Review: Hangfire

Hangfire

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

Who and What

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

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

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

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

Zombie Sorceresses

Hard to judge, save for all the MARINE contrivances.

Tank Booms

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

The Only Score That Really Matters

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

It’s a shame.

Review: Season of Slaughter

Season of Slaughter

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

Who and What

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

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

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

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

Zombie Sorceresses

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

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

Tank Booms

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

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

The Only Score That Really Matters

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

 

Review: 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.

Review: Flashpoint Quebec

Flashpoint Quebec: Operation Joint Suppression

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

Who and What

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

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

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

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

Zombie Sorceresses

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

Tank Booms

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

The Only Score That Really Matters

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

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: Red Storm Rising

Red Storm Rising

This is it. For my fiftieth post on Fuldapocalypse, I’m going to review one of the tentpoles. Red Storm Rising is something I’ve written about before, but I figure it’s time to review this classic. And it’s very hard-surprisingly hard, even, to review.

This is because, while I have an interest in the subject, I have almost the exact opposite knowledge and life context than a member of the target audience back in 1987 would have had.

Who and What

A terror attack that knocks out the USSR’s biggest oil refinery triggers a Third World War. The Soviets invade Western Europe and Iceland. It stays conventional throughout the of the book, and we see characters from all branches and ranks throughout. To me it’s a basic outline for World War III tales. To a reader back in 1987, it would be fresh and fascinating, especially from someone whose only view of recent war was Vietnam.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

This book does get infodumpy. However, once again, I think it’s worth noting to the context. To someone like me, it tends to be either noticing an understandable inaccuracy in the infodump or going “Ok, I know what a Motor Rifle Regiment is, you don’t have to explain” (or something like that).

A layman reading this in 1987 would not have the same issues at all.

Zombie Sorceresses

Now this is the weakest part, whether it be in 1987 or today. The cause-and-effect clunkiness of “Lose the refinery, our oil-exporting economy is smashed”, “we need to seize the Middle East”, and “But NATO could stop us so we need to invade Europe first” is the weakest part of the book. The Politburo scene is cringeworthy in the extreme.

Sometimes a ‘handwave’ is necessary, but Clancy dwelled on it for too long. Red Army has a few chapters of preparation but is deliberately vague on how the war started, while Team Yankee uses Hackett’s backstory but doesn’t go into detail, starting the action very quickly. This lingers too long, but not to a truly monstrous degree.

The other one, the invasion of Iceland, is something that’s actually handled well in the book. It’s a jury-rigged expedition that barely succeeds because of how unexpected and out-of-character it is. The issues of supplying and reinforcing such a distant holding are not shied away from.

Tank Booms

From a later reader who was born in 1991, the action is merely middle-of-the-road at best.

For someone in 1987 who hasn’t read this kind of book before, it’s, if nothing else novel. This is, I think, the biggest reason the book hasn’t aged so well, and it’s not Clancy or Bond’s fault. Here are all these new things for someone whose last image of war was Hueys flopping around in the jungle: Nuclear submarines! Tomahawks! Nuclear submarines with Tomahawks! M1 tanks! Reactivated battleships! Smart weapons! Stealth Aircraft!

Then comes the Gulf War and every subsequent intervention where these things become simply routine and normal. The novelty factor is completely lost on a modern reader, especially a wargame-informed one.

Speaking of wargaming, the classic Harpoon board game was used in its creation, blending two elements that have always been close together. It’s at least interesting as an example of different media types joining together.

The Only Score That Really Matters

So, I want to give an unbiased evaluation of Red Storm Rising. Completely without context, it’s a somewhat middling story that isn’t the best in the genre but is still better than a lot of the lesser copycats.

In context, it’s an extremely important work, even if it influenced a niche more than mainstream thrillers. This was one of the commercial high points of the ‘conventional WWIII’ niche, and it’s still good enough to easily be worth checking out.

Review: Steel Gauntlet

Steel Gauntlet

Steel Gauntlet is Starfist at its most cheesy ridiculous. Take the MARINE FIGHTING MAN bias and add a bunch of other hangups and you get this book.

Who and What

So, the MARINES are sent to deal with a power struggle where Space Corporate Saddam Stand-In Marston St. Cyr has rebuilt an army of ancient, previously forgotten vehicles called “tanks” and used them to seize total control of a resource-rich world. Once they get past the weasely politicians and non-MARINES, the MARINES have to fight a giant tank army. And I use the term “tank army” literally.

You have the MARINES, the non-MARINE weasels, the puppy cute space pet-kicking (literally) supervillain, the damsel in distress.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

There are more than a few infodumps here, and not just of the “MARINES awesome, other branches bad” variety. The infodumps about the past of armored warfare in-universe are particularly cringeworthy-especially since I detected an author rant at more than one point.

Basically, tanks never tried to counter increasingly penetrative ATGMs through indirect means (active protection systems, jammers, or just better tactics), instead plopping armor on until the “M1D7” reached 360 tons, twice as much as the infamously unworkable Maus. It could barely move and the “Straight Arrow” anti-tank thingies smashed it anyway. Although in what I hope was a typo, the “Straight Arrow’s” stated penetration value is equal or less than second-tier Cold War ATGMs like the Dragon and Metis.

So tanks went bye-bye, until now. Now having to face “new” tanks, these centuries-old weapons (which are infodumped as having a guidance system, but are treated as ordinary bazookas in-practice) are reverse-engineered, so it’s like fighting people wearing armor with reverse-engineered big muskets.

