Wednesday, May 30, 2012

C.A.D.S. #1

C.A.D.S. #1, by John Sievert
November, 1985 Zebra books

Here's another series I was familiar with as a kid in the '80s, but given the uniform cover design of the books -- each with some sort of high-tech gun floating against a blank background -- I assumed it was a military sci-fi series. Little did I know that it was actually a post-nuke pulp, let alone that author "John Sievert" was a psuedonym for Ryder Stacy, aka Ryder Syvertsen and Jan Stacy...the creators/authors of Doomsday Warrior! Indeed, this series ran at the same time, and was nearly as successful, lasting an impressive 12 volumes.

It's my understanding that Ryder Stacy collaborated on this first volume, just as they did on each volume of Doomsday Warrior. So then there's the same dichotomy in C.A.D.S. #1, going from goofy action scenes with clunky writing (Jan Stacy) to New Age-esque character instrospection with great writing (Ryder Syvertsen). I've read that future volumes were written by Syvertsen alone, who handled the series up until volume #9, when it was taken over by none other than David Alexander! So then with C.A.D.S. we have a post-nuke series written by the three best writers in the post-nuke biz; what more could you ask for?

This first volume is very similar to Doomsday Warrior #1. It takes its time setting up the scene, introducing the characters, and getting the ball rolling, but once it does, it veers directly into the madness and the insanity. And, like that first Doomsday Warrior, C.A.D.S. #1 is just too damn long for its own good. The book is 400 pages, which is much too long for an action-series novel in my opinion. As a result the novel is chaotic, all over the place, jumping from characters to incidents with little rhyme or reason. In fact the central plot of the tale -- the untried C.A.D.S. team rescuing the President, who may or may not be alive -- is lost for the duration of the novel, while Ryder Stacy instead entertain us with their patented lurid thrills.

The book opens in the "future" of 1997, one in which the USSR is still around, and still engaged in peace talks with the US. However we learn that the Soviets, of course, are planning a surprise attack on the gullible Americans. While the US President and Soviet Premiere plan a new era of peace, the Premiere meanwhile backs the total destruction of the US, sending out legions of nuclear subs while swearing to the Americans that nothing untoward is going on. However in their secret Air Force base in New Mexico, the members of the top-secret C.A.D.S. project suspect otherwise, in particular their leader, Colonel Dean Sturgis, who is certain that nuclear war is imminent.

C.A.D.S. stands for Computerized Attack/Defense Systems, and basically they're seven foot-tall armored suits that fire "E-balls" (ie explosives), machine guns, flamethrowers, etc. Description is vague but apparently the suits look like those worn by astronauts, only black instead of white, complete with the same visored dome, only the C.A.D.S. ones are red. The suits can't fly, but they can take to the air in very high leaps, which we're told eventually runs out the gas supply.

In point of fact these suits, as described, are impossible constructions; we're informed that each suit-wearer has at his command enough power to destroy an entire army, with a nigh-endless supply of ammunition and explosives, not to mention fuel and etc. There's just no way a suit could hold all of that stuff and still afford the maneuverability and aerodynamic qualities Ryder Stacy detail here. But then, I'm overthinking. Like everything else I've read by these authors, C.A.D.S. #1 is basically an R-rated Saturday morning cartoon.

The suits come complete with a computerized interface which provides a plethora of intel, scanning and tracking realtime and reporting it back to the wearer. Also there's a sort of AI setup which, when activated, can provide the wearer with realtime battle strategy. But the main point of the suits is that they can weather the atmosphere of radioactive wastelands. Given the military-wide opinion that a nuclear war with Russia is forthcoming, the Air Force brass sees the C.A.D.S. as having the potential of acting as first-line defense in a post-nuke battle arena. However as the series opens the suits are still in prototype stage.

Around 200 soldiers make up the C.A.D.S. force, racking up practice hours but having zero actual combat experience. Dean Sturgis heads them up and acts as the protagonist, but as with the Doomsday Warrior books there are a lot of characters in play. Sturgis though is your typical men's adventure hero, a grizzled veteran who constantly runs afoul of authority and knows that the only correct way to do things is his own. He lives on the base in a perpetual bad mood, mostly because he knows that the world is about to end, but also because he's worried about his ex-wife, Robin, whom Sturgis still loves, and indeed has reconnected with. Sturgis has constantly put his career ahead of his personal life, but now, in his mid-30s, he's getting second thoughts, and wonders if he should say the hell with the Air Force life and just go be with Robin.

The nuclear war of course changes all this, but as mentioned it takes a long time to happen. The missiles don't hit until around page 100, and before that we have lots of character and scene-building, in particular lots of stuff with the President and his staff worrying over the possibility that "the Reds" might have something up their sleeves. The authors hopscotch among a huge cast of characters, playing it all up like a suspense thriller, with the occasional interlude of Sturgis and his comrades field-testing their suits. Then the Russians launch their attack, successfully blocking retaliatory strikes from the US while blasting the majority of the country to radioactive bits with a hundred or so nuclear hits.

But once nuclear war has been waged Ryder Stacy kick in with the OTT insanity we know and love from Doomsday Warrior. Seriously, we go from a novel about politicians fretting over possible war to scenes of mental patients shackling up their former doctors and "curing" them with sadistic methods of torture. The book, while enjoyable crazy, actually suffers from this, given the somewhat serious tone of the opening hundred pages -- the ensuing chaos seems to come from a different novel.

