Review: Marching Through Georgia

Marching Through Georgia

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For a while, SM Stirling’s Draka series was a lightning rod for controversy in the online alternate history community. So I wanted to see how these tales of a continent-spanning slave empire fared as books, minus the controversy over their “plausibility”. Fittingly, I started with Marching Through Georgia.

As the paratroopers jump into the Caucasus, there are anachronistic assault rifles and Vasilek-style automortars against Kar98ks and MG34s. There are the equivalent of postwar MBTs with gun stabilizers. Now it’s not quite the most exaggerated “Vietnam technology against a WWII army” some people have claimed and the Drakan characters are certainly challenged, but it’s unmistakably clear that the Drakans are better than the Germans they’re fighting, that they have better equipment and are better fighters. The deck is clearly stacked and the “These are author’s pets” alarms are clearly ringing. So I could see why the backlash came.

In literary terms, the prose is functional even with a lot of clunky exposition to establish how the timeline diverged (a problem hardly unique to it). There are worse stories out there. The biggest problem is that the Draka themselves aren’t just unsympathetic, they’re uninteresting.

Although to be fair, this never really rises above the level of “slam-bang action war story with even more sleazy titillation thrown in”. In fact, it got to the point where I felt that all the effort expended in (not unreasonably) critiquing its plausibility seemed like punching down.

Take a decent-at-best war romp story with an inherently pulpy nation, add in a bunch of BISEXUAL AMAZONS, and for good measure, toss in some of the  understandable “commercial alternate history” tropes like “there’s still people and events the readers will recognize despite the point of divergence being centuries ago”. Now think-would something like that really stand up to massive, gigantic scrutiny over its plausibility? Would you even expect it to?

Review: The Chosen One

The Chosen One

Walt Gragg’s The Red Line was one of the first books I reviewed on Fuldapocalypse-and how could I not, with it being a Russo-American World War III, the kind that was supposed to be the blog’s bread and butter? Now his second book, The Chosen One, is out. And I felt I had to review it.

So, an Algerian man somehow becomes recognized as the “Madhi”, gets a huge army, is able to unify most of the Middle East, equip said huge army, and launch a conventional World War III. It doesn’t take place in the Fulda Gap, but the book does have all the hallmarks of the “big-war thriller” that I had in mind when starting the blog.

It has tons of viewpoint characters from top to bottom, lots of battles, a focus on air, land, and sea (via a cruise missile strike on the American fleet), and the general tropes of the subgenre. So I can say I feel very comfortable in declaring this a World War III book.

A lot of the big-picture stuff doesn’t make much sense (even in a spherical cow lines on a map way), which I’d be more forgiving of if it wasn’t brought up repeatedly in conference room exposition scenes. It’s not quite at the level of The Red Line’s convoluted way to turn the clock back to the 1980s, but it’s still there in force.

There are a few too many viewpoint characters for the book’s own good, they’re not exactly the least stereotypical, and they make the pacing jumbled (the kind of thing I sadly expected). Part of this is a cutaway to the antagonist’s stereotypical childhood. I’ll just say that A: I was reminded of Life Of Brian, and B: you shouldn’t be reminded of Life of Brian in what’s supposed to be a serious story.

As for the actual action, it’s strange. The prose descriptions are ridiculously melodramatic (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but still, given the tone, it clashes), but it also has more than its share of dry weapon over-description as well. There’s also anachronisms with the weapon names (which isn’t so bad if you don’t mind every enemy tank being an “M60” or “T-72”) and tactics (which is understandable but still a little out of date to see carrier aircraft flying at low altitude and having trouble hitting hardened shelters).

It’s not the absolute worst, but it’s still not what it could have been. The conclusion is also a stumbling point, which has a firefight inside an Egyptian pyramid (Ok?) that’s taken seriously and focused on while a big tank battle occurs elsewhere and is only mentioned in passing (not ok), and ends with a really, really blatant sequel hook.

This is a sort of oddball novelty-it has the roughness and er, “quirkiness” of some of the more uneven independent “big-war thrillers”, yet it’s a mainstream publication. And regrettably, its fundamentals just aren’t good enough to be more than an oddball novelty.

