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: 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: 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: 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.

Review: Lex Talionis

Lex Talionis

Lex Talionis is the final book in Peter Nealen’s American Praetorians series. I had incredibly mixed feelings about it, some of the most conflicted I’ve felt about any book. I appreciate what Nealen was trying to do, but I think he aimed a little too high.

Who and What

The Praetorians are back on American territory as they are forced to flee their home base and struggle to deal with the uncontrollable tides unleashed by feuding conspiracies. It’s tricky because the book has a whiplash-y zig-zagging amount of tone.

It’s trying to be a pessimistic social commentary and a slam-bang thriller at the same time. As a result, it suffers from a problem that I typically associate more with video games than actual books-a considerable disconnect between story and action.

I like, having suffered through too many “apocalypse as wish fulfillment” stories, that Nealen shows how brutal and un-wish-fulfilly something like it would realistically be. But then come the stock cheap thriller characters and over-the-top action. I like political commentary that tries to be more sincere and does succeed in hitting a few right notes-but then comes the exaggerated apocalypse. It just wobbles a lot more than all of Nealen’s other work I’ve read.

There’s also some other, smaller issues. While the fast pace makes for a good thriller, there’s a little too much place-hopping and samey action. There are a lot of character deaths, but they felt more like losing XCOM units [little but names] than Fire Emblem ones [developed characters] . As the series finale, it has to tie up its loose ends, and does so too quickly.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

This takes the first-person viewpoint perspective to its absolute limit. It’s very easy (IMO) to see why Nealen switched to third person in Brannigan’s Blackhearts. There’s a lot of infodumps to move thanks to the intricate plot, and having to tell it in a first-person book is rather-iffy.

Zombie Sorceresses

Here’s where I’m the most conflicted. On one hand, the super-conspiracy (by far the biggest zombie sorceress part) is handled as well as it could be. It’s not in full control and stopping it doesn’t stop the underlying national problem.

On the other, it’s still a super-conspiracy that can deploy armies of target goons that the heroes take out en masse, and one that ultimately sabotages the book’s own political message by taking it from a “somewhat exaggerated for the sake of drama and social commentary” that would be ideal for such talk to a cartoon gorefest.

It’s like trying to mishmash The Wire (declining human institutions) and the later levels of Payday 2 (action against conspiracy-led supermercs). Nowhere is this more apparent than the zombie-sorceress-licious ending, which manages to be both too bleak and too goofily contrived at the same time.

Tank Booms

It’s a Peter Nealen book, so the action is good. Unfortunately, it’s slightly worse than his other books. Mostly, this is because all the rest of the baggage takes it down. The action prose isn’t any better or worse than Nealen’s other books.

Normally, I’ve found, the dissonance between story and action is most notable in video games and has to do with the player’s freedom. IE, the main character is reluctant to resort to violence in-story but in-game you can nonchalantly mow down dozens of enemies.

Here, the setting argues for “low-end struggle for survival” but the action is country-hopping, truck-exploding, stronghold-storming, convoy-destroying, helicopter-gunning boom.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is definitely a book where the whole is worse than the sum of its parts.

The “careful what you wish for” apocalypse is brave and noteworthy, but it takes the edge off the political commentary.

The political commentary is more sincere and highbrow than a lot of thrillers, but it drives the plot in a way that scrambles the action.

The action is Nealen’s usual “gritty but high-powered”, but it jars the political commentary as well.

In spite of these, I can’t feel bad about this. An author should never be discouraged to go on a different path and try something else out. The action is still quite serviceable, and the entire American Praetorians series is something of a fresh writer seeing what worked. The Wayne Gretzky-attributed quote of “you miss all the shots you don’t take” applies here. If it fell short, it wasn’t for lack of trying, and as a new writer myself, I can sympathize.

Unstructured Review: Starfist

Starfist

Ah, Starfist. I’ve wanted to do a piece on this series for a loooooong time. It is a series that deserves to be criticized, but with playful slaps instead of vicious claws. Starfist is something. That something is “military sci-fi cliche bingo”.

  • First is the technology, which is the height of “Vietnam but with a coating of laser and a gimmick or two”. It uses advanced technology neither in semi-realistic fashion (IE, drones, AI, etc…) or over-the-top fashion (giant mechs, etc…)
  • Then there’s the tone of the writing, which manages to be some of the most “MARINES!” type of prose I’ve ever encountered. I’ve read plenty of books by other veterans, and most don’t have a tone as “RAR! We’re MARINES, you know!” as this.
  • Then there’s the bias (to put it mildly) of the authors towards the MARINE FIGHTING MAN. It gets really, really, really bad.

That’s the baseline, which is enough to give this series a review. However, there’s something else that’s both a problem and an opportunity for giving individual books specific reviews. That would be the great inconsistency of the series. The prose is never truly bad by itself, and they never feel too long.

However, even in the small sample size I’ve personally read, the series has zigzagged from “Decent time-passing cheap thriller” to “laughably enjoyable thanks to the ridiculous yet self-serious action” to just plain bad. One thing that doesn’t help this is the tendency of the books to have long, barely connected subplots. Still, I can’t be mad at Starfist, for it is quite simply something, if only something that becomes so cliche it stands out.

