Review: Sixth Fleet

Sixth Fleet

meadowssixthfleet

I look at the Sixth Fleet series by David Meadows. Looks like it could be to naval warfare in general what Tin Soldiers was to tanks and Raven One was to aviation. Then I look at the publication date-2001. I start to have a bad feeling. Still, I shouldn’t stereotype 2000s technothrillers, so I go ahead anyway. Then I read the book in full, and yipes.

It’s very much a 1990s technothriller at heart. Regional enemy (Libya) with a super-gimmick? Check. Hand-wringing over defense cuts? Check. COMPUTER DIGITAL WARFARE? Check. Even leaving all of that aside, the prose is just very, very clunky and any scene with a character who isn’t American is rather “dubious”.

Worse still is how the first book is meant as the opening act in a long series. This means the pacing goes from “bad” to “REALLY REALLY BAD”. I’ve seen better pacing in later Survivalist books than here, and instead of Ahern’s flights of fancy, there’s a generic “mustache twirlers with super-gimmicks” story with the usual technothriller viewpoint jumping.

I wanted to like Sixth Fleet but just couldn’t. The fundamentals are too iffy, the subject isn’t that conceptually interesting, and its pacing is just horrifically slow and uneven. In many way, it feels like the stereotypical late-1990s/2000s technothriller writ large.

Review: The Black Effect

The Black Effect

blackeffectcover

Harvey Black’s The Black Effect is the kind of book I thought I’d be reviewing en masse on this blog, at least in terms of basic plot. Namely, in 198_ World War III breaks out. Cue a lot of tanks exploding. This is the second book in Black’s _____ Effect series, and the first I reviewed at Sea Lion Press before this blog even started.

The Black Effect is what I feared Team Yankee would be before being pleasantly surprised.  It’s a mostly-conventional 198X WW3 book that happens to be a picture-perfect case for why a bowl of ingredients does not equal a meal.

Some of the individual ingredients (battle scenes) in the novel are good, if repetitive. Others are weighed down by things like Black constantly listing the full designations of every piece of equipment in overwhelming detail (fog of war? target fixation? Limited viewpoints? What are those?). But as a whole the book just amounts to a disorganized parade of various pieces of military equipment and graphene-thin Steel Panthers Characters differing only in what they’re crewing and how much ‘camera time’ that they get before being blown up.

There is an almost total lack of anything cohesive or coherent beyond “WW3 stuff happens”. It gets to the point where the intelligence photographers who were the high point of the previous installment turn into just another pace-breaking liability. This at least doesn’t have The Red Effect’s using up nearly all of its space on historical events with names badly changed (ie, Stanislav Petrov became “Perov”) before rushing to stuff a bunch of battles into the last thirty pages.

The Black Effect isn’t all bad. It’s more evenhanded than a lot of WWIII stories, it being written as an alternate history with decades of hindsight helps with some (but not all) technical accuracy issues, and it works at providing simple action scenes. It’s just I’ve read better, even in this very specific subgenre.

Review: Hunter-Killer

Hunter-Killer

hkcover

Before I start my review of Hunter-Killer (or its original title, Firing Point), the submarine thriller novel about the rogue commander of the Russian Northern Fleet and the American submarine out to stop him, I must mention that I have not seen the movie adaptation. What I’ve heard about said adaptation from other people ranges from “bad, but in an amusing way” to “bad, and not in an amusing way.” But I wouldn’t know any better.

So, for the book itself, what I got was something that was neither bad (amusing or not) nor really all that good. It was a sort of middle-of-the-road technothriller (this is not an insult) that was too bulky for its own good (there’s a big plotline barely related to the submarine stuff about Russian mobsters manipulating the stock market that only exists as a form of additional ‘crisis overload’) but still managed to avoid the clunkiness of say, a later Tom Clancy book.

The submarine action itself? Passable. The SEAL action? Passable. The characters? Ehh, a little less than passable. The book was published in 2012, but feels incredibly 1990s in its depiction of Russia, some of its technology, and its overall tone. That’s one of the few really interesting things about it, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out that some of the drafts were written in that decade. Other than that, Hunter Killer/Firing Point is just a humdrum popcorn technothriller that unfortunately embraces length for length’s own sake. There’s a lot worse out there, but there’s also a lot better.