Review: Advance To Contact

Advance To Contact

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In the early stages of Fuldapocalypse, I reviewed Andy Farman’s Stand To, a World War III tale. Or rather, a sleazy spy tale that became a World War III tale that involved everything I thought I’d be seeing en masse on Fuldapocalypse, and then some. Lots of descriptions. Lots of viewpoint characters. Lots of meticulously described battles.

Now I’m in one of those full circle moods. I still had the remaining books in the series left unread, so I decided to return to that mostly untapped World War III vein and read the second Armageddon’s Song book, Advance to Contact.

Farman has had decades of legitimate expertise as a soldier and police officer, and indeed the infantry fighting scenes in this book sometimes actually work. The key word here is “sometimes”. Often they blur together (since the characters are so forgettable and interchangeable). Often Farman fills it with infodumps on the exact levels of equipment and/or author lectures on whatever topic is technically relevant. Often the viewpoints are yanked away and yanked back. Often they’re overdescribed to the point where it loses its focus. Still, I should give legitimate credit where credit is due. There’s one scene with doomed Belarusian soldiers where he actually writes well, doesn’t get too infodumpy, and keeps the ‘camera’ focused on them instead of jumping a continent away after a few paragraphs.

Another instance of deserved credit is that the plotting and pacing is a little better than in Stand To. The war is underway, so the goofy spy plot is less prominent and the viewpoint jumping merely at the level of “exaggerated technothriller” rather than the wrenching shifts of Stand To.

That being said, it still has most of the problems mentioned over a year ago in the review of Stand To. The times when details are gotten wrong (given the ridiculous amount of description) are annoying. Farman doesn’t focus on where he’s most skilled and comfortable but instead gives giant air/sea battles. There are bizarre events like B-2s being used as tankers and Tu-160s as special forces insertion craft. The dialogue for anyone not in the military is frequently awkward. And the pacing is just glacially slow.

Still, like with the first book, I couldn’t feel mad about this and frequently felt amused. This is an earnest series by a first-time fiction writer. It’s just that what could have been at least a rival to Chieftains with some more focus turned into this clunked-together technothriller kitchen sink.

Review: The Bear’s Claws

The Bear’s Claws

(Full disclosure: I was a beta reader for this book and thus received an advance review copy)

Reading The Bear’s Claws was a pleasant surprise, the likes of which I hadn’t gotten from a WWIII book since Team Yankee. This tells the story of a Soviet mechanized infantry unit as it progresses through a World War III in 1982.

Now I could mention the book’s shortcomings-in particular, its character arcs are not exactly the most unpredictable. But given the small of World War III fiction in general, having a book with all the things it did right was delightful to experience.

  • The Soviets not only win, but win handily. This does make sense for 1982, but it’s still good to see that leap being taken in popular WWIII fiction. And to add to that, it’s not portrayed as a cakewalk for the people on the ground.
  • In great contrast to the stereotypical Red Storm Rising-style type of book where viewpoint characters hop around, the “camera” here stays tightly focused.
  • Finally, it has the kind of “plotnukes” that I would normally denounce. Yet they were handled in a way that didn’t have me going “oh, come on!”. The plotnukes featured a personal connection and just the right amount of explanation.

This sort of thing doesn’t come along often. So I’m very happy to give The Bear’s Claws my thumbs up.

Review: Steel World

Steel World

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For BV Larson’s Steel World, I returned to a familiar place-the land of spacesuit commandos. Almost every single value checks out. Dystopian background? Check. The main character is a super-special spacesuit commando in a super-special spacesuit commando unit (in this case, a secret dirty tricks “Legion”)? Check. The main characters use nothing more than power armor and ray guns that don’t seem to really do much? Check. The tactics are iffy and everyone uses Roman ranks? Check.

The only novel feature, besides the use of “rules of war” that are clearly structured to enable the plot, is revivification. However, in practice all it does is remove tension, best summed up by having people -multiple times at that- want to be “killed” for the sake of convenience.

For all my complaining, Steel World manages to dodge the biggest problem with the subgenre. Its training sequences are not overly long, and I was thankful for that. And for all its issues, it’s still readable and fun as a mindless spacesuit commando novel.

