Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Warlord #1

The Warlord, by Jason Frost
No month stated, 1983  Zebra Books

First of all, I want to apologize if I’ve been writing a string of negative reviews on here. I hope it should be clear to everyone that I love these series books and would rather read them than anything else. But I’m not going to sugarcoat things when the situation arises – sometimes I’m really let down, and by god, I’m gonna tell you about it when I am. And unfortunately, such is the case with this first volume of The Warlord, which was by the usually-gifted Raymond Obstfeld, writing under the name “Jason Frost,” which he also used to write the incredible Invasion U.S.A. novelization.

I really wanted to like this book. I’d been meaning to read it for a while, having picked up the six volumes of the series over the years. But I was really let down, and in a major way – to the point where I was skimming through stuff, something I never thought I’d say about an Obstfeld novel. As for the series itself, it’s hard to tag Warlord, as it was packaged like other Zebra post-nuke pulps, only the series occurs after a natural disaster rather than a nuclear one. Otherwise the series has all the trappings of post-nuke pulp: a threadbare society dealing with the ravages of a destroyed, dangerous world, one populated by even more dangerous survivors. Given this I’ve decided to label the series as a post-nuke pulp as well, even though technically it’s not. I have my lawyers filing the necessary paperwork.

The novel runs to 398 whopping pages and suffers for it. In defense of Obstfeld, my guess is he was handed this unwieldy word count and struggled to meet it. This means that the reader is barraged with unimportant, trivial information – usually egregious background info about one-off characters – throughout the book. It also means that the overriding drive of the narrative is ultimately lost in the clutter. The book wants to be post-catastrophe action but instead comes off like a bloated bore, one with uninvolving, unlikable characters.

It takes a long time for the catastrophe to occur. Instead we are slowly brought into the world of Eric Ravensmith, former ‘Nam Special Forces badass, now assistant professor of history at a college near Los Angeles. He’s a mountain of muscle with a livid scar that runs along his jaw. Folks, Eric Ravensmith is ‘80s Arnold Schwarzenegger in tweeds, and it’s a laughable image, but an image Obstfeld strives to convey. He’s married to former hippie Annie, a big-bossomed babe with whom Eric has raised two preteen kids, Jennifer and Timmy. Only later do we learn that neither of the kids are Eric’s biological children; in another of those long backstories we read how Eric came across the corpse of Annie’s soldier husband in the war, wrote her a sympathy letter, and then ran into her years later at an anti-war protest, after which they fell in love and got married.

Plaguing Eric’s idyllic life is the recurring nightmare that his old ‘Nam enemy, Colonel Dirk Fallows, will one day come after him. The novel opens with this event occurring, Eric waking up in his bed and realizing an intruder is in his home, sneaking up the stairs to kill Eric and then slaughter the rest of his family. Eric takes the guy out in a tense scene, one which sees almost buddy cop-esque humorous dialog between him and Annie, who takes the attempted murder of herself and her two kids pretty much in stride for a former tree-hugging hippie. And then we get a clue of what we’re in for, as instead of Eric breaking the bastard’s neck…we instead flash forward to two months later, and Eric’s in the midst of a court case against him and Fallows!

Eric is building a case that the assailant was under the employ of Fallows, a Shakespeare-quoting sadist from Eric’s Nam days. Back then Eric was in a top-secret unit called The Night Shift (Stephen King references run throughout the novel, by the way), which was basically an assassination and massacre detachment of the Special Forces. Fallows was the commander, and with his sadism, glee for killing, and prematurely white hair, he brings to mind the main villain in Avatar (I couldn’t believe that was the same actor from Crime Story, one of the best TV shows in history!!). Fallows took Eric under his wing, grooming him as his second in command, but one day Fallows went too far, and massacred an entire village, babies and all, crucifying the lot.

Turning in his commander, Eric succeeded in having Fallows put away for twenty years – but he’s just been released, eight years early. And Eric is certain Fallows is coming for him. Annie is aware of all this but is a bit too pragmatic about it…if I told my wife some dude who crucified an entire village was after me, she’d probably be out the door before I could finish my sentence. More Fallows-hired thugs come after Eric, including one unintentionally-humorous bit where one attacks him with nunchucks in a courthouse, having to resort to the wooden weapons to get around the courthouse metal detector. Speaking of Arnold, we get a prefigure of the famous line from Commando, two years later, when Eric bluntly states “I lied” to a man he’d promised not to kill.

The series occurs in a California rocked by massive earthquakes, and the first doesn’t happen until around 60 pages in. But Obstfeld hopscotches through a long patch of time in the opening half, with the action resuming two weeks after this big quake. There’s been mass death and destruction, and now the government’s going around to take guns from people, to stave off the violence or something. Eric gives up his pistol, but meanwhile he’s recently bought a Barnett Commando crossbow, which we’re informed has a pump action like a shotgun. Fallows is still out there, and Eric is certain his old enemy will be coming for him, quake-destruction or not.