The Russians hit Washington, DC with a few neutron bombs; we're told these will kill people but leave real estate undamaged. This is the same thing the Russians did in Doomsday Warrior, and for the same reason -- they plan to take over the country, using DC as their own capitol. The President happened to be in the bunker beneath the White House when the bombs hit, and word is that he might still be alive, trapped down there. Communication of course is sketchy in the post-nuke US, and only the one message got through. Nevertheless it's enough for what remains of the US government to order in a team to find and rescue the President.

No better job could be suited for the C.A.D.S. force. Having survived the war unscathed, their base in the middle of nowhere, the soldiers put on their suits and break up into three large squads, each taking a different route through the blasted US, to reconvene in DC at an appointed time, where they will unite and take on any Russian defenses as they save the President. Sturgis heads up the main team; that is, after he's let out of the brig.

In a stirring scene, Sturgis, being informed that war is finally occurring, calls Robin (who lives in the middle of a city), and tells her to get out of there asap. Sturgis has fashioned a bomb shelter/cabin in the middle of the upstate woods, and he tells Robin that he will meet her there. But as he's flying away in a commandeered plane, going AWOL, Sturgis sees a nuclear blast on the horizon and knows the time has come, that war is here. He cannot abandon his soldiers. He turns the plane around, turns himself in to the guards, and as mentioned is put in the brig.

When Sturgis and his team set out across the US, the novel takes on more of an episodic feel. On the long journey to DC they encounter militias, mental patients, Cuban soldiers who pose as American GIs, bikers, Russian soldiers, and even the Soviet models of the C.A.D.S. suits. That's not to mention the scenes from the perspectives of the Russian invaders, who deal with the patriotic fervor of the unbeaten American survivors; as in Doomsday Warrior, there are many scenes where downtrodden American masses rise up and kill their better-equiped Soviet enemies.

The action scenes are frequent and fun, if (as expected with these authors) ungrounded in any kind of reality. Sturgis and his squad are wholly dependent upon their C.A.D.S. suits, which admittedly is the point of the novel but ultimately detracts from it. Sturgis, I'm betting, couldn't hold his own against most men's adventure protagonists, and indeed is rendered powerless without his suit. However those fearing a military sci-fi sort of thing need not be concerned -- the focus here is on OTT action, with Sturgis and his soldiers only using their suits to decimate less-equiped enemies, most of whom are drug-addled bikers or whatnot. In other words, there isn't much focus on high-tech nonsense or what-have-you. It's all as believeable as the old GI Joe cartoon, only with a lot more violence.

A definite lurid vibe runs through the novel. In particular with the opressors who arise in the wake of the nukes; there's a bit early on where a gang kidnaps the children of a small town and starts torturing them. The already-mentioned mental patients stuff is especially wacky and sick. And it wouldn't be a Ryder Stacy novel if there wasn't a goofy but explicit sex scene. After freeing a West Virginia town from Cuban invaders (!), Sturgis and his crew are treated to a barn dance. The local women throw themselves at the men; one of the local women, an 18 year-old virgin (of course), takes hold of Sturgis and forces herself upon him. Though he puts up a bit of a moral struggle, thinking about Robin, he of course gives in, and the purple prose ensues.

Robin also has her share of the narrative. Making it to the bomb shelter after all (Sturgis spends the novel not knowing if she survived or not), she deals with her sudden solitude as well as the drastically-changed world she now lives in. It seems clear that this is being set up as the running storyline in the series: Will Sturgis and Robin find one another? What makes it annoying though is that, toward the very end of the novel, Sturgis finally gets to that bomb shelter, he's not even a mile from Robin, and then he receives a distress call from his squad and has to leave! It's a total cop-out of a scene, and reminded me of the similarly-annoying stuff from the Last Ranger series (also apparently written by Ryder Stacy) where the main character kept looking for (and then losing) his damn sister.

Finally, the authors get to work in their trademark irreverent spirit, with lots of dark humor and subtle parodies of the jingoistic fervor common in men's adventure novels (ie, the jingoism that caused the nuclear war in the first place). In particular they demonstrate this in the finale when, to save the President, the C.A.D.S. team actually destroys the White House! The authors also as expected make the invading Russians appropriately despotic and decadent, hating the Americans so much that they're dedicated to killing every single one of them.

So then, another fun but overlong Ryder Stacy excursion into insanity. It wasn't as great as any of the Doomsday Warrior novels I've read, but then, not many books are.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Messalina, by Jack Oleck
July, 1960 Dell Books

Published in hardcover in 1959 and continuously in print for the next several years, Jack Oleck's Messalina is now long out of print and barely remembered. Yet it is historical fiction of the best sort: trashy, exploitative, packed with violence and sex. No "detectives in togas," no poorly-written military fiction, no thinly-veiled Christian glurge -- this is a full-on romp in the salacious world of Imperial Rome, more Technicolor than Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra.

Messalina recounts the tale of the real-life woman who married Claudius, the fourth emperor of Rome. She's known to history as a backstabbing schemer with an insatiable lust for sex, so don't go into this novel expecting a G-rated story of ancient Rome. Oleck takes us from her youth to her end, barring no details of her cold-blooded and predator-like ways: for Messalina, sex was a means to power, and boy did she know how to use it.

Within the first 60 pages Messalina has already caused a slave to be facially mutilated, the death of two men, and a Roman senator to be disgraced and publically ruined -- and she's still only 15 years old. Within a few more pages she's pregnant -- still only 15. And they say kids today grow up too fast. This is the type of ride Oleck takes us on, the kicker being that it's all cut straight out of history. Oleck changes a few things here and there, but for the most part he gives us a thorough retelling of this malicious and cunning woman.