Review: Reflexive Fire

Reflexive Fire

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Special Forces veteran Jack Murphy’s Reflexive Fire is a very strange kind of thriller. The low-level action is very well done, gritty and gory with almost the right amount of “semi-plausibility” and “exaggeration” (I learned about Murphy’s books from Peter Nealen’s posts on them, and could see the similarities in the action immediately). The high-level plot is this huge mega-stakes mix of ancient conspiracy theories, and to say it doesn’t fit the best with the low-level action is a huge understatement. It’s like a video game with ARMA’s mechanics but Metal Gear Solid’s plot. There are Blaine McCrackens that have less ridiculous plots and MacGuffins than this.

The pacing is very jumpy, with lots of viewpoint characters (it’s a rare instance of “just a name and nationality” Steel Panthers Characterization in a small-unit action book) and a very long “Herman Melville’s Guide To Building And Training Your Dream Army With The Help Of A Super-Conspiracy” section. There’s some hamfisted politics that don’t really add anything and are ruined by the presence of the super-conspiracy.

That being said, this was Murphy’s first novel in the series, and he demonstrated enough legitimate strengths for me to be forgiving of its many weaknesses. Plus, if I have to choose between a bland middling book that doesn’t stand out from the pack or a zigzagging, “really good in one way, bad in others, and quirky to boot” book that does, I’m choosing the latter instantly.

Review: Escalation

Escalation

 

Escalation by Peter Nealen is meant as a kind of spiritual successor to his American Praetorians series. It starts in a dystopian future world where everything bad in current society is made dozens of times worse, and every taken-for-granted part of the international order is going to crumble. I was reminded of an old classic alternate history timeline called “For All Time” , where in place of the postwar western world, we get…. something else.

I have mixed feelings on all this. On one hand, most of the time, like a lot of the best political commentary, the exaggerations are close enough to be genuinely chilling. On the other, that every single shoe drops stretches my credibility a little too far, and some of the pushing that does go too far stretches it even more. Still, compared to his axe-grinding contemporaries, Nealen is both more intelligent with the political commentary and  better at making it more important and relevant to the main plot.

Said main plot is a struggle to fight through a war-torn Slovakia. Nealen’s action is, as always from him, top-notch. The soldiers of the Triarii (the protagonist organization) face everything from tanks to ordinary enemy footsoldiers in well-written action that balances well between “just grounded enough” and “just spectacular enough”. The biggest problem is an insistence on a big-world, big-battle story told through a first-person viewpoint. This doesn’t really work as well, and it’s a credit to Nealen’s skill that it’s not an even bigger problem.

I still prefer the breezier, less political and lower-scale Brannigan’s Blackhearts books from Peter Nealen, but a lot of this is just preferring apples to oranges. It’s good that he’s willing to push the limits, and for all its faults, I enjoyed Escalation.

Review: Strike Force Red

Strike Force Red

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C. T. Glatte’s Strike Force Red is an alien World War II. The book might invite comparisons to Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar series, but is actually much different.

Aliens, wishing to take over the world to repair their damaged spaceship, land, kill Hitler, make Stalin into their pawn, and then proceed to form a League of Evil with everyone from Mao to Vorster on their side before sending a Soviet army to invade Alaska. Opposing them are, of course, the Americans with anachronistic P-51s (with even more anachronistic female pilots) and Sherman tanks.

So, I’ll get this out of the way. Historical war novels are generally not my thing. Especially not World War II novels. I’m just weird in how I judge them, and a lot of my feelings on the genre can be boiled down to “if I want to read about a historical conflict, I’ll read a history book”. So I’d be lying if I said this bias wasn’t slanting my review.

That being said, this book has a lot of wasted potential. High on the list are the aliens themselves. They’re mustache twirling puppy kickers who fail to be anything but the sort of “pop-up antagonists” usually reserved for spacesuit commandos. They’re not complex or developed or deep. Improving them would be easy as sincerely believing their rule to be ideal for humanity’s improvement (like XCOM’s Ethereals) or being able to be better than Stalin and thus inspire genuine loyalty among their subjects would make them more interesting. Or both-they clean up and improve in authoritarian and/or war-torn areas, earn the loyalty of the populace, and then find that wealthier, freer countries don’t take as kindly to them.

Barring that, they could at least be entertaining space opera megalomaniacs. They’re not. The aliens come across as being like washed-up actors who are desperate for a paycheck, so they put on the rubber alien suit and phone in their lines for the B-movie they hate but do anyway for the money.