Another massive quake hits; in this one Eric’s mom is killed (she’s a fellow teach at his university, and Obstfeld devotes more page-padding about her and her boyfriend). From this we jump to three months later, and we learn that Los Angeles has practically been destroyed, most of the coast is underwater, and California has broken away from the continent. (Sounds like a win-win for everyone!) A “dome of chemical gases,” nicknamed “The Halo,” surrounds the new island, courtesy various chemical weapons plants that were destroyed in the quake, resulting in “a super acid fog” that keeps the Californians in and keeps everyone else out. Yep, folks, all just like in King’s Under The Dome, only this was published decades before.

The Halo has basically psychedelicized California (well, only more so, I guess), with “gray-pink night and yellow-orange day” casting everything in odd new lights. Meanwhile Eric and family have barrickaded themselves on Eric’s college campus, along with other survivors; the outside world is referred to as “the Dead Zone” in another (this one credited) Stephen King reference. The place is run by the Council, comprised of a group of elected officials, and humorously enough it’s completely socialist in its makeup (well, this is California…), much like the post-apocalypse society in Doomsday Warrior. Eric is the Security Chief; he constantly butts heads with the dumbass Council, which refuses to grasp the dangers of this new California, at one point informing them, “You are a war council and I am your warlord.”

But they don’t listen, bullying him into taking a group with him out into the Dead Zone to trade with another community of survivors. Eric is against it but goes anyway. He takes along a small team of former students, each of whom is given inordinate backstory and too much dialog. None of them are likable. The trade turns out to be a ruse and, after a minor action sequence in which we see Eric’s crossbow in use against would-be brigands, the team returns to campus only to find destruction and death. The Council lied to Eric, sending him off on a wild goose chase so they could do the deal he warned them against; unsurprisingly, it turned out to be a plot courtesy Dirk Fallows.

Now young Timmy and Annie are gone, abducted (and we were treated to another Eric-Annie XXX boff which practically announced something bad was about to happen to the poor gal – complete even with some “I might die some day” dialog from her!), and worse yet little Jennifer’s throat has been slit. Eric is only briefly numb with shock. He gets nude and goes through a ritual he learned in his youth among the Hopi Indians (I forgot to mention he was sort of raised by them), emerging from the cathartic ceremony as “the Warlord,” the old Eric Ravensmith dead and gone, the new one “more Dirk Fallows than Dirk Fallows” (?).

I was hoping that this ritual would turn Eric Ravensmith into a sort of post-holocaust Rambo, but instead it just turns him into a jerk. Losing even the bare modicum of likable qualities he possessed before, Eric is more of a grump than anything. He takes off – that same group of kids in tow, all of whom volunteer for the mission – tracking down Fallows. Another campus resident, the lovely Tracy, follows behind. Tracy is another character given inordinate word count in the early half, a freelance newspaper artist who took a shine to Eric during the Fallows trial, threw herself at him right before the earthquakes hit, and now is best buds with Annie…and indeed is the babe Annie has suggested Eric hook up with “if anything ever happens to me,” in some of the most telegraphed foreshadowing I have ever encountered.

There follows a moment one doesn’t often encounter in the world of men’s adventure; while navigating through the post-quake wasteland, Eric and followers come across a mutilated young girl, clearly being used as a sex slave or something. Her “owners” soon arrive, biker-type scum who taunt Eric and team. Eric merely hands over the young girl, and continues on his way – no attempts at saving her and taking out the scum. Eric cares solely for his own interests at this point. This causes much frustration in the group, most of whom say they’re done with Eric at this point; even Tracy claims that, the way Eric is now acting, Annie wouldn’t even want him anymore.

Meanwhile, poor Annie is being held captive by Fallows, who tortures her and the reader with “I’m evil” dialog that goes on much too long. He keeps telling her all the bad stuff he’s gonna do to her. And meanwhile he’s going to brainwash young Timmy into loving him and thinking of Fallows as his father and making him hate Eric – Fallows assures Annie that this will be simple for him, as he’s been successfully brainwashing soldiers since ‘Nam. He’s got such hatred for Eric that one can’t help but see a jilted lover sort of angle at play, whether it was Obstfeld’s intention or not, sort of like the chainmail-vested Freddie Mercury-looking dude and his hatred-love for Arnold in Commando

Those biker scum came from a place now named Savytown, and Eric learns that Fallows has been through here. He tries to barter for information, only for it to be yet another Fallows trap. The long-delayed climax has Eric and Fallows having a brief face-to-face – one in which Cruz, Fallow’s herculean stooge, breaks Annie’s friggin’ neck. Our hero gets his ass knocked out, only to wake up in this goofy contraption that has him and Cruz hanging across from each other, dangling above flames…some sort of double-dish punishment deal courtesy Fallows, who is pissed at Cruz for disobedience or something. We get pages and pages of Eric and Cruz fighting to the death. Fallows doesn’t even stick around to watch, having left with new “son” Timmy.

