When I was a kid, my dad spent a year or two as the manager one of the largest shopping malls in New Zealand, so I learned a few things about mall design, and a key element is to ensure you have some big draw-card department stores on either end of the mall. Big stores like Sears and Myers and K-Mart. Department or grocery stores selling reliable solid products that keep people coming back. The same is true for anthologies, and in Snafu: Black Ops the big-store anchors are a Jonathan Maberry and Bryan Thomas Schmidt combo as the doors open, with Nicholas Sainsbury Smith to carry us all the way to the far end of the mall.
At the mall entry, Maberry and Schmidt give us Back to Back, a Joe Ledger humdinger set just after the Dead of Nightand before the Rot and Ruin series. In Back to Back, Joe Ledger and Tom Imura, disenfranchised soldiers, are continuing their personal quest to cull those human specimens even more vile than the flesh feeding dead in what remains of civilisation, when they get wind of a doctor who may have unearthed a cure, so naturally, they set off to determine if there is any truth to the rumours. Meanwhile, USMC Harvey Rabbit (Bunny) and US Ranger Bradley ‘Top’ Sims have stumbled across the same outfit, and the entry triage has got them suspicious. Delivered in gritty, gory prose, and with moments of poignancy, Maberry and Schmidt’s opening novella is classic Ledger, with world-building so good you’ll be shaking the sand out of your shoes.
On the other end of the mall, Nicholas Sainsbury Smith (Extinction Cycle and Hell Divers) gives us a spin-off novella from the Extinction Cycle series. In Extinction Lost, Sergeant Joe Fitzpatrick’s reputation for coming home with all his men, and Beckham’s dog, precedes him. And he’s determined this mission will be no different. But, this time, the Ghost team is headed to Greenland to investigate and eliminate whatever it is that has caused the deaths of a special ops mission into an abandoned Nazi laboratory. But when Stevenson disappears without a trace, and only metres from Fitz’s location, it’s clear it’s going to be a tall order. As one Amazon reviewer states, Sainsbury Smith gives his readers ‘sweet nightmares’. Likewise, Extinction Lost has all white-knuckled suspense we’ve come to expect from this writer. Bring plenty of body bags.
So, back to the mall. Between those behemoth anchor stores, mall management lease out the smaller surfaces to house boutiques, specialty stores and restaurants: outlets intended to draw you in on the journey from one anchor store to the other.
Hang on. [She swipes back to the Table of Contents] Clever.
In Snafu: Black Ops, the management have changed the design, making every story an anchor, each one as compelling as the next.
First up is Walking the Dragon by RPL Johnson. The story goes like this: after a failed mission, three prisoners of war walk the line between sanity and lunacy as repeated torture unhinges them. But an unexpected power outage opens their cell doors, offering them an opportunity to escape. It’s an opportunity that makes main character Ringo’s senses ping. Surely their escape has been too easy? Alternating between action and reflection, Johnson examines how torture methods exploiting the vulnerability of the psyche can be more effective than any thumbscrew. Chilling.
It’s no secret that I like a Richard Byers story, so The Clash of Cymbals, a tale set in medieval Lisbon and smack in the middle of a holy crusade was bound to get my attention. The story follows a tiny party of crusaders who enter the bowels of the besieged city via a labyrinth of tunnels only to find a darker evil waiting. A haunting tale of challenged beliefs.
Black Tide by writing duo James Moore and Charles Rutledge, tells of a ‘cleaner’ operation on Russell Island, a fishing community comprising only 100 citizens:
And then there was the research facility. Brent was on a need to know basis, and he had been told he did not need to know.”
A tale of science gone wrong, Black Tide is a must-read for creature feature fans.
In Raven’s First Flight by Alan Baxter, Raven – that’s her handle – is stepping into the shoes of a dead man, recruited to the mysterious Dark Squad, a kind of supernatural SWAT team ‒ think Dumbledore’s Army meets Suicide Squad. With a don’t-mess-with-me female protagonist, all the action we’ve come to expect from Baxter, and a twist you won’t see coming, Raven’s first Flight is the quintessential supernatural action tale.
Son of Apophis, by Christine Morgan is a boutique you’ll want to linger in. With prose that is almost musical and action that is simply breath-taking, Christine Morgan gives us a story of prophecy, intrigue and lost love that is tightly-written and frighteningly believable. For me, as a writer, Morgan’s story is a stand-out in an already superb collection, her style unique and refreshing, every word like a perfectly wielded scimitar and equally deadly. A kick-ass story with unexpected depth.