Those who know Messalina's story will know what's missing -- namely, the all-night sex competition that, according to Pliny the Elder, Messalina once took part in with a prostitute. It goes unmentioned here, though Oleck does at one point state that various rumors are circulating about Messalina -- the implication being that this competition might be one of those rumors. There's also no acknowledgement of the young Nero, whom the real-life Messalina wanted dead, as she realized that he could one day become emperor rather than her son Germanicus.

A warning: Messalina will perhaps be the most unlikeable protagonist you ever encounter in a novel. She has no redeeming qualities. With cold detachment she plots and counterplots throughout the narrative, ruining lives, ordering deaths, toying with emotions. Even the two children she bears Claudius go unloved. Here Oleck veers from the historical record. For it's often speculated that Messalina's plotting was the result of her fear for her children's lives; anyone who knows Roman history knows that the children of the aristocracy always lived near death.

Messalina's children Octavia and Germanicus would be next on the kill-list if their father Claudius was murdered. In real life it seems that, when Messalina orchestrated various deaths and banishments, it was only of people she believed to pose a threat to her children. In many cases it seems her hunches were correct; Poppaea Sabina the elder was one of those whom Messalina had killed, and Poppaea's same-named daughter actually did cause the death of Messalina's daughter, many years later.

But in this novel, Messalina is self-centered to the fullest extent; all of her plotting and manipulating is for her own gain and no one else's. This makes her into such a hateable and loathsome character that you soon find yourself rooting against her, and when her end comes on the very last page you nearly toss the book aside with a celebratory cheer.

Oleck's writing is mostly fine, though I found a few too many awkward and confusing sentences. And despite the abundance of sex, he's pretty conservative in the graphic department -- no doubt due to when the novel was published. Also, every character speaks like they are in a 1950s historical film, something that has always annoyed me about historical fiction. Oleck's superb however at setting up scenes and peering into the minds of his characters.

If only Oleck had made Messalina a bit more likeable, at least allowed us to sympathize with her. His greatest stroke is creating an archenemy of sorts for Messalina: a Jewish slave named Isaac whose life mirrors Messalina's like a negative reflection; the irony being that Messalina, empress of Rome, the most powerful woman in the world, is obsessed with ruining the life of an anonymous Jew.

And Oleck gets bonus points for never -- not even once -- mentioning Christianity. Finally, an author who realizes that the majority of Romans in the first few centuries CE had never even heard of the religion.

This is an old review, by the way, originally posted on Amazon back in 2008. I've always meant to post it here on the blog, as I have my other old toga porn reviews from Amazon. What made me finally get around to posting it is that I recently read Jack Mertes's psuedo-sequel Empress of Desire, all about Poppaea Sabina the younger and her hatred of Messalina; review coming soon.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Marksman #5: Headhunter

The Marksman #5: Headhunter, by Frank Scarpetta
October, 1973 Belmont-Tower Books

As mentioned in my review, Headhunter picks up immediately after the events in The Marksman #3: Kill Them All, which was also written by demented genius Russell Smith. (The fourth volume, Mafia Wipe-Out, meanwhile features Magellan back in the States, even though Kill Them All closes with him in St. Thomas...and Headhunter opens with him leaving St. Thomas.)

And by the way, you have to read Kill Them All for Headhunter to make any kind of sense; Smith refers back to that novel throughout the book, never once bothering to explain any of his references. It might be frustrating for someone who has never read that previous volume, but if you have read it, then it makes for probably the best example of continuity I've yet encountered in a men's adventure series.

After killing a ton of Mafia in idyllic St. Thomas, Magellan charters a private plane to fly him to Puerto Rico. Here we have an awesome instance of the pre-PC mindset when Magellan is thunderstruck to discover that the co-pilot of the plane is...a woman!! He's brought along his ever-present "artillery case" complete with drugs, disguises, and whatnot, as well as the heroin he's been lugging around for the past few volumes. Magellan arrives in Puerto Rico with a gameplan in mind: he's going to of course crack down on the local Mafia chieftan, Jacopo Morandi.

Things derail posthaste; hailing a cab, Magellan is attacked by the driver and his comrades, but of course manages to waste a few of them with his ever-ready Beretta. And again Magellan manages to take someone prisoner, in this case a kid whom Magellan drugs up, later tying the kid to a bed in his hotel room. Pretty strange stuff for sure.

But the plot changes again when Magellan discovers that he has become a wanted man, the story of his assault on the mob in St. Thomas breaking out in the local media. Sure enough the cops have figured out that Magellan is now in Puerto Rico, and not only are they most likely on their way to find him, but Magellan also discovers that the cops are busy cracking down on anyone Magellan reportedly dealt with in St. Thomas.

Magellan instantly realizes then that Terri White, his cute hippie-chick accomplice in Kill Them All, will now be in harm's way. But no worry, as she happens to already be on her own chartered flight to Puerto Rico, hoping to hide out with a fellow hippie who gives music lessons there. Magellan and Terri soon meet up again, and in a strange way it actually develops into a sweet little bond between the two (at least, as "sweet" as a blood-soaked Marksman novel can be), with Terri obviously falling in love with Magellan, and Magellan realizing that he too is developing feelings for the girl. In fact there are some very funny moments between the two, with Terri going along with Magellan's bloody plans, but constantly asking him to rethink, or at least to go somewhere else -- "Maybe some tropical island somewhere. I'm sure you can find some Mafia to kill there, too!"

From here it comes off almost like a retread of the previous book, with Magellan using Terri as bait, renting out a lavish villa and posing as a wealthy and single socialite, so as to attract the attentions of Morandi, a notorious skirt-chaser. In the meantime Magellan goes about wasting mobsters and/or taking them captive, drugging them and shackling them up in the wine cellar beneath the villa. Of course per tradition he manges to ensnare a few cops as well. This engenders bizarre but played-for-laughs scenes where Terri has to cook meals for the growing assortment of prisoners in the cellar, and Magellan taking them all out every once in a while for "latrine visits."

