Review: Soldier of Gideon

Soldier of Gideon

soldierofgideoncover

The Casca series takes its path to the Arab-Israeli wars hinted at in the first book. Soldier of Gideon is a “modern” Casca, as opposed to the ancient Cascas. Taking place in the Six Day War, it’s typical of later Cascas-formulaic but good.

The action-packed book is in this kind of particular subgenre of war story that’s more gory and grisly than a John Wayne-style sanitized work, but still far more over the top and spectacular than a truly grounded novel. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s interesting.

(Sidenote: For whatever reason, historical war fiction isn’t usually my cup of tea. I’ve read good examples, but it just doesn’t grab me the way action-adventure or even technothrillers do. That being said, I have read enough to tell which slot Soldier of Gideon fell into)

The Arab armies seem to use primarily western equipment (to the extent that only Jordan did in the historical war)  with a few IS-3 tanks thrown in as level bosses challenging encounters. Casca and friends go to every theater of the war. In the process, Sadler demonstrated both his greatest strength and greatest weakness as the series dragged on.

The greatest strength is managing to maintain dramatic tension and fluid excitement in a story that features A: A historically decisive blowout victory, and B: An immortal protagonist. This is no easy task, and it’s a sign of Sadler’s proficiency that Casca never devolves into the “unironic One Punch Man” that it could have.

However, the other side of the coin is the almost complete lack of interest in using the immortal protagonist who’s lived for thousands of years, met every important Eurasian historical figure in that time, and is linked personally to Christianity as anything but a placeholder to build period pieces around. While cheap thrillers like these aren’t philosophical works, the wasted potential is still very high.

That said, as cheap thrillers, the Casca books still work, and work well.

 

Review: Hellfire in Haiti

Hellfire in Haiti

codysarmy2

If I had to pick a favorite entry in the seven-book Cody’s Army series, Hellfire In Haiti would easily win. Nothing else has the same mix of action, fun, and good villains. I never had as much entertainment out of a Cody’s Army book as I did here.

The entire Cody’s Army series feels to me like the action adventure novel version one of those knockoff fighting games that tried to piggyback on the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat-not bad , but the incredibly obvious influence is still there, and it could only have existed in the middle of a very big pack. Still, none of the Cody’s Army books are unreadable, and this one in particular is a highlight of the entire genre.

Hellfire in Haiti sort of recycles its main plot from an earlier Cody’s Army book, Philippine Hardpunch. There, a former buddy of Marcos plots to reconquer the Philippines. Here, a former buddy of Duvalier plots to reconquer Haiti. The former book simply didn’t punch as hard as it could (I had to say it). This delivers a Mike Tyson haymaker.

Army member Rufe Murphy is kidnapped and subjected to a voodoo ritual, adding to the over-the-topness of this book. The villains in this book are excellent action-adventure fodder. There’s main villain Clairvius Bourreau  the ex-death squad leader and drug lord who enjoys dressing in showy outfits. And there’s his American ally Wes Taggart, a psychotic former Vietnam unit-mate of protagonist John Cody. That brought a smile to my face as Taggart reminded me of some of the sort of dubious “hard man who breaks the rules” “protagonists” of more recent war-fantasy novel.

And the final battle featuring the Army vs. Bourreau’s stronghold stands as the literary version of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando. It’s easily one of the best climaxes I’ve read in an 80s action-adventure book. Cheap thrillers, especially ones of the time, don’t get much better than this.

Review: Northern Fury H-Hour

Northern Fury H-Hour

(note: I received a review copy).

When I first got into Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations, I noticed a scenario set called Northern Fury, describing a third world war with a surviving USSR in the early 1990s. One of the first scenarios I played was one of the smaller ones there, called “A Cold And Lonely Place.”

Since then, I’ve been following the scenario set, and was delighted to hear that the novel had been announced. Having gotten a review copy and been cleared to post, I can say that H-Hour, the first book in the Northern Fury series, works well and dodges a lot of the pitfalls it could have fallen into. The August Coup has succeeded and the Third World War is not far off, with this story focusing not on Central Europe but in other theaters, particularly Norway and its waters.

First, it needs to be said: This book wears its technothriller heritage and inspiration on its sleeve, for better or worse. It has many of the prime technothriller elements in it. That being said, it handles them well, and in particular manages to escape-and escape completely- two pits that fiction like it tends to fall into.

The first is that it does not feel like just a rote let’s play/after action report of Command. Without giving too much away, focusing a lot on land makes it seem better, deeper, and out of the sim’s comfort zone, so to speak.

The second is more impressive and more important. Northern Fury manages to avoid what I call “Steel Panthers Characterization.” Named after how in the computer wargame “Steel Panthers”, units will have a rank and surname in the language of their nationality, Steel Panthers Characterization is when Character Name X controlling Military Weapon Y will appear in scene Z, with no characterization save for maybe a thrown-in national or rank stereotype. They will appear, operate the necessary piece of military equipment, and often die in the process. Then another flat character will appear.

