Review: Enemy Unidentified

Enemy Unidentified

enemyunidentifiedcover

The third book in the Brannigan’s Blackhearts series, Enemy Unidentified takes it in a different direction. See, there’s a (then) unidentified group that has carried out one of the bloodiest terror attacks ever, and the right people to take out the perpetrators on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico are- John Brannigan and company. How surprising!

Now the book itself is typical action-adventure. I could sum up the basic plot with one sentence as always, that sentence being “The Blackhearts storm an oil rig.” But it’s very well done, and contains one of the best cliffhangers I’ve read. Yet this falls into the problem of stuff like this being hard to describe, even in good terms. What I find more interesting is the direction the series took, and how I felt about it.

Starting here, the books became somewhat more serialized. When I first read them, my feeling was disappointment, especially after the high of Burmese Crossfire. Now, especially having actually written an action-adventure book, I feel differently. The concept of a big-picture series has grown on me. If it can keep the author motivated, it makes the stories better than just somewhat interchangeable “51%” potboilers.

Review: Kill Or Capture

Kill Or Capture

brannigancover

Understandably pushed back because of the Maelstorm Rising series, Peter Nealen’s Brannigan’s Blackhearts continues with the just-released Kill Or Capture. It was well worth the wait.

Everything in this book reminded me of how great a cheap thriller this series is. Not just because the actual action is well-done (it certainly is) but because of all the touches that help it become more than the sum of its parts. There’s the opening where the protagonists are called back from their normal, everyday lives and families-something that distinguishes them from the Gold Eagle action automatons. There’s the super-conspiracy being both capable enough to pose a challenge worthy of a super-conspiracy and human enough to be fallible.

Of course, the actual plot is just a set-up for much action. I can sum it up in one sentence: The protagonists storm a fortified villa in northern Argentina. But the action is continuous, well-written, and solidly executed. The mountain terrain feels vivid and effective. The threats are varied. This is an excellent cheap thriller and worthy continuation of one of my favorite series.

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: Burmese Crossfire

Burmese Crossfire

burmesecrossfire cover

One of the reasons why I sound more critical towards Peter Nealen than I actually am is because this particular book set the bar very high. From the moment I read it, I fell in love. The Brannigan’s Blackhearts series was meant to be a love letter to the classic action-adventure novels of the 1980s, and Burmese Crossfire delivers.

Colonel Brannigan, leader of a small mercenary band, gets a mission to go to the titular Southeast Asian country. Cue a “rumble in the jungle” (with apologies to Ali and Foreman) against many Burmese and North Koreans. This isn’t that much more than a classic simple action-adventure novel. But it takes that formula and with beautifully written, well-done action, hits a home run.

It’s in a well-researched, obscure part of the world that’s an ideal place for a book of its genre. One of my favorite small-unit action-adventure books of all time, this is well worth a read.

 

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.

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: Task Force Desperate

Task Force Desperate

Task Force Desperate is Peter Nealen’s first novel in his American Praetorians series. It’s the same kind of gritty merc story that he would perfect in his later Brannigan’s Blackhearts series, one of my favorite cheap thrillers. This has some of the rough spots expected of a first-in-series, but is still a very good thriller.

Icelands

This is a classic “few mercs” story with a welcome hint of some, but not too much grounding. This sort of tale is as old as writing, and it has had a flexibility to it that the outright “technothriller” lacks.

Rivets

This is the kind of story that goes into great detail about what type of firearm each character is using and what accessories are on said firearm. Thankfully it doesn’t get in the way too much.

Zombie Sorceresses

By far the biggest contrivance is why, after a huge incident, the task of resolving it goes over to a few private contractors. The book’s explanation is budget cuts and wearing down of the regular US military, to the point where it’s compared to 1990s Russia.

While that made me somewhat skeptical, I could understand why that decision was made for storytelling reasons, and it didn’t really interfere. Some contrivance like this is inevitable in most small-unit stories.

The “Wha?”

The action is very good, managing a good balance of “just spectacular enough” along with plausible grit. Two things get in the way, besides prose that’s still being “broken in”. They’re contradictory to boot. It has a mixture of both first person narrative that I don’t think works as well as the author’s later third person books and the “look how the world changed” infodumps that seemed a little too tell-not-show.

That being said, the first person characters were good enough for a cheap thriller and the pacing, though not up to the level of Nealen’s later works, still worked well enough.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Task Force Desperate is a good cheap thriller by an author who would go on to write great cheap thrillers. I’d recommend going to the later Brannigan’s Blackhearts series if given a choice, but the American Praetorians books started with Task Force Desperate are still perfectly readable action stories.