All sorts of lurid stuff ensues, as expected from this "gifted" author. Early in the tale, after moving into the villa and before he has started growing his collection of captives, Magellan leaves Terri with the still-captive kid, who manages to break free, rape Terri, and comes back with his fellow gangsters. By this time Magellan has arrived, and here of course is where he starts up his collection of drugged and shackled prisoners. Terri's rape though is brushed off, and the implication is that the kid didn't even know what he was doing -- Smith plays it vague on the kid's actual age, which makes it all the more strange when Magellan discovers later that the other prisoners, all of them adult mobster guys, are using the kid as jailbait in the wine cellar. At least Magellan has the dignity to take the kid away from them.

Anyway, there's all sorts of crazy and rough shenanigans throughout, but what more can you expect from the man who gave us Blood Bath? (Which by the way would actually serve as the first volume of this "trilogy," each of the volumes referring to one another.) The "action scenes" are again given over to Magellan blowing away various mobsters, though he does take a little damage here and there, moreso than in any other volume yet. Also, believe it or not, Smith works in some actual character development here, with Magellan several times questioning his motive, his choice to continue seeking his bloody fate, especially once he realizes he has developed feelings for Terri.

It's funny, because Magellan plans throughout to get rid of the girl, but she keeps sticking to him like glue. And even at the end Terri rushes off with him, the two planning to escape from Puerto Rico to Miami (once again Smith ends the tale with a rushed climax in which Magellan just casually blitzes the main villains)...and yet, it doesn't appear that Terri appears in another Marksman novel. I've only just flipped through a few future volumes, I haven't read them yet, but it doesn't appear that she shows up again. Time will tell. She makes for a fun character, though, adding a much-needed spirit to the books.

Finally, here's a scene I just had to quote, to give an idea of the twisted genius that is Russell Smith. Read on in slackjawed amazement as Magellan wastes a mobster who's visiting the restroom:

Magellan saw him walking toward him. He hugged the closet wall. He fingered the silencer on the Beretta and released the safety. Just as Micheli dropped his pants and reached for a comic book on the floor in front of the toilet, Magellan aimed and fired at his left temple.

Blood, brains and flesh splattered against the shower curtain as the body raised up and the sound of the man's noisy bowels evacuating drowned out the pressurized "whoosh" of the gun.

As the body of Micheli seemed to be trying to balance itself in death, wobbling to and fro ever so gently on the toilet seat, Magellan flushed the toilet at the same time he gripped the arm and holding it, allowed the heavy body to sink sideways onto the tiled floor now puddling with dark red blood.

Carlo Micheli's last shit was a ghastly sight!

I mean, that about says it all, doesn't it?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


Domination, by Michael Cecilione
December, 1993 Zebra Books

Melding vampires and the s&m bondage scene, Michael Cecilione's Domination certainly packs a wallop, but a wallop that's a bit lost amid a cluster of too many characters, too many subplots, and too many pages. This hefty mass market paperback comes in at well over 400 pages, and would benefit from a bit of editing. But still, if you're into vampires and you're into the dominatrix whips-and-chains thing, the book will be right up your sordid alley.

There are a lot of characters here, but the protagonist is Kelly, a Manhattan-based reporter who works for a small-circulation newspaper that's notorious for tackling odd stories. Kelly's story right now is on the recent explosion of bondage-themed clubs in America, filled with leather-clad dominatrices who work a small clientele of men. These men, usually close-knit corporate types, pay good money to go into swank little clubs where they can be tied up and/or forced into all sorts of compromising positions. Kelly's research has so captivated her that she's managed to piss off her boyfriend, a detective in the NYPD, so much so that he breaks up with her.

Meanwhile, vampires are afoot. The primary one is a female whom Cecilione refers to in the narrative just as "The Vampire." The idea is she's the original model; another character later tells a story that she has been around for eons, with sundry famous vampire protegees, among them Cleopatra and Shakespeare. And of course we learn that "her hand" has been in all the major massacres of our day, including the Holocaust. Man, how I hate it when horror writers do that -- insinuate that it takes some sort of supernatural power to make mankind do unspeakable things. Hitler and the Nazis knew what they were doing. It didn't take some vampire to whisper the idea in their ears.

The vampires here are portrayed as invincible creatures who mentally enslave humans with ease. There is no defense against them, and they especially enjoy taking on vassals who are already twisted. A primary example here is Hillary, a middle-aged wife of a senator who is in the running to be the next Democratic president of the US(!). If only Cecilione had gone all the way and named Hillary's husband Bill! And guess what, Hillary is actually the cruelest character here, getting off on capturing girls off the street, drugging them, masking them, and then taking them to abandoned warehouses where she tortures them to death.

The reader must be prepared to endure some harrowing scenes in this novel, of helpless characters trussed up and tortured to death. The idea is that this bondage revival is sort of a blanket indication that mankind actively seeks to be dominated, punished, and ultimately killed by a stronger being, and Cecilione follows his theme through to the sadistic end. Personally this wasn't my idea of a good reading time. I kept wanting the poor captives to break out an Automag and shoot their torturers in the face, but that's what happens to you when you read too many men's adventure start wondering why the characters in regular novels aren't packing heat.