In Northern Fury, this doesn’t happen. While there is a lot of viewpoint hopping, all the characters and their arcs have meat on their bones. This was an impressive feat that did a lot to raise my opinion of the book.

So, to briefly conclude, Northern Fury: H-Hour is both an excellent example of how a simulation can be used in the creation of a novel (like the original Harpoon tabletop version was for Red Storm Rising) and a very good throwback to the technothriller/WWIII fiction of days past.

Northern Fury: H-Hour releases on May 6. Its official website is here

Review: SEAL Team Seven

SEAL Team Seven

st7 coverjpg

This book about a certain amphibious special forces unit is quite possibly one of the best 1990s military/techno-thrillers I’ve read. It spawned a huge series, and I can see why. SEAL Team Seven is very, very good.

The book tells the story of Lt. Blake Murdock, the son of a powerful political family (while present, the clunky politics in this book aren’t too bad) and his titular team as they’re called to action in a big crisis. Because this is a 90s thriller, the antagonists are a zombie sorceress-assisted mix of renegade Japanese and renegade Iranians who’ve taken control of a freighter loaded with plutonium. SEAL Team Seven has good fundamentals and manages to have its cake and eat it too.

It starts with a well-written battle in post-Desert Storm Iraq. Then the opening act introduces and humanizes the characters. When the main conflict starts, the action is highly well done and manages, for the most part, just the right mixture of “grounded” and “fantastical”.

SEAL Team Seven isn’t literary fiction or anything like that, it’s still ultimately just a cheap thriller that has a lot of cheap thriller components and cliches. But it’s an excellent cheap thriller.

Review: Casca The Eternal Mercenary

Casca 1: The Eternal Mercenary

Casca The Eternal Mercenary

So the Casca series is a little off the Fuldapocalyptic beaten track for me. But really, I of all people couldn’t resist a series written by Barry Sadler of ‘Ballad of the Green Beret’ fame with the premise of “The Roman soldier that stabbed Jesus with the spear is fated to be a soldier/warrior forever”, fusing the Longinus and Wandering Jew mythologies. That part brings a very different song to my mind.

The first book opens in Vietnam where the main character heals ridiculously fast from a seemingly fatal head wound, and one “hypnotic narrative” later, returns to nearly two thousand years in the past. After the event, he gets in a fight with his “sergeant” over a girl and ends up with a deep wound… …which heals, because in practice, he turns into essentially Marvel’s Wolverine without claws. Cue a long stretch of time where he fights throughout dynasties of Roman history, then a final scene in the then-present where Casca/Casey has escaped from his Vietnam hospital-and is fighting in the Arab-Israeli wars.

This is very much a pop-historical “sword and sandal epic” rather than trying for any serious attempt at realism, and is all the better for it. Casca becomes a slave, he becomes a gladiator, and he enjoys a bit of peace before returning to his horror.

One of the low points of the book is its cultural er- insensitivity. While an action novel in the 70s is not going to top anyone’s “most progressive” list, this has a few moments that made me raise eyebrows. The walking stereotype Chinese martial arts master (yes, in ancient Rome, it’s a long story) who teaches Casca I was more bemused by than anything else. I went ‘uhh….’ at both the vicious savage African gladiator whose victims included (of course) a young blonde woman and the man whose marriage improved after he started hitting his wife.

But even the worst I found tolerable, because it only felt offensive and not offensive and creepy. This is, after all, a 70s action novel. And what it does well, it does very well. The Eternal Mercenary can make its action dramatic even with an immortal protagonist, and that’s no small feat.

Casca: The Eternal Mercenary is lightweight sleaze, but it’s good lightweight sleaze.

 

Review: Terror Descending

Terror Descending

terrordescending

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Technokill

Technokill

The novel Technokill is easily the worst Starfist novel I’ve personally read. Back a few Thanksgivings ago, I had to pass the time and chose this book, which had been sitting unread on my shelf until then. Welp.

Who and What

This is the story of MARINES, bird-aliens, and criminals selling forbidden weapons to the bird-aliens. It’s long. It’s dull. It has weaving, tangled subplots. It has descriptions of twisted fetishes of various characters that feel like they’re as long as the few “battles”.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

This isn’t that much worse than the rest of Starfist, at least.

Zombie Sorceresses

At least nothing beyond the normal Starfist MARINES in Space Vietnam with a few gadgets contrivances.

