Monday, November 24, 2014

The Guardians #2: Trial By Fire

The Guardians #2: Trial By Fire, by Richard Austin
May, 1985  Jove Books

It’s taken me forever to get back to the Guardians series; over two years ago I read the first volume of this post-nuke pulp, but kept putting off reading the next volume. Not that the first volume was terrible or anything, it was just sort of monotonous and overwritten, with endless sequences of the titular characters in their armored vehicle driving around the blasted ruins of the American countryside.

This second volume, which occurs a few weeks later, at least broadens the scope, but it’s no less monotonous or overwritten. Trial By Fire comes in at a whopping 231 pages of small print, with hardly any white space; each page is comprised of thick chunks of paragraphs. It’s just way too long for a men’s adventure novel. Not that Victor Milan (aka “Richard Austin”) can’t write, as the guy’s actually a gifted word-spinner, but the book moves as slow as molasses. These men’s adventure novels are generally quick reads, even the long ones by Manning Lee Stokes, but reading Trial By Fire was like hitting a brick wall.

Anyway our four Gardians – Force Recon Marine and team leader Billy McKay, Navy man Sam Sloan, Green Beret Tom Johnson, and figher ace Casey Wilson – are now in the Heartland Complex, a government bomb shelter somewhere beneath Iowa, having gotten there after the endless drive that comprised the previous volume. Now they’re getting bored, goofing off in the antiseptic corridors of the sprawling underworld compound, and thus are happy when the Guardians creator, Major Crenna, summons them for a new mission.

I’m not sure if Crenna appeared in the previous volume. He’s a memorable character, even if he only has a few scenes. Apparently he only has half a face, part of it blown away in a skirmish years before, and he’s a gruff and dour s.o.b. who tells the Guardians what to do. Their primary mission is the protection of the Blueprint for Renewal, an initiative started by now-dead President Lowell which was dreamed up by a consortium of scientists and engineers and whatnot. The plan was that these brainy folk would band together and figure out how to rebuild the United States in case of a nuclear war. Now the Guardians must again go back out into the blasted countryside and round up the people who were part of the Blueprint.

The only problem is, computer records are pretty sketcy in the post-holocaust, and given its top secret nature, who exactly worked on Project Blueprint is unknown; President Lowell apparently had all of the info with him when his plane went down, shortly after the “one-hour war” occurred. But the Heartland technicians have pulled four names from what remains of the databases, and they’re spread around the Midwest. Now the Guardians have to hop back into their armored vehicle, Mobile One, and head back out to get them.

All this stuff gradually becomes as dour and monotonous as the first book, but Milan really opens things up with the (unfortunately brief) appearance of Maximov, the James Bond-style villain who is located in nuke-unscathed Europe and who appeared in the final pages of the first volume. Maximov fronts the New World Order-type Internationalist Council, which is “the governing body of the Federated States of Europe.” Maximov even refers to it as a New World Order organization, and he also refers to Bond – that is, after he’s mercilessly killed off the members of the Council once he has assumed sole control of it.

Maximov is very much in the grandiose villain mode, even proclaiming himself a “Goya of reality” in the way he dispatches the Council, having masked men storm into their meeting and blast them away with submachine guns while Maximov watches from behind a bullet-proof glass window, enjoying the show. He later claims he got the idea from a Robert Ludlum novel, saying that if he’d wanted to do to it in the “high camp” style of a James Bond movie, he would’ve electrocuted all of them – but that would’ve been too expensive.

Looking to get his hands on the Blueprint for Renewal, Maximov has underlings hiding in the shattered US government, and it appears this will be a recurring theme of future volumes, the Guardians et al being duped by Maximov stooges. This volume we get a lot of stuff with Trajan, the code name of Maximov’s top man in the US intelligence arena; so high, in fact, that he’s in charge of the CIA, and was behind all of those attacks on Mobile One the previous volume, when the Guardians were trying to get Vice Preisdent (now President) MacGregor to the Heartland Complex.

The “high camp” and Bond mentions are just the first indication of the knowing nods Milan gives us throughout Trial By Fire. Like John Shirley in the Traveler books, Milan obviously enjoys throwing his readers little in-jokes, not to mention having his characters discuss all manner of pop culture. But unlike Traveler, which stayed lean and mean and got crazy quick, The Guardians instead stays serious throughout, more in the manner of a Gold Eagle series; in fact, this series is more like the post-nuke series a reader would’ve expected Gold Eagle to publish, more so than Deathlands.

You also get the Gold Eagle-mandatory gun porn, which runs freely throughout Trial By Fire, with egregious detail about assault rifles and etc jammed into the narrative with little regard for pacing or form. But sadly, the gun porn doesn’t play out much, as the action scenes are kind of bland, with people just getting shot and falling down. Only rarely does Milan liven it up with gore. In other words, this post-nuke pulp is nowhere in the almighty realm of David Alexander's gore-tastic Phoenix, still the very pinnacle of post-nuke action, as far as I’m concerned.