Speaking of men's adventure novels, one of the minor characters here appears to have walked out of one: Connor, a martial arts living weapon who works (or at least he believes he does) for a shadowy occultic agency called The Craft. Connor is basically Sapir and Murphy's The Destroyer, only more magically inclined. Without question his scenes are the most interesting in the novel, as he meditates on chakras, kills people with a single punch, and gets his assignments from telepathically-speaking seals. His latest assignment has him shadowing Kelly, who apparently has some sort of fated link with The Vampire (whom the characters refer to as "Monica," that being her latest name). Soon enough the two become an item, though strangely, for a novel focused on leather-wearing bondage gals, there's basically zero sex in the novel.

There's also a vampire-turned-priest who is going about New York City killing off vampires newly created by Monica and her latest vassal, Hillary. The cops are on his case, Kelly's ex-boyfriend chief among them, finding several mutilated, headless bodies, their blood drained away, of course not realizing that they were already dead when they were "killed." This for me by the way has always been one of the biggest stumbling blocks of horror fiction, that learning curve the characters must face before they realize they're in a horror novel. I mean, we readers already know there are going to be vampires, thanks to the back cover copy. It's like you want to yell at the protagonists after they've witnessed the latest decapitated, bloodless body: "They're vampires, you idiots!"

But as mentioned, there are more characters besides, and Cecilione hopscotches from subplot to subplot, to such an extent that the main thrust of the novel is lost. In addition there's also way too much stuff about the s&m scene, with frequent trips to various clubs that trade in bondage. Monica even runs one, the titular "Domination," a trendy invitation-only club in which people are actually crucified and killed on stage, though the audience thinks it's all just staged theatrics.

There are a few action scenes amid all of the squirm-inducing torture-porn scenes. Connor gets in a few fights, particularly at the end where he comes to the rescue, though Cecilione proves he isn't a full-time action writer when he has Connor checking the silencer on his revolver, something that cannot possibly exist. The ending is pretty climatic, too, with Kelly (who has discovered her ties to this eternal war between the vampire priest and Monica) trussed up in the Theater of Pain, and Connor blitzing his way through a few guards, both human and immortal.

Sadly though the novel ends on that '90s mainstay: the cliffhanger. Cecilione closes the tale with many questions unanswered, in particular what happened to one of the villains -- one you waited the entire novel to see destroyed. That being said, though, his theme of dominance and submission is played out to its fullest extent through the novel, which itself was a refreshing thing to see in what would otherwise have been just a quickie horror novel.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Tracker #3: Blood Money

Tracker #3: Blood Money, by Ron Stillman
March, 1991 Charter Books

At this point, my reading of the Tracker series borders on the sadomasochistic. Without question the dumbest damn bunch of books I've ever read, this series proves that with the advent of the Politically Correct era in the early 1990s, the men's adventure genre was doomed. But even though Blood Money is in its own way just as stupid as its predecessors, there are actually parts of it where it isn't too bad. It's still just hamstrung by its too-perfect protagonist, its coloring book mentality, and its overbearing PC-minded vibe.

What's funny is that the back-cover copy does little to provide the plot of the actual novel. It would have you think that Blood Money is about Natty Tracker taking on a billionaire supervillain who is involved in all sorts of nefarious schemes, even using inner-city kids as his personal army. (We do of course learn that these kids are being taken advantage of and, due to the savage, squalid nature of their lives, don't realize that it's wrong when they kill people for drug money and etc. I mean, they're not to be blamed at all, society is!) And though the novel starts off in that direction, what it really turns out to be is the tale of how Tracker is stranded on a tropical isle, nearly dies, is finally rescued, and, after taking a year to recuperate, wages a one-man war of vengeance upon the billionaire.

The gimmick with this series is Tracker's blindness, but this is now a moot point. In Six Million Dollar Man style Tracker now has regular-looking eyes which allow him to zoom in on things and also record them. This creates an annoying fail-safe sort of deal where Natty, with a bit of pressure to a spot behind his ear, can instantly patch in to the monitor of his government contact Wally Rampart. So then, no matter what sort of trouble Tracker gets himself into, with a touch behind his ear he can alert Rampart, who will prompty send Apache helicopters or whatever to save him. And hell, Tracker's such a superstar that even the President is a fan, sometimes watching the events on Rampart's monitor.

There are a lot of action setpieces at the start of Blood Money, as Tracker sets in on billionaire villain James Earl Smith. Along for this portion of the novel is Dee, the knockout gal Tracker picked up in the previous volume; she's still in love with Tracker, but oddly drops out of the book toward the end. (Even odder is a bit late in the tale, unrelated to anything, where we learn that Dee's father has died, and so Tracker consoles her -- I say this is odd because it just comes out of nowhere and then is passed over.)

Everything proceeds as in past books; namely, Tracker taking on tons of adversaries and always emerging victorious, no matter the odds. Then things change midway through as the novel appropriates the vibe of survivalist fiction. Soon after setting his sights on James Earl Smith, Tracker is caught and taken to a remote isle, where after a huge battle he of course overcomes his would-be killers, but as a result is stranded. However his eye gear is ruined and he is blind. So now he is alone, unsure where in the world he is, surrounded by ocean and sharks, and unable to see. Any other character would understandably be scared, but Tracker instead starts forcing himself to eat raw shark meat and paddles around blindly.

It's to Stillman's credit that he doesn't have Tracker miraculously save himself. Indeed he takes a lot of damage here, even getting the lower part of his leg eaten by a shark. (Of course, the lost limb is later replaced by another fancy cybertech piece of equipment.) Eventually though he is saved by Rampart's men, who are finally able to pinpoint Tracker's location -- turns out he is somewhere in the Philipines.

Here Blood Money becomes the tale of Tracker's recovery. After six months (!) in a coma, he returns to his roots and hangs out with his "Native American" grandfather who blusters all of the expected wiseman stuff. After lots of horseriding and meditating, Tracker then finally declares vengeance upon Smith -- initiated in a lame and goofy scene where Tracker, on a horse and painted in traditional Indian warpaint, crashes a public event James Earl Smith is hosting and screams a war cry at the man, then somehow is able to evade the police and security men who chase after him.

