So, since I’m currently hard at work getting War to the Knife finished, I’ve resumed the SOBs readthrough. I’m a bit behind–I got sidetracked last year. So, we’re picking back up at Soldiers of Barrabas #13 – No Sanctuary. (Yes, I realize that I haven’t reviewed the last three. I’ll have to go back and refresh on Vultures of the Horn, Agile Retrieval, and Jihad.) (For those unfamiliar, the Brannigan’s Blackhearts series was conceived in late 2017 as a sort of spiritual successor to the Soldiers of Barrabas. While Able Team, Phoenix Force, and their joint operations in Stony Man are perhaps better-known, the SOBs caught my imagination a bit more immediately. They’re grittier and a bit more grounded. The first one, The Barrabas Run, is basically a poor man’s Dogs of War.) The SOBs, like the Blackhearts, tend to take deniable missions from the US government, funneled to them by a walking mountain of a man named Walker Jessup. (Jessup has had to get involved a couple of times, always to his chagrin; he likes food a lot more than fighting.) But No Sanctuary is more of a personal story. Because Liam O’Toole’s past has come back to haunt him. O’Toole was an IRA fighter in his
Some Choose Hell is the 9th Soldiers of Barrabas story, and takes the SOBs to South Africa. South Africa in 1985, when apartheid is alive and well. This time, they are hired to protect Bishop Toto, the new black Bishop of Johannesburg. What they don’t know is that they’re intended to be patsies. The South Africans are intent on assassinating the bishop, even as they’ve invited the SOBs in to protect him. It gets more complicated than that; by the time Barrabas, Nanos, Hatton, and Bishop arrive in South Africa, the real Bishop Toto has already been imprisoned by BOSS (the Bureau of State Security), and an impostor put in his place. The impostor immediately begins making all sorts of concessions to the white government, sowing discontent, which will peak with his assassination, after which the real Bishop Toto is to be quietly eliminated. Needless to say, the SOBs interfere, finding themselves at odds with their “employers.” There’s a significant side plot in this one, namely that of Claude Hayes. It had been revealed in earlier books that Hayes spent some time in Africa after Vietnam, though in more of a revolutionary role than the more common anti-Communist mercenary role
Since I’m working on Brannigan’s Blackhearts #7 – Kill or Capture, I’ve been back to the SOBs series for some reading. Which is when I realized that I haven’t written up the last few I’ve read. So, here is Eye of the Fire. Eye of the Fire has a couple of things going on. The mission is an assassination in Cuba. But the target isn’t a Communist official or guerrilla leader. He’s an Argentinian known only as “Colonel D,” a torturer-for-hire who has spent decades finding inventive ways of making Communists die in agony throughout Latin America. And, coincidentally, he’s also been employed by the CIA. This makes him valuable to several people. Jessup, “The Fixer” hires the SOBs to take him out in order to keep him from burning his contacts with the Agency. Barrabas isn’t having any of it to start with; he says he’s a soldier, not an executioner. But the mission isn’t the only thread in this book. There are a couple of others, that make things much more interesting.
A good chunk of the middle of the book is devoted to the Red Cell’s planning, suiting the book’s title, The War Planners. These people, from various intelligence and defense agencies, as well as private contractors, are getting into the weeds on not only military defenses, but psychological warfare, economic warfare, information operations, and infrastructure attacks and weaknesses. Watts clearly put some research in, and understands at least some of not only the Chinese model of “Unrestricted Warfare,” but also something about how Chinese intelligence agencies work.Getting into the rest of the book might be getting too far into spoilery territory. Suffice it to say that not all is necessarily as it seems, and it becomes a very Ludlum-esque thriller…
I first read Cauldron in high school, and at the time, I remember that it didn’t make as much of an impact on me as Red Storm Rising, Red Phoenix, or even Vortex did. A new war in Central Europe seemed somewhat more far-fetched at the time than chaos in Africa or East Asia. (I was in high school; I didn’t know nearly as much as I might have thought that I did.) But in prep for Maelstrom Rising, I picked Cauldron back up. And I’ve got to say, Larry Bond was a lot more prescient than he seemed, back in ’93. While the general scenario in Cauldron is the French and Germans enforcing their economic hegemony over Eastern and Central Europe by force of arms, effectively forming the European Union at gunpoint (referred to as the European Confederation, or EurCon in the novel), the fault lines that lead to the scenario are even now playing out, only slightly differently.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that in many ways, the Brannigan’s Blackhearts series is a bit of a throwback to the glory days of Men’s Adventure fiction, most exemplified by The Executioner, Phoenix Force, Able Team, the SOBs, and similar series. Mark Allen’s Warlock is the same thing, if in a slightly different direction. The cover should be a dead giveaway, too; it looks like a Mack Bolan cover.
I was initially a bit leery about this one, noticing on MackBolan.com that it was written by Robin Hardy. My last go-round with Hardy was Show No Mercy, which was really, really poorly written. But, a weird, double-entendre back cover notwithstanding (a double-entendre which has no bearing whatsoever on the story), River of Flesh turned out to be surprisingly solid. Hardy still has some odd descriptive flourishes in this one (not to mention an overly high opinion of the lethality of 5.56mm), but the writing is generally a tier above what came in his last standalone SOBs title.
So, it took me a while to get through this one (sorry, J.T.!). J.T. Patten did warn me that he considered the second novel, Primed Charge, to be much better written. While I can see why, this book is no slouch on its own. Sean Havens is a spook’s spook. He doesn’t have a formal cover; he doesn’t even directly work for any agency. He’s a contractor, who goes to various countries as a corporate drone of some kind, blends in, learns the human terrain, and then manipulates it to a desired outcome. Somewhere nearby, people die, and he goes home to his family, completely unconnected. Except that, despite his paranoia (which is impressive, by the way), there are still people who know who he is. And they know where his family is. That leads to a personal tragedy that draws Havens into something far darker than anything he’s been involved in yet (and he’s been hip-deep in some pretty dark stuff, as you discover as the book goes on).
Since there’s a lot of inspiration from the SOBs series behind Brannigan’s Blackhearts, I’ve been slowly working my way through the series, in part as research to see how Gold Eagle ran a long-running action series. I slowed down a bit, due to missing a few volumes in the middle, but since those gaps have been filled, I’ll be getting back to it. Red Hammer Down is SOBs #6, following directly on from Gulag War. In a very real sense, they form a two-parter; Red Hammer Down goes into the backlash from the mission to Siberia in Gulag War.
It’s been a while for one of these, but I’ve slowed down a bit, since I have yet to get my hands on #7, River of Flesh, and #8, Eye of the Fire. I’ve admittedly been a bit reluctant to continue with #7, given that Robin Hardy wrote it, and my last outing with Hardy, Show No Mercy was…less than thrilling. But Michael Mercy, over on the SOBs Fan group on Facebook, assures me that the problems with Show No Mercy were corrected with River of Flesh, so I’ll be getting back in the swing of things soon(ish).