Zombie Sorceresses

Well, the contrivances run very high here. The MARINE FIGHTING MEN have to face challenges, but the enemy has to behave in a way that doesn’t actually diminish the MARINE FIGHTING MEN. There’s a lot of “Oh look how much danger they’re in” statements that don’t sound credible, to put it mildly.

Tank Booms

There are lots of tanks booming. Their guns boom, and they boom when they explode. In the category of literal tank booms, this book has even Team Yankee or Tin Soldiers beat.

The action is not bad, but most of the first three-quarters of the book involve MARINE FIGHTING MEN destroying unsupported tank formations. The enemy artillery is stuff mounted on tanks, the enemy “infantry” is mentioned as dismounted tank crewmen (who still fall victim to our heroes as easily as their rides do), and the enemy tanks are prey for the MARINES. There’s a ridiculous “copy an amphibious landing with hovercraft” scene at the start which just seems redundant given that they’re landing from space.

The gap between theoretical and actually perceived danger is very big in this book. There’s lots of “Oh no, the undersupported MARINES are facing enemy reinforcements” statements, but almost every battle is just them hitting badly-handled tank-pure formations and wrecking them.

Then (after yet another swipe at the non-MARINE branches), the final act consists of a cloak and dagger plot and chasing Space Corporate Saddam Stand-In Marston St. Cyr himself through the mining tunnels. Here it declines a bit, as the axe-grinding combat gives way to simply decent-ish cheap thriller action.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is one of the highlights of the Starfist series. Seeing MARINES battle a strawman distorted tank force makes for a delightfully laughable tale. The tropes tip over into unintentional cheesy fun, and the book is all the better for it, helped by better fundamentals than the Starfist series sometimes has.

It moves so far so earnestly that I somehow enjoy it.

 

Review: War Against The Mafia

War Against The Mafia

I figured I’d go straight to the source. Don Pendleton’s War Against The Mafia is what kicked off the Mack Bolan series. This spawned hundreds and hundreds of books-by one rough calc, a Mack Bolan novel of some form or another has released every thirty days. And this isn’t even counting the even more numerous knockoffs throughout the decades, including a certain Marvel Comics character who likes wearing shirts with skulls on them.

The modern cheap thriller as we know it owes its origins, or at least its popularity, in no small part to Pendleton’s tale. So I knew I had to check it out.

Who and What

This tells the story of super-veteran Mack Bolan as he wages the conflict depicted in the title. Reading this, I feared that this would fall victim to the “seen so many imitators that the original doesn’t seem so original” effect. And in some ways it came to pass and in some it didn’t.

The stock two-dimensional cheap thriller characters I recognized instantly. This is definitely not a series that started highbrow and was cheapened by the mass market. But the prose was different, and not necessarily for the better. It feels kind of clunky, and it’s the style I’ve recognized from other books written in the 1960s.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

There aren’t that many extraneous infodumps here compared to a lot of later cheap thrillers. Especially not infodumps about weapons-for the most part it’s the caliber, the brand name, and not much else. At most.

There’s still plenty of infodumps, and they serve as part of the hindering style of writing mentioned above, but a lot of them are at least germane to the plot. I think the worst explanation came from telling and not showing Bolan’s exploits in Vietnam.

Zombie Sorceresses

Whatever contrivances are needed to make an action hero occur here. Bolan in this book isn’t the absolute strongest or most capable compared with some later heroes-he feels more human and vulnerable than The Survivalist’s John Rourke, for instance-but he’s still very much a larger than life figure.

While the blurbs alone make it clear that the zombie sorceresses are a lot busier in later Bolan books (let me put it this way, you can only fight mobsters so many times), they can take it easier in his debut.

Tank Booms

The action is not bad, and there is lots of it. But the writing style just makes it not feel as action-y as it could have been.

The Only Score That Really Matters

War Against The Mafia is worth reading if only for its influence. But it feels more like something that was just in the right place at the right time than something that could stand on its own terms. It would probably just be a middle of the road action adventure thriller like so many of its follow-ons undoubtedly were.

Still, I enjoyed reading it. It’s not a bad book by the standards of its genre, as clunky as its prose could be in places. I’m undoubtedly biased by having read so many adventure thrillers that were at least indirectly influenced by 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.

Unstructured Review: Armor

Armor

To go back to military science fiction, John Steakley’s Armor is one of those cult classics. It’s exactly the type of book that Spacebattles would like, and it’s where I found out about it. So I got it, and I read it, and it’s really two books.

The first “book”, the story of Felix, is a tour de force. Unashamedly wearing its inspiration from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers on its sleeve, the Felix section starts with one of the greatest openings I’ve read, an excellent set piece of frenzied, futuristic violence. It lags only a little in the later Felix portions (in no small part because the opening is hard to top), but remains an effective tale of action.

The second “book”, the story of Jack Crow, is a far slower and far less interesting portion. While Jack Crow’s story would not be the absolute worst tale by itself and I can see why Steakley wrote it, it pales in comparison to Felix’s. At times it descended into outright annoyance, because I wanted to return to the amazing part and not the iffy part.

Still, even with the Jack Crow interlude, Armor deserves its prominent place in the history of military science fiction. It’s well worth a read and the opening is simply fantastic.

This is the last Fuldapocalypse review of 2018. Happy New Year to all readers!