Milan also adds a bit of Stephen King’s The Stand, with the appearance of Josiah Coffin, scarecrow-thin messiah of the Children of the New Dispensation. Unfortunately this means we get too many scenes of the slack-jawed, hardscrabble faithful who flock to the obviously-insane leader, who is worshipped because he emerged unscathed from the depths of a totally-radiated area. But man this New Dispensation stuff is a total drag, with the Guardians on their trips encountering tons of the followers, and it just goes on and on.

In particular they get in a skirmish with them in Kansas City, where the Guardians attempt to get Dr. James Okeda, one of the Blueprint people. However his research clinic is surrounded by bloodthirsty New Dispensation masses, who are hungry for scientist blood. After all of this finally wraps up, the Guardians then move on to Colorado, where they attempt to get the next person, Dr. Perkins – who turns out to have joined Josiah Coffin’s followers. Now we get even more of this post-holocaust Christian stuff.

This section is livened by the presence of “road gypsies” who now work with Coffin’s followers; yet another knowing reference, we’re informed that the road gypsies were inspired by the Mad Max movies (as well as the countless rip offs) and thus go around in chains and leather and mohawks – and now that the nuclear holocaust has actually happened, they’re really into it. We also get the enjoyable presence of Soames Summerill, “the William Buckley of the ‘90s,” a neo-Conservative pundit and best-selling author who is one of Maximov’s followers, and who is using the New Dispensation to foster more unrest in America.

After lots of trials and tribulations, with McKay even knocked unconcious for ten days at one point, the Guardians next move on to the Rio Grande, where in the hippie-style “Freehold” of anarchists they find Dr. Marguerite Connoly, the last Blueprint person on their list. Here Casey Wilson falls for the doctor’s hot anarchist daughter, Angela, though unlike the last volume Milan doesn’t bother writing any sex scenes this time. Finally, after long, long length, it all culminates in a pitched battle against Coffin’s people, with the rewarding outcome that at least, after the endless drone of this novel, we won’t have to read about Josiah Coffin or his followers anymore.

What’s strange is that Milan’s writing is good, and he has a definite gift for coining unusual and memorable phrases: hayseed mystic, dinosaurian rage, samurai fever (the last of which could’ve been the title of a Hanoi Rocks album). But it gets to be too much, just on and on and on with the description and the endless prattle of those “hayseed mystics,” with little of the batshit-crazy stuff I want from these post-nuke pulps. Despite the knowing pop culture references, with even The Lord of the Rings mentioned over and over, Milan brings little fantastical element to his own novel.

Ironically enough, I was missing a few volumes of this series, and happened recently to find all of the ones I needed at a used bookstore in Austin (ie, “Richard Austin”…yeah, I know). I’ll try to make it sooner than two years before I read the next volume of the series, but I’ve gotta say, I’m not in a hurry. This one really drained me.


Jack Badelaire said...

I've got a good number of these books - not the whole series, but a damn good chunk of it, and I've read perhaps a half-dozen. I don't remember them being THAT boring, but then again, I read them a number of years ago, and I bet my tastes have changed somewhat. I especially wouldn't be down with reading such tiny, cramped text - that's half the reason I pick up ebook versions of this stuff whenever I can, because it's easier on my eyes.

I always thought the whole concept of the Guardians series was pretty goofy, something that could only be cooked up in a Men's Adventure series (I believe the post-Vietnam "Black Berets" series also involved a team made up from each major branch of the Armed Forces). And while I dig the idea of swanning around the post-nuke US in an armored car, I do have to chuckle at the idea that the fate of the world rests in the hands of four dudes and one essentially uparmored RV.

Grant said...

Speaking of in-jokes, the major's name is Crenna, as in Richard Crenna. Since I don't really know the RAMBO movies from Adam, I wouldn't have gotten that from knowing THEM. But I have a lucky knack for knowing things like cast lists even without knowing the actual movies or shows, and besides I've always liked him.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

Jack, good to hear from you. One thing I've noticed about those later volumes is they get shorter, and the print gets bigger, so I'm betting the series improves. But I found these first two to be very slow-going. And yeah, Black Berets is one I've meant to read. I've got a few of them but haven't read them. Zwolf has reviewed a few over on his blog.

Grant, you are likely correct -- I'm betting "Crenna" is yet another in-joke in a book full of them.

Unknown said...

Milan seems to have hung on long enough to enjoy a renaissance (if you want to call it that) - he's a got a new series out from Tor, in hardcover, no less, about knights riding around on dinosaurs in a suspiciously Westeros-flavored land. I got about halfway through the first book. It's indescribably bad.