Jim O’Brien gives us Seal Team Blue, a New World novella. Lead by Krandle, the team leave the USS Sante Fe, coming ashore to investigate a light which might indicate the presence of survivors. They find some, but they also find several thousand undead and nothing less than an epic stand will get them through the night. Like Maberry and Schmidt’s Back to Back there is plenty of flesh and firepower to please the action lovers, but the true tale of Seal Team Blue is in the human element. Despite the tight wordcount, O’Brien’s characterisation is superb: the author managing to make each character distinct and rounded. It’s a team I haven’t met before, so I’m looking forward to picking up a New World title in the future.
Tim Marquitz and JM Martin, the third writing collaboration in the mix, are next on the line up with A Debt Repaid, a Tales of the Prodigy story. Naturally, it involves Gryl, the prodigy, and in this adventure, he has travelled to Amberton to rescue Jacquial from the clutches of the Empress. Ostensibly, Gryl is only doing it to annoy the Empress, but his motives are confused by feelings he might still have for Jacquial. Of course, when he reaches the place the slaver says she’s being held, things get even more confused. What’s a little betrayal between friends? I particularly liked the wry humour of this grimdark tale. Lethal.
Kirsten Cross’ Ground Zero, is an Alpha unit story which means, here be vampires. It’s rush hour when the most savage monster to walk the face of the earth appears dressed like any normal commuter on Platform 2 of Archway on the London Underground. Yolanda heads up Alpha Team (lead by Colby) and Bravo unit (under Warner), and they join forces to take Vlad out, only he’s got some help from the Northern Line Taints, Alpha team has limited ammo, and there’s the added complication of human commuter collateral. With dialogue that is to-the-point, voices that are realistic, a setting we can visualise, bad guys with back stories, and pacing to make your heart race, Cross has the short story nailed.
And the same can be said for Hank Schwaeble (American Nocturne) who is fast becoming my favourite writer of the short form. Schwaeble’s writing is so sharp you won’t know you’ve been cut until you bleed, his stories more twisty than a corkscrew. Take this one Deepest, Darkest, where agent Jake Hatcher (Damnable, Diabolical, Angels of the Abyss) is on a mission to retrieve the kidnapped daughter of the Vice President. Said VP is happily married and the daughter is illegitimate, which explains the secrecy ‒ almost. Hatcher has his doubts, confirmed when the hand-off doesn’t go as planned. The day gets worse. Facing vigilantes, demons, and betrayal on betrayal, Hatcher must separate from the team if any of them are to have a hope of surviving. That means he’ll have to face the monster on his own. And that monster. Wow. A highlight.
Raid on Wewelsbery is the first fiction I have read of Seth’s Skorkowsky, and apparently, I have been missing out. Set in March of 1945, the party of Valducan knights is in Germany, hoping to retrieve the stolen holy weapons stolen by the Third Reich. Luckily, the knights are armed with their sacred weapons ‒ rapiers, axes, an iron mace, and a Celtic sword ‒ because instead of uncovering the holy weapons, they discover something else. Historical fiction with a twist, the story’s protagonist is a knight-warrior named Lady Helen Meadows, a refreshing change for an adventure tale set in this time period. Richly layered, the narrative rolls from one bitter attack to the next, employing both high tech and medieval technologies. The knights might not follow the Geneva Convention, instead their knightly code persists. Raid on Wewelsbery is just the sort of gruesome yet noble tale that military action readers will love.
In Godkillers in Our Midst by James Lovegrove and NX Sharps, the team from Luminaries might have discovered a way to defeat the imposter Gods ‒ including securing the evidence to prove the Savior Gods’ deception ‒ if only the team hadn’t been betrayed and killed. Ethan is the sole survivor, brought to Kha’cheldaa to confess before Trakiin himself. I loved the depictions of the gods, especially the Goddess of Death described as:
plump, pale-skinned and buxom, dressed in a combination of white lace and jet-black leather like she’s on her way to a fetish party.”
Yes, we’ve all met her once, we just didn’t know who she was before now. The story is written in first person present narrative, one of my favourite forms for getting right into the head of a character, and Lovegrove and Sharp’s character is down-right irreverent. Flash back story with a twist. Not to be missed.
Overall, this latest anthology in Cohesion’s Snafu series, is great value with 13 stories, over 140,000 words, of quick-fire thrills down dark and twisted corridors and from some of the genre’s best authors. A must-read for fans of speculative military fiction.
You know what? Forget the mall; that’s way too pedestrian. Stay in and read Snafu: Black Ops instead.
Snafu: Black Ops
Special Forces. The very sharpest edge of any military throughout history. Now, they face their greatest challenge yet. Undead, mutations, monsters, all the things no-one ever believed could happen are here in the pages of SNAFU: Black Ops.
Cover art by Dean Samed.
Disclaimer: I might have met one or two of these people. Some of them are facebook friends. I am also published by Cohesion Press.