It's odd though because for the rest of the novel Tracker does not operate in the interests of the people Smith is screwing over. He's out solely for his own vengeance. And, rather than quickly killing Smith, he instead just fucks with him. Stupid stuff like sneaking into Smith's penthouse in the middle of the night and scrawling warnings all over the place, including on Smith's own body. It's all just very stupid and juvenile, and again makes you wish that someone would just shoot Tracker dead.

Finally though Tracker launches a climatic assault on Smith -- even though he could've killed the guy five times over by this time -- and the novel ends on the lamest note possible, with Smith getting the drop on Tracker and trying to shoot him, but missing with each damn shot, even though Tracker is standing right in front of him. All of this so Stillman can deliver an ending where Tracker, true to his pledge, can kill Smith with a traditional weapon of his forefathers, ie a Bowie knife.

Overall the novel is written in the same rough style as the previous volumes, jumping back and forth between various characters and situations with little rhyme or reason. Dialog falls flat over and over. And the characters lack even the barest of human qualities -- there's even a scene where Dee discovers that Tracker's eyes can broadcast everything he's doing back to Wally Rampart's monitor, and she discovers this right after she and Tracker have had sex, and even though she throws a tantrum, she basically just brushes it off.

But Tracker himself is the biggest problem. One of the biggest stumbling blocks of men's adventure fiction is the too-perfect heroes, guys who excel no matter the situation or the odds. Tracker is the epitome of the type, so omniscient and omnipotent that he only succeeds in making the reader root for the bad guys.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Force #1: Deadly Snow

The Force #1: Deadly Snow, by Jake Decker
February, 1984 Pinnacle Books

One of the last gasps of Pinnacle Books before they went belly up, The Force is an obscure four-volume series by one Jake Decker. I'm betting this is a house name, but no information is available. And in fact "Jake Decker" really could be the author's name. At any rate, the "Force" in question is a three-person team who works for a shadowy government agency overseen by The Librarian, who sends the team out on missions too risky or delicate for regular agents to handle.

The Force is comprised of Steve Sinclair, a grizzled 'Nam vet who lead a previous incarnation of the Force, one which was decimated a few years ago by the elusive villain D'Arbanville. Sinclair's now retired and wants to stay that way, but being the main protagonist of the series, he's soon called back in to start up a new version of the Force. The second member of this new team is Micah, a New Orleans-reared agent who is gifted with mental powers. He can implant ideas into the minds of others (talk about "the force!") and he can read thoughts. Finally there is Jezebel Cooke (!) a redheaded Texan beauty who can kick all sorts of ass due to her martial arts skills.

It's the murder of Jezebel's sister that initiates the formation of this new Force. Acting in a series of kung-fu movies shot in Thailand, Jezebel's sister discovers that the studio is just a front for a global heroin ring. (As a bit of trivia, this is the same plot as the 1976 Japanese film Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist, starring karate ultra-babe Etsuko "Sue" Shihomi.) She is soon murdered for her discovery. Jezebel, daughter of a Senator, somehow gets to the attention of the Librarian, who decides to put Micah on the case. However the Librarian feels that Micah is a bit too rough around the edges and needs a more seasoned agent to hone his obvious skills.

Here we meet Sinclair, who now bides his time at Ma's Diner ("Ma" by the way is a guy), a roadstop dive apparently frequented by nothing but former members of the Force and its parent agency. Sinclair quit the life bitterly after the murder of his former teammates during a mission in London, a mission in which even the woman Sinclair loved was also murdered by D'Arbanville. Micah pays him a visit at Ma's and it's an instant hate between the two, which sets off a steady stream of witty, mean-spirited banter that goes on for the duration of Deadly Snow.

Micah only asks Sinclair to be his new leader because the Librarian told him to, Sinclair doesn't want to get back into the business, yadda yadda yadda. We all know where it's going. And of course a bevy of bikers show up right on cue to sow chaos at Ma's, only to get their asses handed to them by Sinclair and Micah. After which Sinclair gives it a bit more thought, meets the Librarian, and agrees to the mission -- that is, only when he discovers that D'Arbanville is tied up in it somehow. It's payback time!

Jezebel Cooke enters the fray in a head-scratching development where the Librarian somehow decides that this female civillian, who has no ties to any covert agency, would make a fine third member of the new Force. Okay, whatever. Really though she's just there to provide a buffer for the constant bickering between Sinclair and Micah, as well as being an object of lust for both men. She also appears to have latent psychic powers of her own, instantly detecting when Micah tries to read her thoughts.

In fact Jezebel takes on most of the action in the novel. She's used as a guinea pig, taking an acting job with the heroin-smuggling movie studio in Thailand while Sinclair and Micah sit around and twiddle their thumbs. A strange thing is that Deadly Snow is less of an action novel and more of a suspense drama with a heavy dose of comedy. There's a sardonic vibe which runs throughout, and many scenes are played up for laughs. Decker does a great job of bringing the various characters to life and provides good dialog for them.

So then, while it's well-written, Deadly Snow is actually a failure as a men's adventure novel. There is precious little action here, and what little we get of it is just martial arts-type stuff, quick fights that are over as soon as they begin. In all honesty, the book started off strong with good characters and a level of writing above that of the genre norm, but it gradually settled into a plodding pattern. My guess is that Pinnacle was going for something different, a book with less gore and carnage and more characterization -- there is, too, a bit of sexual tomfoolery, but even it is written in a conservative tone.