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

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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: Death Watch

Death Watch

So, after over two dozen books, the Survivalist series came to a close with 1993’s “Death Watch.” In some ways, the series was lucky to have progressed for as long as it did. Similarly to the technothriller, the action-adventure genre that typified Jerry Ahern’s other work declined massively in mainstream popularity when the Berlin Wall fell, with many series (always ‘cheaper’ and lower-margin than the likes of Clancy and Dale Brown) getting outright cancelled.

So surviving for two years after the end of the USSR and getting a proper conclusion instead of just a pulled plug made the Survivalist a lucky series. But the end was overdue.

Who and What

By this point, the increasingly science fiction Survivalist series has stopped being remotely post-apocalyptic in any fashion. There’s the world-threatening ‘catastrophe’ of the week, the secret supervillain lairs, the Nazi mad scientist and his pre-programmed clones, and so on.

Long series tend to fall into three general, understandable pits. One is simple repetition of what happened before. One is what I like to call, after Bill Hicks’ classic Gulf War joke, the “Elite Republican Guard” effect, where the antagonists become less credible-seeming. The other, a reference to a Twilight 2000 module, is what I call “Arkansas vs. The Blimps”, where they grow more outlandish as a way of avoiding repetition. The blimp effect isn’t always bad and can sometimes be beneficial.

By the time of “Death Watch”, all three were in effect. The repetitive parts were more small-scale (and worthy of being covered in different sections), while the other two were bigger. The “Elite Republican Guard” is embodied by, in the face of this supposed peril, a decent-sized passage being devoted to the main character’s wedding, and said wedding being handled nonchalantly. “Arkansas vs. The Blimps” is the sci-fi subject matter.

And the book is kind of rushed. Everything is resolved in one book, and the final denouement is just one chapter at the end.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

Ahern’s long description of weaponry keeps coming back. For instance, one passage describing a character at the wedding lists the gun they have, the brand of the gun they have, the caliber of the gun they have, and the brand of holster that they have.  This is not an aberration.

Zombie Sorceresses

The Survivalist has always been zombie sorceress heavy, but the later sci-fi parts made it reach new heights. It went from “pulpy post-apocalyptic” to “pulpy sci-fi with action-adventure scenes and familiar weapons.”

Tank Booms

The action hasn’t gotten any worse over the last 26 books, but it hasn’t really gotten much better either. While still good by cheap thriller standards, if someone like me was crazy enough to read all the books in a row, well, I’ll just say it felt awfully repetitive to have Rourke shoot a guy with his Detonics for the 500000000000000000th time. And I don’t think the best author in the world could have improved it (not like that author would have written a 27 book long cheap thriller epic)

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is the final installment of a decade-long soap opera which has the usual problems of something moving too slow suddenly forced to wrap up quickly. The Survivalist series, in my opinion, should have ended around the tenth or eleventh book. The main characters survived, ensured the future of humanity, and accomplished the clear goal. Instead it was followed by more than a dozen books of sci-fi-with-Colt.45-soap-opera-adventure.

While the later Survivalist books are interesting to look at, I’d be loath to actually recommend them to all but the most devoted Jerry Ahern and/or “weird pulpy fiction” fans. And Death Watch symbolizes the later books at their most er, “different”.

 

Review: Carrier – Enemies

Carrier: Enemies

The “Carrier” series was a long-running series. When searching for books in it to read and review, I followed my famous rule: When in doubt, go for the most outlandish. The enemy of this book, the fifteenth of the series, is…. Greece. How could I resist?

Who and What

As the Greek-Macedonian conflict (at least a strange version of it) heats up and a news helicopter is brought down by a Greek Tomcat on a false-flag mission, Admiral Matthew “Tombstone” Magruder and the carrier USS Jefferson goes to the region to enforce peace while a reporter who survived stays on the ground amidst the Macedonians. And that’s about as coherent as it gets.

There are really two parts of this book. The first is essentially applying the technothriller “top-to-bottom” viewpoint style to the “low budget assembly line book” quality level. So there’s the conference rooms, the scrambling reporter, the subplots, and the aviators themselves, all done in a slapdash style. For instance, the main antagonist is a general but is called an “admiral” in one passage. Then there’s the small problem of the book’s ending being abrupt and simply unfinished. That’s the boring, bad part.

The second is the goofy part. Greeks with bad names flying F-14s. An evil general launching a ridiculously obvious (to the reader) false flag plot. A main character with the nickname “Tombstone.”

