By Adam Selby-Martin
In my teenage years (so long ago now) I became interested military fiction based around a theoretical Third World War, and for a good portion of my adolescence a book from that genre wasn’t far from my side. I relentlessly tore through the genre, reading every from the classics (Clancy’s Red Storm Rising; Hackett’s The Third World War; Coyle’s Team Yankee) to best-sellers from Larry Bond and Michael DiMercurio, and endless other second and third-rate novels. There was definitely an element of morbid fascination to be gleaned from them, to read of buttoned-up tanks and MOPP-suited infantry wading through the rubble of some West German village reduced to radioactive ruin by a Soviet warhead, and the late-game tension of just how many major cities would be reduced to atomic cinders by the United States and the Soviet Union.
Certainly the destruction of Birmingham and Minsk in the last few pages of Team Yankee still linger in my memory, notable for the fact that their annihilation brings NATO and Warsaw Pact to the peace table, rather than extend the conflict as in so many later titles in the genre. But these books became stale, boring, almost trite in their treatment of the conflict. There was never any real imagination in their depictions of the conflict, except perhaps from Larry Bond – and even his later works were just photocopies of his original books. So I gradually lost interest in them, and eventually the paperbacks faded away from my bookshelves, replaced by other, more imaginative genres.
More recently, diving into the Alternate History genre in the Kindle Listings has brought back those memories, as a significant portion of those listings are almost endless variations of the Third World War and the Cold War going Hot. There are probably more than I could read in an entire lifetime, especially from the authors who have written multi-book sagas around the concept. After being burnt by the poor quality of the few I chose at random, I shied away from them, determined never to read another book that linked endless turgid conference room meetings with mindless action scenes that resembled the author smashing toy tanks together rather than anything approaching engaging narrative.
So when authors Bart Gauvin and Joel Radunzel approached Sea Lion Press to see if we would be interested in reviewing their World War Three thriller, Northern Fury: H-Hour, I will freely admit to being distinctly sceptical. Yet there were several points in the book’s favour. My colleague Coiler – who runs the WWIII thriller-orientated blog Fuldapocalypse Fiction – spoke well of it; and in addition the cover art was surprisingly high-quality, with a distinctive layout and some attractive and well-matched fonts and images. So with those points in mind, I decided that I might as well take a risk and at least try the first few chapters to see whether it was any good. It being available on Kindle Unlimited definitely helped with my choice as well.
Northern Fury opens with an interesting take on the genre, in which the infamous August Coup unfolds differently thanks to an fictional participant, ensuring that hardliners rather than reformists seize power in 1991. It’s a well-written beginning, and also gets credit for not being the usual, clichéd ‘Cold War goes Hot in 1983’ scenario that usually forms the basis for books in this genre. Pre-empted by a gunshot, removing Gorbachev from the equation, the Soviet Union remains in place, allowing hardliners to take power and resist reform. The key plotter who changes history gives some interesting and thought-provoking rationales for his actions in executing Gorbachev, and there's certainly something to be said for whether a continuing Soviet Union might have counter-balanced the United States and the actions it has taken since 1991. At the very least, it's a more thoughtful take on events than is seen in most titles in the sub-genre. I must admit that I started reading somewhat hesitantly, but within the first few chapters it became clear that Gauvin and Radunzel are actually good writers, able to flesh out the characters involved in the successful coup, develop a decent atmosphere and - most importantly - keep the plot flowing smoothly without getting bogged down in endless conversations between talking heads or logistical details only of interest to wargamers. There's even a high level of plausibility in how the coup succeeds and then leads to an all-out war with NATO, once again something that many World War III books distinctly lack. Quite often in the genre, the reasoning behind the Cold War going hot is often little more than ' the author needed it to happen' which is certainly not the case here.
Before too long the titular Northern Fury comes about, with geopolitics giving way inevitably to military action. I had been impressed by the set-up to the conflict itself, which the authors handled with a skill and deftness that sets them well above their peers in the genre; but the proof of Northern Fury's quality would come in the execution of the warfare that makes up the bulk of the book. The build-up to the fighting is certainly well-handled, with Gauvin and Radunzel grimly and all too realistically portraying the ethnic bloodshed coursing through an Eastern Europe that had expected the Soviet Union to collapse, only to face a militaristic ultranationalist regime determined to retain control of the Warsaw Pact. That rapidly spins out of control, messily and with a trail of bodies, resulting in combat in the skies, seas and increasingly on land as hours and then days pass. The action scenes really are superbly executed, with the authors throwing in a variety of combat scenarios that ensure that the reader is never bored, smoothly moving between Norwegian F-16s duelling with Soviet MIGs, claustrophobic and tense anti-submarine hunts targeting NATO submarines, and infantry and armour clashing throughout Norway.
The action scenes are fast-paced, well-written and incredibly tense at times, especially as it’s never clear whether the character(s) you're following will survive this chapter or the next. That this works so well is testament to the authors skill in writing combat scenarios, but also presenting the reader with fleshed-out and very human characters. It really is remarkable – where usually genre books such as this suffer from having an entirely forgettable cast apart from the obvious leads on each side, in Northern Fury even bit-part characters who appear only for a few pages are engaging and memorable. To mix up the action even further, ensuring it doesn’t turn into a grinding slog through Scandinavian countries, there’s even some welcome attention given to the United States, where a string of shocking and brutal acts of sabotage bring the reality of the Third World War home to American citizens – without resorting to the trope of nuclear weapons.
Taken as a whole, Northern Fury: H-Hour reminds me of nothing less than early Tom Clancy titles like Red Storm Rising and The Hunt for Red October; the ones before they became bogged down in tropes and ever-increasing page counts. Like those books, Northern Fury: H-Hour is an engaging and genuinely exciting blend of military realism and well-developed political intrigue, populated by characters that are more than cardboard cut-outs ready to fall over when shot or bombed, never to be seen again. There are a few minor issues - typos and name-changes that just needed another copy-edit prior to publication; but these are insignificant and in no way affected my enjoyment of the book as a whole.
Ultimately, it strikes me that Gauvin and Radunzel have managed something I thought impossible: they have reinvigorated the Third World War thriller with their skilful approach to writing and characterisation, as well as intense, edge-of-your-seat action sequences that are a far cry from the dense, dry blocks of near-analytical text so often seen in books in this genre. If the authors can retain this level of quality as the series continues, it seems that the World War III genre may finally have the champions it so desperately needs. As such, I am greatly looking forward to seeing what the next title in the series brings forth, and would strongly recommend Northern Fury: H-Hour to anyone looking for the next Harold Coyle, Larry Bond or, indeed, that magic Tom Clancy weaved in his early titles.
Adam Selby-Martin also reviews other genres at his blog: The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer Book Review Blog - Sci-Fi, Cosmic Horror and Alternate History Reviews