Mileage then will vary. Personally I like the crazy shit, and Deadly Snow just wasn't crazy enough for me.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Stony Man #83: Doom Prophecy

Stony Man #83: Doom Prophecy, by Douglas Wojtowicz
June, 2006 Gold Eagle Books

Able Team and Phoenix Force were canceled as individual series in the early 1990s, but lived on collectively as the Stony Man series, in which both teams would together take on the latest global or domestic threat. As of this writing there are a whopping 119 volumes of this series in print. Could you imagine reading all of them?? You'd probably put a bullet in your brain afterwards -- though, these being Gold Eagle books, by that time you'd be able to identify the bullet as say a 5.56x45mm NATO round with a 62 grain Steel Penetrator lead core full metal jacket.

Yes, friends, we are back in the world of Gold Eagle and its overwhelming love of gun-porn. Vast sections of this publisher's novels have often read like copy from a gun catalog. Gold Eagle is the last man standing in the world of men's adventure publishing, which is a shame, for in many ways their offerings are the worst of the genre. Whereas in my opinion these action series should offer escapism, Gold Eagle instead tries to make everything "realistic," with the end result being that their books are dour, bland, and boring affairs, filled with cipher-like "heroes" who, when they aren't killing people, just sit around and clean their guns.

The biggest surprise is that sometimes a Gold Eagle book offers a bit of promise, something different than the standard "terrorist of the month" gimmick. Doom Prophecy is a case in point. There are rave reviews for this novel over on; the author, Douglas Wojtowicz, is a fan favorite. And to be sure he does seem to have fun with his novels, pulping them up with oddball villains and crazy threats. He's also relatively new to the Gold Eagle stable, but to date has already turned out 30-some books in various Gold Eagle series. He also has an obvious fondess for the characters and their world, so it's a good sign that there's at least one Gold Eagle writer who is willing to do something different than the norm. But to be sure, the reader must still be prepared for the Gold Eagle trademark of endless action sequences and weapons fetishizing.

The villains here are pretty great, the best part of the novel; they're much in the line of the sort of villains you would encounter in the pulpier 1970s examples of the genre. For one, there's a Vietnamese lady who, as a young girl, watched as her mother was murdered by a US soldier in 'Nam. Years later, attempting to gain vengeance, the girl was raped by the same man, now a high-ranking government official. And now, in the present, she is a self-styled "cyber prophetess" who has named herself Ka55andra, after the mythical oracle-spouting character Cassandra. She heads up a globe-spanning terrorist cell called AJAX, and is now finally bringing her plans of vengeance to fruition, while also sowing hell in general.

Even better are the various henchmen who work for AJAX. First and foremost there's Algul, a dude who not only wears a mask made of human skulls, but also a cape of human skin -- each patch of flesh adorned with a military tattoo, Algul having stitched it together from the hides of US soldiers he has killed. Oh, and he enjoys drinking blood. He also commands a legion of mud-encrusted zombies in all but name, shambling creatures who tear up out of the ground and attack en masse any who stand in their way, eating their flesh. Crazy stuff for sure. There's also a trio of assassins: one a dwarf, the other a tall and thin guy who compares himself to a boa constrictor, and finally a big biker dude whom Wojtowicz actually names "David Lee Haggar." And on top of that there's even a small army of ninjas, lead by a self-proclaimed "American Ninja" named Wilson Sere, who goes around with his gorgeous blonde Argentenian lover Terremota, an explosives expert.

I mean, all of these characters seem to have walked out of, say, Black Samurai #6: The Warlock. But for some strange reason, Wojtowicz does little to exploit the potential of the villains. All told, he only spends a handful of scenes with them, instead focusing the entirety of the tale on the bland and boring members of Phoenix Force and Able Team. I know this is a strange criticism, to blame an author for giving the focus to the stars of the book, but still. When your villains are this interesting -- and when there are so many of them -- I think it would be a bit more entertaining for the reader to actually read about them. Because as it is, the Phoenix Force and Able Team guys just put you right to sleep.

It's been about twenty-five years since I've read a Phoenix Force novel, so it was humorous to see that the same stock epithets are still employed -- Encizo is the "powerful Cuban," Calvin James is the "tall ex-Navy SEAL," Manning is the "big Canadian." Like we're reading the Iliad or something! Changes have occurred since my last encounter with the Force, though; Katz, the elderly Israeli leader of the team (who as I recall was a missing a hand, and, Army of Darkness style, would put various weapons in the empty socket), has apparently bought the farm and the team is now lead by McCarter, a former SAS soldier. A new character has been introduced in Katz's wake: TJ Hawkins, a vague nonentity who appears to be from Texas and is some sort of special forces type.

The guys from Able Team, as always, are a bit more colorful. Carl Lyons, the leader, is still prone to violent outbursts, and I know this is Lyons's "thing," but I wonder when this happened? In the Executioner novels I've read by creator Don Pendleton, Lyons is presented as a level-headed guy. But then, he also has a wife and kid in those early Pendleton books, and given that they're never mentioned in the Gold Eagle books, I'm guessing something must've happened to them, something that created the anger-prone Lyons of the Gold Eagle world. Anyway, throughout Doom Prophecy Wojtowicz keeps alive the Able Team tradition of witty banter amid the team members, showing their longstanding camaraderie, doing a great job of keeping the spirit of the characters alive.

Ka55andra initiates her mission and havoc breaks out across the globe. Able Team tracks down the aforementioned David Lee Haggar in the US and gets in some fights with bikers. Phoenix Force splits up, one half of the team going to Africa to take on Algul's zombie forces, the other half going to Hong Kong to take on Wilson Sere, Terremota, and the ninjas. And from there it's action, action, action.

