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.

 

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: 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.

 

The Dead Generals of World War III

I’ve finished reading Aleksander Maslov’s Fallen Soviet Generals, a chronicle of the fallen general officers of the Red Army in World War II. Over two hundred Soviet generals were killed, on average one every six days. German general casualties were similarly massive. The Western Allies got off lightly (the United States lost twenty generals), although there were exceptions. In Vietnam the U.S. Army lost five generals.

The subject of how generals died after the invention of the telephone and radio has been a area of weird fascination for me, and I even chose it as the subject of my first (probably too goofy given the seriousness of the topic) ebook.

No doubt there would be a lot of generals dying in a hypothetical World War III, even a purely conventional one, along with their subordinates. The causes can be divided into two main categories:

Deep Fire

“Deep Fire” refers to anything to strike deeper, and encompasses air strikes, long-range artillery, surface-to-surface missiles and special forces raids. This would likely be the leading cause of general deaths. The long-range fire strike complex (to use the Soviet term) abilities of both sides had increased dramatically from World War II, and command installations are clear targets for “big-ticket”, scarce weapons.

Close Fire

“Close Fire” refers to direct fire and, for the sake of convenience, shorter-ranged battlefield mortars and artillery. While the advances in deep fire and targeting would potentially render it secondary, it cannot be counted out as a form of killing generals. Maslov’s book gives countless examples of how, in twisted, confused, rapidly mobile engagements, command posts ended up close to enemy soldiers and armored vehicles, with very dire consequences for those inside them. Especially in a conflict with overwhelmingly more mechanization than the Second World War, something similar is bound to occur.

Of course, these categories can be blurred. Is a long-distance tank raid “deep” or “close?” Is a CAS airstrike on a forward command group “deep” or “close?”

Either way, the generals will not be spared.

 

Review: Flight of the Old Dog

Flight of the Old Dog

Dale Brown has always put the “techno” in “technothriller”, and his first book, Flight of the Old Dog, sets the formula while being very enjoyable.

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This has the usual technothriller cliches of supervillain Soviets and clunky political wrangling. Where it’s slightly different is Brown’s willingness to take a small leap in terms of supertech and his focus largely on just the titular B-52 and its crew.

Rivets

The rivet-counting and super-detail I knew from Brown’s later work is there and in full bloom. But it doesn’t feel as bad in this installment, because Brown’s experience as a bomber crewman makes the descriptions feel smoother and creating a sense of immediacy.

Zombie Sorceresses

The big zombie sorceress intervention in this book is the technology. The super B-52, space station, and the Soviet superlaser it targets are all the biggest contrivances. There’s also the “have a small ragtag team of _________ to take it on” effect, but that’s handled pretty well.

The “Wha?”

The characters aren’t anything to write home about, but the plot, cliche as it is, is brisk and flows quickly. Flight of the Old Dog remains a good example of how to do a superweapon vs. superweapon story right.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Dale Brown’s first book is, in my opinion, his best. It has the super-aircraft action that’s his trademark, but it also avoids most of the excess that his later novels have. In terms of 80s action technothrillers, his debut remains a rightful classic of the genre.

Review: Line of Control

I decided to go on a hunt for new thrillers. By chance when looking them up, I found Line of Control by Mainak Dhar, where after coups in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, they ally to reheat the conflict with India. This was an Indian technothriller. I was intrigued.

Icelands

Dhar has read his classics, and it shows. After a few chapters, the structure is very clear to anyone who’s read Clancy, Bond, or the like. I was reminded more of Larry Bond than anyone else. I think it was because Dhar, unlike more specialized authors, went all the way from infantry to air and naval crews to spies to leaders.

Although I will say this- in one very crucial way, Dhar manages better than Bond. Much better.

Rivets

Of course, with the classic inspiration comes the classic drawback. Sometimes, especially in air-to-air combat, the listing of exact numbers and ranges gets a little too high. It isn’t the absolute worst, and it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the novel as a whole, but it’s there and it grated a little.

One silver lining is how the setting of the book allows for considerable novelty in terms of equipment without being contrived in the least. The protagonists are using largely Soviet/Russian systems, while the antagonists are using mainly American ones, with F-15s as their secret techno-weapons.