Review: Stone MIA Hunter

Stone: MIA Hunter

Stone: MIA Hunter is an incredibly 1980s cheap thriller that kicked off an entire series of 1980s cheap thrillers.

Who and What

This stars hero Mark Stone as he hunts for MIAs. And gets set up by the CIA. And beats up drug dealers with martial arts (I told you it was very 1980s). And travels around the world, from Asia to California to Central America to back to Asia.

The characters never progress beyond cheap thriller stock ones (not that it’s that bad) and the constant stream of world travel is a little disruptive to the narrative.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

Its infodumps are in the weird “middle of the road” part that affects the rest of the book. And it calls LAW rockets “Light Artillery Weapons”. Multiple times.

Zombie Sorceresses

Think of how much effort a zombie sorceress would need to make a 1980s action movie work, and you have what they need in this book.

Tank Booms

So the action in this isn’t bad, even if it’s not up to the higher standards of other cheap thrillers (it feels so weird saying that). It’s just in a strange place. Maybe it’s just the writing style (while the first book in the series, it’s far from the first book author Stephen Mertz wrote in the genre), but it’s in this awkward middle in terms of plot and tone.

It’s definitely not intended to be a grounded, gritty action-adventure story. But it doesn’t have the full pull out all the stops crazy gonzo action either. The martial arts vs drug dealers comes close, but the climax is less goofy.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is a fun throwaway action novel. It’s far from the best, but I enjoyed it for what it was anyway.

Review: Doctors of Death

Doctors of Death

The latest Brannigan’s Blackhearts book, Doctors of Death, is finally in, and Peter Nealen launches another excellent book.

Who and What

The Blackhearts’ next mission takes them to Chad to search for missing doctors. Soon they find themselves entangled in a deeper, monstrous conspiracy. Lots and lots of action across multiple continents ensues.

The plot is very action-y and the characters interesting enough-they’re not deep, but have their own personality and, more importantly, they’re sympathetic and understandable.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

This is a very lean book. It either gets its infodumps over with early on or flows them into the narrative, and has fewer tangents. Even the plans of the conspiracy organization are told through more showing and less telling.

Zombie Sorceresses

Well, apart from the admitted exaggerations in the enemy plot and the way to get this small band over in the first place, the biggest zombie sorceress contrivance-by far-is the choice of main antagonists. It’s this giant international super-NGO conspiracy that’s appeared before, and I felt it a little annoying the last time. For a series that’s otherwise been mostly grounded, it’s somewhat jarring.

There’s also a few minor contrivances, like one of the main characters just happening to encounter a few gangbangers who naturally fall victim to his marksmanship in the middle of the book.

Tank Booms

The action here is excellent. Very, very good. There’s just the right combination of a little spectacle and a lot of grit. There are a lot of different enemies throughout the novel, and they feel both similar (the way any armed opponent would be) and different (their weapons and abilities).

While the conspiracy might be a little zombie sorceress in terms of background and tone, as an opponent it proves an interesting foe.

The Only Score That Really Matters

The Brannigan’s Blackhearts series is one of my favorite cheap thrillers, and this is another wonderful installment. My only concern is that the story might be getting a little too serial-esque (cheap thrillers work best in mostly standalone installments), but this is a small one.

 

Review: Battle Front (USA VS Militia)

Ian Slater’s Battle Front spun the 90s Technothriller Opponent Selector Wheel and it landed on “Militias”. While Slater has written some proper World War III novels, this is my first introduction  to him.

Who and What

Now, it wasn’t until sometime in that I found out this was one of the middle books in a five-book series. That explained some of the confusion, but I wasn’t that lost before. There is a Second American Civil War between the federal government and right-wing militias who are both cartoonishly racist puppy kickers and far more competent than they would have any right to be. On the federal government’s side is main character General Mary Sue-I mean, Douglas Freeman.

Now, the book kind of rambles and jumps around, but what was interesting (and good) to me was how it didn’t feel like an axe-grinding polemic. Nor did it feel like a parody either. It takes this crazy setup and plays it completely, sometimes boringly straight. Normally I’d praise a book for not being too political, but it just feels strange. Maybe it’s that the non-American Slater didn’t have a feel for American politics, but that doesn’t explain all of it.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

The book can get kind of infodumpy and it never seems to enter full gritty story mode. Furthermore, a lot of the infodumps are strange and frequently inaccurate (for example, one used ‘TOW’ as a generic term for anti-tank rounds. Not even missiles, rounds).

Zombie Sorceresses

The zombie sorceresses made American militias number in the hundreds of thousands, be unified, and be competent. The latter part required the most zombie sorceress intervention.

Tank Booms

The action is mostly dull and somewhat infodumpy, but it gets the occasional ridiculous moment, like how the evil militia are preternaturally competent (to drive the plot) and the ridiculous stuff like over-effective reactive armor (except it’s described as if it was inert add-on armor) on pickup trucks.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This book is about 5-10% crazy goofy, and about 90-95% dull tedium. Yet I’m a sucker for even a little bit of crazy goofiness. A lot of other readers might not be.