That is, other than the scenes which take place in Stony Man headquarters, detailing the very 24-esque activities of the Stony Man "cyber team." It's like we're back in CTU and watching Chloe and the gang trace various threats while reporting on them to Jack Bauer in the field; my assumption is that Gold Eagle has added all of this tech warfare nonsense as a gambit to draw in the military fiction crowd. I mean, just look at that stupid damn cover Doom Prophecy is graced with. It might as well just be emblazoned with "Tom Clancy Presents."

But anyway, I do not exaggerate about the action onslaught. Every place Able Team or Phoenix Force goes, they are attacked. Over and over again. There's even a scene where Encizo and James catch a flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo, and even on the damn flight they are attacked by a team of ninjas! Wojtowicz can write a good action scene, and throughout he displays his knowledge of firearms and bladed weaponry. But after a while you want a little breather. And again, given that this is a Gold Eagle novel, the endless action scenes lack the nutzoid spark of a Joseph Rosenberger -- they are all relayed in a sort of real-world format, which I find strange in this post-9/11 world.

And now let's look at the gun-porn, a longstanding hallmark of Gold Eagle. Every time a person pulls out a gun, we get like four sentences describing it, no matter what's going on in the narrative. The characters themselves even discuss the various weapons, info-dumping blocks of detail about their rifles or knives or whatever. Hell, there are even scenes where, during combat, the heroes will taunt their opponents about their poor choices in weaponry -- in particular I'm thinking of a scene where a member of Able Team derides an opponent for using a gun "without a slide-action," or something to that effect.

Again, I realize it's stupid of me to complain about gun-porn in an action novel; it would be like buying a Harlequin Romance and complaining about all of the flowery dialog. But what has always most annoyed me about gun-porn is that it ruins any sort of tension or suspense. Just check out this scene, which occurs as a special forces soldier is attacked and overrun by Algul's zombies -- a tension-filled scene, mind you, which is suddenly ruined as Wojtowicz tells us all about the soldier's nifty gun:

Wild eyes rimmed with red focused on him and his team, and he brought up his Barrett M-486. The Barrett was an M-4 rifle that had been chambered for the new Special Forces 6.8 mm special purpose cartridge as an improvement over the smaller 5.56 mm NATO round. Grabbing the rail-mounted forward grip to stabilize it, he flipped the rifle to full-auto and fired through the gap between the door and frame of the downed aircraft, spitting a stream of SPC rounds.

Start taking notes, 'cause there's gonna be a quiz later:

Encizo backed his pair of Glocks with a 7.65 mm Walther PPK. While he was a fan of Heckler and Koch weapons, the excellent 9 mm USP wasn't as ubiquitous as the Glock, and finding spare magazines around the world would be more difficult. As well, the brand new P-2000 compact didn't share the Glock-26's record or reliability, nor the capability to use the larger USP's magazines.

And here's a third example, because everything comes in threes:

He picked up an M-3 submachine gun. In .45 ACP, the weapon was a standard with the US Army for a period of thirty-five years before being gradually phased out. However, being cheap and easy to build, it showed up in arsenals around the world.

There's stuff like this throughout the book. And again I realize, this sort of thing is not only expected but demanded by the core Gold Eagle readers. Wojtowicz proves himself a master of the craft, but it's just not a craft I'm crazy about. Actually the one thing I learned from Doom Prophecy is that I can't consider myself a "core" Gold Eagle reader. Elaborate gun and weapon detail just wears me down to the point where I start to hate life and just wish Flanders was dead. It's all just so blatant and annoying and, ultimately, pointless. I just kept wanting to shout, each time some dude would whip out a gun and we'd get endless detail about it: Who fucking cares??

But the hell of the thing is -- the core Gold Eagle readers do care. There are really people out there who want to read a few paragraphs explaining some Heckler & Koch submachine gun. And believe it or not, these people (whoever they are), will write angry letters when they see something incorrectly described about the gun. But for me this real-world focus just destroys the escapism, the lurid quotient, the fun of the genre. Rather than the fun pulp of say John Eagle Expeditor, most of these Gold Eagle books are just depressing, and ultimately forgettable.

That is, save for the ones by Wojtowicz. I have a few more of his books and they all look promising -- not to mention that they're all raved about over on As I say, he definitely knows what he's doing. He knows his core readers and he knows what they want, and he delivers. And as mentioned he has an obvious fondness for the characters. He also has a definite knack for coming up with memorable villains, as proven here with Doom Prophecy. Personally though I would've preferred more scenes from their perspective, or even more background on them. But I guess you can't blame the guy for making the stars of the book, you know, the stars of the book.

But then, I'm biased. I much prefer the original incarnations of the genre, from the '70s and '80s. And whereas I and other reviewers around the Web enjoy reading and writing about those men's adventure novels from 30 and 40 years ago, I'll bet you good money that no one will be writing about these current Gold Eagle books a few decades from now. They just aren't much fun. And I don't even blame the writers. All of the stock epithets, the gun references, the "real-world" attitude, all of that stuff I'm betting is mandated by the editors.

In a way, it's almost like Gold Eagle is committing willful suicide. Given the lack of marketing for the imprint, the minimal web presence, and the fact that the books are steadily disappearing from the shelves of bookstores and department stores (K-Mart, I've read, is just one such store that has stopped carrying Gold Eagle books), I'm guessing that parent company Worldwide Library is just letting these novels trickle out, doing little to improve or differentiate them, until the day comes when they can finally (and happily) announce that profits have dropped too much to continue publishing, and thus the adventures of "the Stony Man warriors" et al will come to a close.