Sunday, January 27, 2013

Gamer's Book Review: Standing Alone



I don't know about you, but I find that my gaming almost always drives my reading.  That is, when a game ignites a spark of enthusiasm for a particular topic, I almost always find myself reading a book that is related to the game's subject matter in some fashion, be it fiction or non-fiction.   This is a powerful symbiosis, so powerful in fact that I notice that when my gaming roster becomes bare, my reading drops off precipitously as well.  Likewise, when I am powerfully invested in my latest pixelated love affair, my reading skyrockets in sympathy to my gaming. I guess this shouldn't be a surprise to me as it was gaming that made me into a book lover from the get-go.  That's right: despite all the yahoos out there projecting all their worst fears onto video games, the truth is that video games can powerfully stir the imagination in the same fashion as a book...which is why a lot of gamers are naturally drawn to reading.  Heck, but for my unexpected love affair with an old SSI 8-bit wargame called Reforger '88, I never would have taken an interest in military history.  Later on, Chris Crawford's 16-bit classic Balance of Power caused me to develop a burning interest in geopolitics.  It is no small thing to say that those two games directly led to me eventually pursuing two degrees in political science.  In short, gaming introduced me to history and politics, and caused me to become a voracious reader of both topics...all at the age of 13.  Those evil video games....


Anyhoo...

I thought I would occasionally post a quick review of a book that I feel makes for a great tie-in to a particular game as a service to other gamers.  Seeing how I've been enjoying my time with MechWarrior Online and Hawken, I wanted to try a book that dealt with a similar theme of "mech warfare".  Yeah, yeah, I know there are all those official MechWarrior and Battletech books out there, and I do intend to get to them soon or later.  However, I ultimately decided to go with an e-book offering so I could try out both my new Kindle Fire, and my Amazon Prime lending library (Prime members get one free book a month).  With that in mind, I finally settled on M. J. Dougherty's Standing Alone, Book One in the Armageddon 2089 franchise.  

Briefly: I loved it!

The description of the book is:

As the Armageddon War of 2089 escalates, the United States of America and the European Federation constantly vie for new advantages. The paranoia and mutual suspicion of the two combatants is at an all-time high. Each jockeys for position across the globe, goaded on by Russia and the Tiger Combine, both of whom see an opportunity to advance their own agendas at the expense of the warring superpowers. Hopelessly outmatched by the might of the European Federation, the United Kingdom fights its War of Independence with American aid. Its fate will be decided by a few warriors fighting in the most powerful land-based war machines ever devised.

Right off the bat I loved that idea of a rogue European federation, especially seeing how unstable the real-world European Union has become over the last few years.   Truth be told, I would expect Europe to quietly slip into a new dark age long before they would ever muster the will to fight for their political survival (something Ralph Peter's had right in his Red Army novel, not to mention the shameless way Europe sat on the sidelines during the genocide in Bosnia).  In some ways, Standing Alone reminded me of Larry Bond's fanciful but entertaining Cauldron.

Dougherty manages to create a thoroughly believable depiction of a Britain under siege, complete with lawlessness in the streets, bombed out cities, and starving people.  It is England during the Blitz, but with far greater apocalyptic tones.  No, it's not Road Warrior nonsense with S&M bandits, but a much more believable pastiche of  loyalist guerrillas, rebel militias, petty criminals, struggling law enforcement officials, starving civilians and mek pilot mercenaries, all picking over a not quite cool British carcass. 

While this apocalyptic setting is well realized, the real focus of Standing Alone, however, is the hard luck mek pilot "Shotgun" Mike Halsey (he has that nickname because of his skill with the two trusty shotguns he uses for close encounters), a man who lives by one unbreakable code of conduct: always take care of the people who take care of you...no matter what the personal cost (this applies to both friends and former enemies). Needless to say, this ethical code makes Mike's life particularly difficult, especially when he is dragged into this new European war after a mission in south Asia goes terribly wrong.  Sticking to such a personal code would be difficult under the best of circumstances, but how will Mike do it when he is forced to confront enemies in front of him, and traitorous "friends" behind him?  Will he be forced to...stand alone?

This is where the pleasure of this story is found.  Standing Alone  is a book with a lot of heart, a rare sci-fi novel with an uplifting ethical message about doing what is right regardless of the consequences.  What a refreshing change of pace in a genre that is often dominated by solipsistic protagonists!

I know, you'd rather hear about the action.  Never fear, Standing Alone is filled with it...and boy are these battles riveting (Mr. Dougherty is described as a defense analyst and I believe it shows in his futuristic battles depictions).  While you would think "mek" warfare would be the central focus of the action,  Dougherty wisely husbands them for crucial battles, something that serves to elevate meks into truly special weapon systems saved for only the most pivotal engagements. But don't fret, the other battles are nonetheless entertaining and involve everything from gritty infantry combat, to aerial dogfights and even a naval battle that would give Larry Bond a run for his money! Did I mention that there is also more than a little old fashioned fisticuffs? The author is also described as being knowledgeable in various forms of self defense and it shows in the writing. I have never read such fluid but believable fight scenes! It is all great stuff!

Here's an example of the mek combat:

The Assassin lurched and staggered, vanishing from view in a fountain of mud, water and splintering metal. It emerged after a second, one arm hanging limply and its torso armour pitted and dented. Halsey dropped the cannon on target and let fly on maximum rapid fire, shells slamming from the massive bore and tearing into the Assassin's chest cavity.

The WarMek stumbled, then toppled forwards into the swamp. A great cloud of steam erupted around it, then an explosion rocked the swamp. Fragments of Mek, fallen logs and a wall of boiling water scattered across the battleground. For an instant everyone was blind.

As you can probably tell from the above quote, the mek combat is more along the lines of MechWarrior's lumbering monstrosities than Hawken's jet-powered tanks.  Whatever type of mech-head you might consider yourself, I think you will get a kick out of the meks in this book nonetheless.

So what's not to like?  The only negative I have against this book are the more than a few typos scattered throughout the narrative - Standing Alone could definitely use one more proofreading pass. But that is it!


I cannot say enough good things about this book. It has proven the truth of what I've been hearing: e-publishing will be the savior of a publishing industry stuck in neutral (much like its cinematic cousin).  Stand Alone was a book I could not put down, a striking contrast to the two sci-fi books (from major imprints) that are gathering dust on my desk after being left there unfinished months ago.  It is a great war story, and one with heart no less.  It also makes for a great tie-in to some mek-based gaming, like MechWarrior Online or Hawken.  Mr. Dougherty: hurry up with a sequel! You have a hit franchise on your hands, and I WANT MORE! 

Score: 4 stars out of 5





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