But even higher is the technology, which seems very unimaginative. I don’t expect a deep examination of industrial capacity in the 1930s, but going straight to P-51s and Shermans in 1940 because those are the most famous is both inaccurate and dull. Likewise for T-34s and “MiGs”. The alien technology is rarely exploited and, in practice, amounts to just a way to get a Soviet army over to Alaska. It’s like a Fuldapocalyptic story where in 198X, a zombie sorceress full of magic explicitly appears and starts World War III-and all she does is torture animals for fun and move a motor rifle brigade to Iceland.

This book should have featured multi-turret tanks with deathrays against American Heroes in pulp science contraptions. Instead it’s just a rote war drama with all of the potential it had in its plot left unexploited.

Review: The Zone Hard Target

The Zone: Hard Target

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In 1980, Hard Target was released. It was the first book in The Zone series of post-semi-apocalyptic World War III novels. Just that description alone gives the impression of the book being weirdly different. And in many ways, it is.

The background of this book is simple, contrived, and still somewhat novel. Basically, there’s a World War III, but now the fighting is limited to a contaminated zone in Europe, and the westerners have super-hovercraft for some science fiction flair. I was reminded of the Ogre board game/franchise, which has hovercraft and limited conventional nuclear war (it makes sense in context). That came out three years before this book did, and I don’t know how much influence, if any, it had over the writing.

This is a “have your cake and eat it too” kind of book. On one hand, the action is grittier and gorier compared to some other works in the genre, and the target MacGuffin is a tank repair unit and not some kind of superweapon. On the other, it’s still very much a cheap thriller with a premise, like Twilight 2000, that’s pretty much designed to be an adventure-friendly setting.

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and Hard Target is a good book for what it is. It checks the boxes of what makes a cheap thriller passable, and as obviously contrived as they were, the setting and tone were novel enough to take things up a notch for me.

Another opinion on this book can be found on the excellent Books That Time Forgot blog.

 

Review: The Pact

The Pact

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Robert Patrick Lewis’ The Pact is the tale of Special Forces operators representing the only viable defense against a Russian-Chinese-Iranian invasion of the United States. The good news about this book is that Lewis is a Special Forces veteran who brings his knowledge to it. The bad news about this book is that Lewis is a Special Forces veteran who brings his biases to it.

The plot is the same kind of basic invasion novel plot that was old when Teddy Roosevelt was young. After the EVIL LIBERAL GUN GRABBERS have had their way with the US, the enemy alliance swoops in with computer attacks and unconventional warfare that naturally goes off without a hitch, save for the intervention of the special forces vets who’ve planned and built the lairs and stockpiled the equipment needed (against the advice of their nagging wives, of course). Then they fight back with the aid of a Freemason counter-conspiracy.

The first problem is that the action in this book is too realistic for its own good. I can’t blame a genuine veteran for writing what he knows, but come on. Axis Of Evil invasions and Freemason-operated super-bunkers do not exactly go well with detailed, nominally realistic operations. It also has a lot of “have your cake and eat it too”, such as one scene where it’s mentioned how hard it is to shoot down a helicopter with an unguided weapon-but oh look, they did it anyway.  Finally, realism or not, it isn’t the best written.

The second and bigger problem is that the main character is totally insufferable. He spends the entire first-person book monologing repeatedly about how awesome special forces are and how awesome he is. Repeatedly and constantly. It had the opposite effect on me, giving the impression of an arrogant swashbuckler who’d be foolishly overconfident if not for plot shields. The scene where the heroes find a former EVIL LIBERAL GUN GRABBER politician turned prisoner and execute her while smiling didn’t really help matters either. The icing on the cake is when the main character turns out to have the same name as the author. Really.

And those plot shields are there, from the “conveniently lucky” (the enemy neglecting flank protection) to the blatant (an M2 Bradley falling right into their laps). It’s a problem I’ve noticed in, of all things, some of the more out-there modules in Twilight 2000. If the mechanics/style is supposed to be realistic and grounded but the plot calls for the protagonists to do extraordinary things, you need a lot of pure contrivances for them to succeed. It’s a very tough tightrope to walk, especially when the premise is stretched to the level it is here.

Even by the standards of the “invasion novel”, there’s better works in the genre out there than this one. I’m not going to say it’s impossible to mix the concept of a Jerry Ahern novel and the rigorous execution of say, a Duffer’s Drift-style work like The Defense of Hill 781. But it would require a considerably better author than the one who wrote The Pact.