Peter Nealen is one of the best military fiction novelists, maybe one of the best overall action novelists, alive.
There, we said it, and gosh it sounded dramatic didn’t?
You think we’re kidding.
Serious business though, Pete really is a great writer. We’ve been reading the American Praetorians series since before the first book was published (a couple of us were allowed to read the rough draft). It is really. Good. Stuff. In fact, it’s good enough that it’s hard to find anything to compete; that’s why we’re happy to announce Book 4 is on the way.
Now, before you go any further – understand this isn’t the same sort of writing as Marcus Wynn (who has done the deed), or Brad Thor (a popular novelist and a good dude) nor for that matter even our own Chris Hernandez or COWAN!. This is gritty, mostly non-stop action from the perspective of a guy on the sharp end of a series of PMC operations. Those operations take place in locations that will be familiar to many of you, but in a borderline dystopian world.
Now, sometimes the word “action” can be misleading, or even a pejorative. That’s not the case here. The reason? Nealen is a master at distilling the visceral reality of being in a fight in a shitty place, down to a brutal and candid prose that compels you to read further. It’s both extremely realistic (insofar as how he relates the sights, smells, sounds, tyranny of the moment and TTPs) and farfetched (inasmuch as his small team of protagonists shoot more bad guys, run more missions and see more shit than any real-life JSOTF could ever possibly do in an entire deployment cycle).
Nealen may not be a student of verism, but if not he sure pulls it off.
So, a quick background:
In the not too distant future, the situation in the United States has gone from bad to worse. We’ve suffered through the Greater Depression, our military has degenerated to something akin to post-Cold War Russia. PMCs are used for a series of operations because the nearest MEU doesn’t have the fuel or spare parts to even leave port, while back at home the American Southwest has been largely overrun by Cartels.
The first book, Task Force Desperate, takes place in the Horn of Africa with a little side jaunt to the Arabian peninsula. Though Nealen has refined his writing ability since his debut novel it remains our favorite. Book 2, Hunting in the Shadows, starts out in Kirkuk, where Praetorian Security team members begin implementing an anti-jihadi agenda while ostensibly running a security contract for “Liberty Petroleum.” Book 3 sees the surviving team members and a few new faces down in Basra, which is now a de facto independent state. In the preceding novels, we saw hints of tomfuckery from the CIA and other shadowy government influences; matters begin coming to a head in this book as they head to Baghdad on a mission, because, you know, the Iranians and assorted Iraqi warlords don’t make things problematic enough.
Book 4, which will apparently be titled The Devil You Don’t Know takes place back in the U.S. (at least partly).
Here’s an excerpt:
The hit came only a few miles outside of Green Valley. We’d been hanging back behind a pair of Old Dominion semis, pacing them. As the semis rolled past the rest area outside of Green Valley, one of the two pickups we’d seen earlier darted out and T-boned the trailing truck.
The truck jack-knifed across the road, the trailer swinging around to block both lanes as the driver struggled to maintain control, doubtless rattled by the impact. Smoke rose from sqealing tires, and it looked for a second like he was going to be able to hold it, but then the right side tires came off the pavement and the truck rolled on its side, the trailer skidding on the asphalt a little farther before coming to a halt.
Nick reacted immediately, swerving toward the median, aiming to get around the stricken tractor-trailer and out of the kill zone. It was exactly what he should have done, and it would have worked if the driver of the box truck behind him hadn’t panicked.
He didn’t lose control right away, but he swerved so hard, while stomping on the brakes, that when his tires hit the gravel of the median, he lost it. He’d slowed down enough that the wreck wasn’t that catastrophic, but the box truck tipped over and slammed on its side. And just like that, we were stuck.
Even as the dust cloud billowed up from the impact of the box truck spilling over, more pickups and a couple of Crown Victorias of all things came tearing out of the rest area. They didn’t do a drive-by, but swerved to line up side-on with the convoy. Windows down, the thugs inside the vehicles opened fire.
I’d had about five seconds to take in what was happening. So had Larry. It was enough.
Larry cranked the wheel and mashed his foot on the accelerator, turning our Expedition to face the storm of gunfire. In the unarmored SUV, the only hope we had to survive was to put the engine block between us and the bullets. Both of us were wearing low-profile plates under our shirts, but there are plenty of ways to get shot around plates, especially when you’ve got a bunch of Uzis, Tec-9s, and a couple of AKs blasting at you.
The SUV almost tipped over, but Larry was good enough to keep it under control. I had the jacket off my 870 and was bringing it up even as I ducked down below the dash to avoid the slashing fragments of metal and window glass as the windshield shattered under the hail of bullets. I could hear the engine screaming as more rounds tore up the radiator, but that engine was keeping us from getting perforated with it, so I didn’t mind. I got my head just high enough over the dash to point the shotgun, and opened fire myself.