Zombie Sorceresses

I didn’t really feel that much “zombie sorceress” contrivance in the book. It existed, but never truly beyond the norm for the technothriller genre as a whole. When one of the biggest issues apart from the belligerency of the antagonists (which is part and parcel of the whole genre) is “they found enough irregulars to launch a corps-sized conventional attack”, it’s pretty good.

A lot of it I think has to do with the setting. When you have two real-world enemies that are much closer in power as-is, I don’t think you need nearly the amount of contrivances or “equalizers” that occur in a post-1991 technothriller with the US as the protagonist country.

And then there’s dealing with the nuclear weapons. But that’s done in a literary way that made me excuse anything.

The “Wha?”

On one hand, this has the usual thriller tropes. It has lots of viewpoint characters, perhaps a few too many. It has lots of subplots, bouncing around a little too much. The characters are stock thriller ones.

And yet, it never felt like Dhar put a character in without a purpose he intended for them. There may have been a few too many subplots, but there’s just enough characters to fill those plots without being excessive. Furthermore, Dhar handled a very, very difficult issue for technothrillers in an effective way.

Dhar takes the “stop the nukes” plot and makes it the final climax of the book. He doesn’t brush past them with a handwave. And he doesn’t do what Larry Bond did in Cauldron and just remove them with a super-counterforce strike early in the book. There’s the conventional battle and then the fear of escalation. While I could nitpick the plausiblity of how it played out, it worked in literary terms.

The Only Score That Really Matters

I liked this book. It has infodumps, conference room infodumps, a buildup to something you know is going to happen, and other faults of the genre. But it also has the strengths of it, handles some elements very well, and has a setting that’s novel to a filthy Yankee like me.

I recommend it.

Review: Chains of Command

Chains of Command

Dale Brown is one of those authors who managed to remain firmly in a genre even as it declined. Which is to say, as the genre began to decline and other authors like Ralph Peters and Harold Coyle moved to different topics like the American Civil War, Brown and his super-planes just kept going and going and going and going and going and going like a technothriller Energizer Bunny. Somehow enough people bought the books that he kept getting publishing deals for more of them without being a super-big name like Tom Clancy.

He was also out-there from the get go, leaning on the “super-science-fiction” edge of technothrillers from the start of his first book, Flight of the Old Dog, which featured a super bomber against a super-laser. (That book I unreservedly recommend-it’s a fun cheap thriller). This and the melodramatic excess of his later novels has made him who he was.

How does Chains of Command, this Russo-American war novel, stack up?

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Dale Brown has been there from the start, so it’s no surprise that if you know the type and time period of this thriller, nothing will be surprising. It’s a Dale Brown thriller so you’ll get the Air Force saving everything, lots of nukes flying, and more than a few political rants. It’s a cheap thriller, so you get a cheap thriller plot. It’s post-1991, so the enemy is a regressed Russia.

Rivets

Like a lot of technothriller authors, Brown loves his rivet-counting, with lots of exact designations and detailed descriptions. The biggest problem isn’t so much the infodumps themselves as how they exist in this exaggerated fantasy world of super-planes. It’s like giving a detailed, technically exact description of a car’s engine and mechanics-in a cartoonish video game.

Zombie Sorceresses

Well, there’s the regression of Russia, for one. Then there’s the plot-nukes. Dale Brown loves nuking everything without going full Dr. Strangelove. Then there’s an infodumped past war that should crowd out the real Gulf War but doesn’t. The zombie sorceresses haven’t been the busiest here, but they’ve still had to work.

The “Wha?”

This is a cheap thriller plot, and it wildly zigzags. On one hand, Brown is a former navigator-bombardier in the Air Force, so he can show a feeling of immediacy in the battle scenes. On the other, they’re loaded with infodumps. On one hand, Brown’s plotnukes show he isn’t afraid to have the enemy do real damage. On the other, they make the world seem less real and more contrived.  On one hand, the heroine is an effective character by the standards of the genre. On the other, the action is too spread out…

You get the idea.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Chains of Command is not truly bad, but Brown has definitely written better. While he hadn’t yet sunk to the levels he would later on, this is not his best book, nor is it the best in the genre. It manages to deploy both general technothriller and Brown-specific cliches in bulk without having anything like prose or plot to make up for them.

I’d recommend reading Flight of the Old Dog first and seeing if you like his style before trying Chains of Command. It can work as a time-passing cheap thriller, but even in that easy genre there are better books.