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

There really aren’t that many “The F-111F triggered the Pave Tack and dropped a GBU-12B straight on the Spoon Rest” moments in this book. There are, however, a lot of conference room scenes.

Zombie Sorceresses

The zombie sorceresses were changing everything from Greek aircraft procurement to naming customs to the nature of the Greece-Macedonia conflict to well, almost everything.

Tank Booms

The actual action isn’t the best. Most of the dogfights between aircraft feel like fanfiction of the Top Gun movie from someone who has that and maybe one other technothriller as their sole source for aerial combat, and there isn’t much “adrenaline”, for lack of a better word. Constantly cutting back to conference rooms doesn’t help.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Like Ian Slater’s USA vs. Militia series, this book is the kind of thing someone like me would find more appealing than a “normal” person probably would. The plotting and action is too dry, badly done, and generic to hold that much appeal, but the premise and excesses were music to my ears. But even they can’t stop the very bad fundamentals this book has.

Review: Defcon One

Defcon One

Joe Weber’s Defcon One is a late Cold War technothriller with one unintentionally prescient scene and a lot of iffy clunkiness.

Who and What

This is a very stock technothriller. It’s also a very boring techno-“thriller”. Which is a shame because its nuclear “almost-war” could have been better in defter hands. Instead it has supervillain Soviets and makes what should have been a second Cuban Missile Crisis look very boring. It’s technically competent, but also dull and feels from start to finish like it’s just going through the motions of what a technothriller is supposed to be. “Superweapons. Check. Action. Check. Conference Rooms. Check. Lots of Viewpoint Characters [who aren’t developed even by genre standards]. Check.”

The creepy and unintentionally prescient scene is having the Space Shuttle Columbia get damaged in space and then be destroyed during reentry. The book was published in 1989, 14 years before that happened in real life.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

Not only are there lots of infodumps in Defcon One, but they feel sort of-forced. Like it’s “I have to describe what this aircraft engine is”. Weber is a former Marine aviator, but at least in this book he fell too often into the trap of “I know the exact designation of a Scud TEL, and I’ll share it” that some writers with genuine expertise fall into.

Zombie Sorceresses

Let’s see, the initial push, the too-neat final resolution of this (even Arc Light did better), and the general “supervillain Soviet” trend. A goofier premise might have helped it along.

Tank Booms

There’s some fighting at sea, having spies run around in the USSR, and having the occasional superweapon-beam destroy a space shuttle. The action describes the biggest problem that DefCon One has-it’s too exaggerated to be a good grounded highbrow story, but too tame to be a good cheap thriller.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Defcon One is well-put together, especially for the first novel that it was. I just found it dull and kind of an “IKEA Technothriller”. It has the contrivances and structure of a technothriller, but surprisingly few actual thrills.

 

Review: Thunder of Erebus

Thunder of Erebus

Thunder of Erebus may just be the technothrillerest technothriller that ever technothrilled. I’ll probably eat those words, but I don’t say this lightly either. And it’s not a bad thing.

Who and What

The book features a Soviet-American battle in Antarctica over a rare element. When reading it, I checked all the technothriller boxes. Land battle! Air Battle! Sea Battle! Soviets who only really win anything with their zombie sorceress superweapons! Viewpoint characters galore!

But more importantly, this was the clearest kind of technothriller that really emphasized the “techno-” part. Technology is both the goal and the process, be it real platforms or the ASBM-torpedo dispensers. By being so blatant, it cleared up a very blurry genre.

And the prose is-interesting. There’s a lot of flowery descriptions that made me smile, starting with  someone being “So thin that his polyester uniform seemed to be draped on a coat hanger instead of a human frame”, and only getting ‘better’ from there. Despite (or because of) this, it flowed well, which is good because…

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

Not only does the “technothriller trope bingo” extend to infodumps, this book also has an infodump that states that an infantry division with the word “light” in its name is, in fact, a light infantry division. Yes.

Zombie Sorceresses

There’s every contrivance needed to have a giant battle take place in Antarctica.

Tank Booms

There are M1 tanks booming in Antarctica, and boomer submarines booming, and aircraft booming. The “maximum technothriller” and “flowery prose” apply to the battles as well.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is it. A 1991 (year of the USSR’s collapse) maximum technothriller. Everything technothrillery in one package. I didn’t find the cliches grating-I found them, and the book, entertaining.

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.