The finale ignores all the Fallows stuff – Eric basically shrugs and figures Fallows has gotten too much of a lead on him(!) – and instead has Eric and crew going back to liberate Savytown after all. Indeed it must be such a simple chore that Obsfted flash-forwards through it, giving us a summary of the action. One thing we can be happy about – Eric leaves those annoying former students in Savytown, taking off on his own to continue the hunt for Fallows, and meanwhile Tracy follows him. Obstfeld ends the novel on the awkward note of Eric realizing there’s “something about” Tracy after all…whereas meanwhile Eric just saw his beloved wife’s neck snapped a few pages ago.

As mentioned The Warlord ran for five more volumes, and it looks like the rest of the books are shorter, which as far as I’m concerned, so far as this genre goes, is a good thing. I’m not giving up on the series yet and have faith in Raymond Obsfted, who is usually a very gifted, entertaining author – I still think there were some editorial/imprint constraints which prevented this first volume from being all it could be. But as usual, these are just my thoughts, and doubtless others out there will think this book is just fine. I just wish some of the fat had been cut from it.


Zwolf said...

Good review. I basically liked this book, but it definitely IS overlong, and the hero's too passive for too long, and then gets so ruthless he's pretty much an anti-hero... which I did kinda like, up to a point. That can work, sometimes, but even Dan Marlowe had to dial back on it once they turned The Name of the Game is Death into a whole series. Mostly I liked it because the writing style was good... but, that doesn't make up for all the padding and the sometimes-slow pace. I haven't been inspired to read another yet, although I've got most of 'em. Maybe all of 'em... I can't remember. I think the last volume in the series might be really hard to find, if I remember correctly.

I'm not sure Zebra was putting much push behind this series, considering they only commissioned one half-assed drawing for the covers of all of 'em. It's got to be the most boring cover art of any series I've ever seen, which made it look like a "who cares?" effort from the publisher. And crossbows are never the most exciting image, to begin with. With all apologies to Daryl from Walking Dead, it might as well be an old flintlock musket for all the bad-assed-tude it inspires...

allan said...

Rule No. 1: "Never apologize for what you are writing."

I am probably not the only one who finds the negative reviews far more entertaining that the raves!

Film Buff said...

Bout time you review this series. Even this 1 installment is padded I enjoyed as a epic junk food.As for critic don't sugar coat. If there's something wrong get it off your chest. Spoilers: The scene that got me down was when the old Comedy writer was butchered by that big Thug and his wife and daughters were captured as sex slaves.That sticks out.

English Teacher X said...

Yeah, man, why would you think we would mind about negative reviews? You lavish the same detail and humor on the negative ones as the positive ones. The only way we'd mind is if you stopped writing them. After all these years do you fear you might burn out?

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks a lot for the comments, everyone.

Zwolf, you are right about those covers. "Who cares?" sums them up perfectly. Hell, for the also-lame C.A.D.S. covers they at least drew a different gun for each book. And you're right, it's the sixth volume that's pretty scarce. I lucked out during my trip to Chicago last year and found it for 2 bucks in a used fact I think it was the day after I met with Len Levinson. Then a few months later I was in yet another used bookstore, this one in Dallas, and found a copy of #6 in mint condition for half off the cover price!! Now I'm just waiting for the same thing to happen with a copy of Nelson De Mille's "The Cannibal," but I'm not holding my breath...

Allan, thanks for the positive words, I appreciate it. Just didn't want to come off like I'm constantly complaining about these books, because I really do love them.

Javan, thanks for the comment, and good to hear from someone who really does like the series -- I know it definitely has its fans, and I've been meaning to get to this first volume for a long time. And the scene you mention did stick out. Another memorable moment was when the nerdish college student who looked up to Eric Ravensmith was the first to die on that double-cross Council mission.

EnglishteacherX, thanks too for your encouraging words. I honestly haven't burned out on these books yet, or writing about them, and to tell the truth it still blows my mind that there's even anyone out there who wants to read my reviews. So I really do appreciate hearing from all of you in these comments. Hopefully I don't sound like a maudlin sap now!

English Teacher X said...

Well we love the books, I suppose. We are a small but dedicated bunch. Every time I see a good lot on E-bay, I wonder if I'm bidding against fans here.

Unknown said...

Something interesting I remembered about this book: there is a character named Grimme who happens to be a physics graduate student working as a janitor at the university where Ravensmith's band is located. wonder if Affleck/Damon read this book before writing 'Good Will Hunting'? :)

And Joe, if you keep writing your reviews, I'll keep reading 'em!

Joe Kenney said...

Now that's interesting! The odds are too great that this wasn't a reference...odds even greater that someone would spot it, so that's very cool you did. Damon and Affleck would be just the right age to have read this series in junior high/high school and for it to have made an impression on one of them, so I really think you might be onto something. And thanks for the comment!

Applebetty said...

Yeesh, I hope my first Winter Agent Juno novel doesn't strike readers the same way when they read it. Was always worried that one was too padded. I have issues with absurdly long books, especially when they're loaded with filler. Killing Floor had a little bit of that, namely with that jazz musician Jack Reacher went to see the grave of or whatever. He tried SO hard to make it matter in the plot, and the payoff left me shrugging and going, "Well that was a waste of good ink."

Gotta love the palette-swap covers for this series, too. Shows how much faith they had in the series from the start...