Review: “Without Warning” by John Birmingham

Cover of Without Warning by John Birmingham

John Birmingham has followed up his highly-successful Axis of Time trilogy of military thrillers with another “ripper yarn” novel, Without Warning: America is Gone. It’s a good read, but not as good as it could be.

Like Axis of Time, which posited a 21st-century naval task force suddenly finding itself at the Battle of Midway and the final volume of which I reviewed earlier, Without Warning is alternative history. One the eve of the 2003 Iraq War, an unexplained energy field obliterates all human life across most of the United States. As the world realises the last remaining superpower is gone, the novel tracks the political and military conflicts which emerge through the eyes of characters ranging from a US general at Guantanamo Bay to a female assassin working undercover in France.

My perceptions of Without Warning are coloured by Katie Harris’ comment that my recent Gonzo Twitter effort was like Hemingway. I still haven’t read any Hemingway, but I’ve been thinking about writing styles. In a previous review I described William Gibson’s noir prose as “a richly textured cabernet merlot” in comparison with the “slab of VB” simplicity of Adrian d’Hagé’s action thriller. Birmingham’s writing is another slab of VB. It’s a fast, easy read without too many difficult words or complex metaphors to slow you down.

Of course there’s plenty of military and other boy’s toys brand names and train-spotter facts.

Lee… opened the throttles on the big boat’s massive Caterpillar engines, unleashing a stampede from the 1492 horsepower contained in each one…

Three identified shooters there. All white males, dressed casually, armed with FAMAS G2 assault rifles…

She opened the oversized hold-all and pulled out the artillery. The pistol-grip Benelli shotgun came first: customised 12-gauge, extended mag with a side-saddle shell carrier. Next was the deal closer, a specially cut-down Heckler & Koch UMP .45, with an extended box mag housing thirty rounds of .40-calibre Smith & Wesson goodness. She slung the HK over her shoulder. It was a large, excessive arsenal for just one young lady to haul around…

Yeah, I know. Chicks with guns are hawt, and there’s plenty to keep the lads moist. Who’ll be cast for the movie, I wonder?

Occasionally I was forced to look up some piece of military jargon or other to grasp the sense of a scene. Irritating to me, but Birmingham’s fans would reckon that just brands me a n00b.

I agree with the estimable Duncan Riley’s review too (interestingly the first Google hit for the book after the Amazon listing):

The French stream, except nearly right at the end of the novel, was perhaps the worst character development ever delivered by Birmingham…

The ending wasn’t great, and set the story up for a sequel which Birmingham is already talking about writing. It’s a BIG book for a Birmingham novel, and an awful lot to cover, and the need to flip ahead into the future is understandable, but it didn’t conclude strongly.

Still, it is what it is. A thrill for the fans. They won’t be disappointed.

Don’t get annoyed by the about-the-author blurb though.

John Birmingham refuses to build a website, but he has three blogs…

Um, and what is a blog if not a website? Fuckwits.

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4 comments

  1. Steve’s avatar

    “Don’t get annoyed by the about-the-author blurb though.

    John Birmingham refuses to build a website, but he has three blogs…

    Um, and what is a blog if not a website? Fuckwits.”

    It is my understanding that authors often write their own “about the author”. Birmingham is probably trying to be funny, or maybe he is a ‘fuckwit’.

  2. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Steve: Oh John Birmingham is most definitely not a fuckwit. He’s bigger than me.

  3. Duncan’s avatar

    He also has an awesome fan forum where fans write stories based on his alternative history worlds. If you ever need a Bimmoverse hit, it’s a recommended read.

    Also I know you’ve quoted me selectively, but as a Birmingham fan I loved it as well (despite some of the flaws), and I’ll be lining up at Borders for the sequel the day it’s released 🙂

  4. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Duncan: I didn’t really make it clear that you loved the book. My bad. I was just saving myself the effort of writing about the weak(er) ending. All that said, I did enjoy the yarn, and I too will be reading the sequel. I just found myself asking “Why am I still reading this?” and then reading on.

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