I’d loaded with rifled slugs. It still wasn’t going to reach out as well as a rifle at this range, but it was better than buckshot. I got the front bead in the vicinity of one of the windows that was spitting flame and fired. It wasn’t a good shot; it was more of a “get something heading downrange at those assholes” shot, but it got the message across. I don’t think they’d been expecting to get shot at. The fire slackened a bit as they ducked for cover.
Larry had his own shotgun up and resting on the steering wheel now. He cranked three shots as fast as he could pump the SuperNova. Fortunately, there wasn’t much of a windshield left to hinder the slugs.
More thunder announced the guys in Jim’s Expedition opening fire. I glanced out of the side window to get a picture of where Jim’s guys and the rear box truck were. The box truck was halted halfway on the median, in a still-settling cloud of dust. That driver, at least, hadn’t tipped his truck over. Jim’s SUV was pointed at the bad guys, just like ours, and Jim and Little Bob were leaning partway out of the side windows, blasting away with their shotguns. I caught a glimpse of Ben and Derek piling out of the back, staying low, cradling their own weapons.
“Push!” I yelled to Larry, who still had his foot on the accelerator. He complied, rolling our increasingly shot-up Expedition toward the ambushers. We were only a few feet away now.
The abused, wounded engine screamed and smoked as we surged forward and slammed into the Crown Vic in front of us. I rocked forward with the impact, recovered, and shot the dazed, tattooed gang-banger across the crumpled hood from me in the face. I shifted fire to his buddy, who was blinking blood, hair, and bits of brain and shattered bone out of his eyes, and gave him the same treatment. Larry extinguished the car’s driver and passenger with a pair of shots so close together they almost sounded like they made a single noise.
The pickup in front of the Crown Vic suddenly surged ahead, as the shooters in it apparently decided that they had bitten off more than they could chew. Larry thumbed four more slugs into his shotgun faster than I could load two, and cranked off another pair of shots, shattering the pickup’s rear window even as it fishtailed away from us, its rear tires spinning on the gravel. I concentrated on the third pickup behind the car full of rapidly cooling corpses, smashing the rest of my shotgun’s tube through the windshield and into the driver and passenger, both of whom were trying to get a shot at me while taking shelter from the fire coming from Jim’s truck.
A few more shots, and then everything went quiet, aside from the Crown Vic’s horn blaring from the ruined head of the driver lying on it.
Our only real issue with the AP books are the large numbers of characters and organizations – it’s an issue, albeit possibly an unavoidable one, in each of them. You damn near have to take notes to keep track of everyone and you just about need a degree in International Studies to parse through all the terrorist organizations, clans, tribes, sects, etc. that the team must navigate through. On the other hand, that’s pretty much how it is in reality, so maybe that’s not a bad thing. Seriously, when you read Alone and Unafraid you’ll think it was written after all the furor in Syria and the ascendancy of ISIS instead of long before. It gets a little old that everyone in AP is a former SOF guy, with a majority seemingly from the MARSOC community. But again that’s probably grounded half in reality and half in the fact that Nealen is a former Reconnaissance Marine (and it’s not like it’s tactisexy to have a Marine 1171 and an AF 3s1XX running direct action missions).
Some people will find also find fault with the technical details (weaponry, NODs and other gear, even the description of drawstrokes and trigger presses, etc.). Some readers will find it distracting. Fair enough. It doesn’t bother us at all. In fact, we like it. Coupled with his description of local conditions, the technical details lend his work an excellent verisimilitude. After all, there’s nothing like moving across a stinking rubble-pocked street near a broken sewer line trying to make your hit time using NVGs and tripping into a puddle of shit water, now is there? Still, we thought we’d mention it.
So – yes, it’s over the top. Yes, their ability to survive and prevail is improbable, and there’s enough mission creep to delight any 6 Powerpoint-loving colonels lurking coffee in hand in a bloated behind-the-wire TOC, but you wouldn’t want to read it if all the characters were blown up by an IED in chapter 7 now would you?
Nealen’s author page is on Facebook right here – yes, he does usually look that dour, as though he’s chewing gravel and gall, but we did once see him smile briefly at SHOT Show. The American Praetorians website is online here and the blog is right here. Want to buy his books? Of course, you do. We’ll help you. In the interest of full disclosure – our editor is friends with Nealen, and a couple years back Pete actually wrote for us a few times. That shouldn’t keep you from heeding our advice. These are good books.
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