of conference room scenes.

Zombie Sorceresses

The zombie sorceresses were changing everything from Greek aircraft procurement to naming customs to the nature of the Greece-Macedonia conflict to well, almost everything.

Tank Booms

The actual action isn’t the best. Most of the dogfights between aircraft feel like fanfiction of the Top Gun movie from someone who has that and maybe one other technothriller as their sole source for aerial combat, and there isn’t much “adrenaline”, for lack of a better word. Constantly cutting back to conference rooms doesn’t help.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Like Ian Slater’s USA vs. Militia series, this book is the kind of thing someone like me would find more appealing than a “normal” person probably would. The plotting and action is too dry, badly done, and generic to hold that much appeal, but the premise and excesses were music to my ears. But even they can’t stop the very bad fundamentals this book has.

Review: Defcon One

Defcon One

Joe Weber’s Defcon One is a late Cold War technothriller with one unintentionally prescient scene and a lot of iffy clunkiness.

Who and What

This is a very stock technothriller. It’s also a very boring techno-“thriller”. Which is a shame because its nuclear “almost-war” could have been better in defter hands. Instead it has supervillain Soviets and makes what should have been a second Cuban Missile Crisis look very boring. It’s technically competent, but also dull and feels from start to finish like it’s just going through the motions of what a technothriller is supposed to be. “Superweapons. Check. Action. Check. Conference Rooms. Check. Lots of Viewpoint Characters [who aren’t developed even by genre standards]. Check.”

The creepy and unintentionally prescient scene is having the Space Shuttle Columbia get damaged in space and then be destroyed during reentry. The book was published in 1989, 14 years before that happened in real life.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

Not only are there lots of infodumps in Defcon One, but they feel sort of-forced. Like it’s “I have to describe what this aircraft engine is”. Weber is a former Marine aviator, but at least in this book he fell too often into the trap of “I know the exact designation of a Scud TEL, and I’ll share it” that some writers with genuine expertise fall into.

Zombie Sorceresses

Let’s see, the initial push, the too-neat final resolution of this (even Arc Light did better), and the general “supervillain Soviet” trend. A goofier premise might have helped it along.

Tank Booms

There’s some fighting at sea, having spies run around in the USSR, and having the occasional superweapon-beam destroy a space shuttle. The action describes the biggest problem that DefCon One has-it’s too exaggerated to be a good grounded highbrow story, but too tame to be a good cheap thriller.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Defcon One is well-put together, especially for the first novel that it was. I just found it dull and kind of an “IKEA Technothriller”. It has the contrivances and structure of a technothriller, but surprisingly few actual thrills.

 

Unstructured Review: X-Wing Series

As a kid, I inherited (and read) a lot of my family’s old Star Wars novels. The most relevant to Fuldapocalypse and most fun are the X-Wing novels by Michael A. Stackpole and the late Aaron Allston. For books that are both movie tie-ins and video game tie-ins at the same time, they’re actually really good.

Especially Allston’s. The Wraith Squadron series are a combination Dirty Dozen and fighter story (and yes, fighter pilots somehow turn into effective commando-spies. But this is Star Wars), and manage a degree of emotional height (Allston’s not afraid to kill off developed sympathetic characters) and comedy (such as someone having to fly into battle with a giant stuffed Ewok in his lap-long story) without feeling jarring at all.

Stackpole’s books are more formulaic, less daring, and he has the tendency to take game mechanics a little too literally, but they’re still solid and still better-scaled than a lot of the other Star Wars books of the time period (which have all the antagonist problems of 1990s technothrillers and then some).

Technothriller authors could do worse than read these. They’re good examples of how you can manage a decent-sized cast and medium-scope story, and they’re fun.