Tank Booms

Ok, so at the height of this book, the MARINES face the challenge of (hold on to your seat belts) bird-aliens with these. And not some futuristic equivalent, the description is very close to the actual takedown .22 survival rifle. Even the (literal) tank army in Steel Gauntlet was better and more intimidating. The battle isn’t even that well-written and has no gimmick to make it better than it would seem. Then there’s an afterthought (literal) spacesuit commando scene that’s equally underwhelming, even by the series’ standards.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is the low point of the Starfist series for me. It’s mostly just dull, and not in a good way. The low-powered opponent is only slightly amusing and doesn’t make up for the bad fundamentals.

 

Review: Cody’s Army

Cody’s Army

Earlier on this blog, I reviewed a later Cody’s Army book, DC Firestrike. Now I got the chance to read the first installment.

Who and What

Cody’s Army tells the story of former CIA super-agent John Cody, who mutinies after one dirty job too many , only to be roped back into the “game” and teamed up with Texan “Hawkeye” Hawkins, Brit Richard Caine, and pilot Rufe Murphy to create a top-secret 80s action super-team. Their first mission-save hostages on a plane that’s been taken to Lebanon.

It’s mostly the 80s action stuff known well (perhaps fitting, the characters are ‘B-List’ versions of creator Stephen Mertz’s other big hit, the MIA Hunter novels), although I had to smile a bit at the series title-an “Army” of only four people. This reminded me of the World War II joke about how the “[single digit number] Tank Army” was called that because it had only [a single digit number] of tanks in it”.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

Regrettably, I could see the trend here (and it’s a trend that by and large did not exist in the first wave of action adventure books in the 1970s) of going into huge detail on some existing piece of military hardware-and getting it wrong. Seeing the names of real rifles being applied in a weird way and worse, seeing a UH-1 with “40mm cannons” in turrets. (I could assume they meant grenade launchers, it’s the only way I can make sense of it)

Zombie Sorceresses

While this is full of 80s action novel stuff and some eyebrow-raisers like the protagonists using a B-52 as a normal transport, what was the most zombie sorceress about it to me involved characterization. John Cody goes from being a war-weary recluse to an eager fighter in the course of a single chapter.

Tank Booms

From the opening to the ending, the action is as ridiculously gory and over the top 80s as you might expect. It’s good enough for this kind of novel, especially as it ends with a particularly satisfying and spectacular helicopter dogfight.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is still the start to a B-list 80s action series. But it’s a fun start to a B-list 80s action series, and works for anyone who likes the genre.

Unstructured Review: The Valor Series

Valor Series

One of my first “get me through a vacation” books was an omnibus containing the first two volumes of Tanya Huff’s Valor series of military sci-fi. At the time, I was impressed by how an author who was clearly new to the genre could write something well. Now, some time later, I’m even more impressed. Other authors of either fantasy or (surprisingly) contemporary action have stumbled, in my opinion, when they turned to the difficult genre of military science fiction. Huff, for the most part, did not.

Oh, it has its pitfalls. Some of the prose is a little “flowery fantasy”-esque, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a line in one of the later books that about how drones were obsolete compared to a “good pair of eyes” because they kept getting shot down (when the alternative is losing those eyes). But those are tiny compared to the advantages.

Heroine Torin Kerr is a good enough protagonist, especially by the standards of the genre. Huff tends to keep her in smaller, fantasy adventure party sized engagements that she’s comfortable with and work very well. And the series takes out a lot of the “brown M&Ms” that plague the ‘spacesuit commando’ subgenre (that I groan at but still somehow read and like anyway). For instance, while other, worse military sci-fi books have the main character promoted ridiculously high ridiculously fast, Kerr starts as a staff sergeant and ends the series as a… gunnery sergeant.

For these reasons I recommend the Valor book. Sure they’re lightweight, but they’re lightweight in a good, solid way.

 

Unstructured Review: Blood and Tacos

Blood and Tacos

The “Blood and Tacos” book series is a playful mockery of and love letter to the classic action-adventure series. Something as big and pulpy as the Mack Bolan-style adventure fiction genre is both easy and hard to make fun of. Easy because it has a lot of obvious “flaws”, hard because it was so prolific that it frequently fell into the “Poe’s Law” pit of being an unintentional self-parody.

For instance, I can give a personal anecdote. I was flipping through Mack Bolan store pages and finding one where he was fighting genetically modified super-soldiers. Given the series started as a somewhat grounded tale of fighting mobsters, I went “a-ha, this must be an ‘Arkansas vs. The Blimps’ moment of craziness.” When I looked back, I found multiple ones where this happened.

The four ebooks in the Blood and Tacos series have a list of short stories and parodies/homages to classic adventure fiction, tales by obscure (made-up) authors that were later “discovered by” the actual ones. There’s also spotlights of either the most ridiculous or the most creepy real adventure novels.

Some of the stories are too forced in their humor, but others manage to hit the spot perfectly. My favorite is “Battleground U.S.S.A., Texasgrad”, for not only managing to spoof adventure novels, but technothrillers and invasion novels as well.