Welcome to the collapse. The dollar has crashed, the economy is in turmoil, and the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Warlords and terrorists run rampant in the Middle East, drug cartels wage a brutal war in Mexico and the American South, the American Republic is teetering on the brink, and in the shadows America’s rivals are plotting to deliver the final, irrevocable blow.
This is the grim world of Peter Nealen’s American Praetorians. Set in a plausible near-future, Jeff Stone and his fellow Praetorian Security contractors are caught in a never-ending war to keep the barbarians at the gates. In this military thriller series, Stone and his crew battle pirates, terrorists, sicarios, mercenaries and more, cutting a bloody swathe across East Africa, the Middle East, Mexico and the United States.
The first book of the series, Task Force Desperate, introduces the reader to the world of the Praetorians. During a routine counter-piracy mission, the Praetorians discover they are the only force available to rescue a group of Americans taken hostage after a major US military base is overrun. What appears to be a straightforward mission quickly goes haywire, as the Praetorians set out on the hostages’ trail and punish the ones responsible for the attack.
The second book, Hunting in the Shadows, takes place a year later. Now contracted to protect oil facilities in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Praetorians quickly become embroiled in the local insurgency. Tensions rise between the Iraqi national government and the Kurds over the city of Kirkuk, and foreign extremists are flooding into the country. As Iraq descends into chaos, the Praetorians must make a stand against the insurgents and restore order however they can–and discover a terrible secret.
Alone and Unafraid takes off where the previous book left off. In the climactic battle for Kirkuk, Jeff Stone discovers a rogue American operation to support the Islamic State, known only as ‘The Project’. As Iraq falls apart at its seams, the Praetorians are hired by a group as mysterious as the Project’s backers to shut down the rogues. But first, the Praetorians must survive a maelstrom of terrorism and treachery.
The fourth book, The Devil You Don’t Know, takes the Praetorians to Mexico. After their travails in the Middle East, the Praetorians are now tasked with hunting for the notorious El Duque, a key player in the global underworld of espionage, terrorism, and organised crime. However, they quickly learn that nothing is what it seems in the festering cesspits of the world, and the hunter can easily become the hunted.
Everything comes to a head in the final book, Lex Talionis. The Praetorians have made far too many enemies, and they are all converging for the kill. As the United States collapses into civil war and anarchy, the Praetorians are tasked with doing everything they can to stem the tide of violence. In this murky battleground with no frontlines, the Praetorians must cut through a tangled web of enemies, ranging from cartel sicarios to political extremists, shadowy factions to foreign powers. In doing so, they may just earn the title of ‘Praetorian’.
The series stands out for its excellent tradecraft, pulse-pounding action and attention to detail. The combat scenes are phenomenal, threading that fine line between authenticity and excitement. Peter Nealen’s experience and training as a Recon Marine is on full display here, handling everything from close quarters battle to counter-ambushes to prisoner snatches with equal aplomb. Nealen also wisely leaves out the boring parts that most readers will skip over, crafting a narrative filled with firefights, tactics and tension.
It isn’t all brainless action either. Look past the battles and you’ll find observations on war and politics. A key theme of the series is mission creep: how a seemingly simple mission quickly expands in scale and scope, as objectives change, alliances shift and new players get involved. Nealen convincingly portrays the convergence of crime, terrorism, guerrilla warfare, espionage and covert operations, showing the amorphous nature of fourth generation warfare and how it will be employed by state and non-state actors to achieve their goals. In Lex Talionis, his most political book in the series, Nealen makes a number of trenchant observations about the polarisation of the American public, how it can lead to violence and how foreign powers and shadowy factions will take advantage of the chaos, and presents a bleakly realistic solution to the collapse of the American Republic.
This series is not without its flaws, though. The most common criticism I’ve seen is that Jeff Stone and the crew don’t display emotions much, beyond rage at the enemy and grief for the fallen. While this is true, these men are jaded stone-cold killers fighting a shadow war, and there wouldn’t be time and opportunity to experience much more than that.
I would have liked to see more connections linking each setpiece to another. Starting from Book 2, you’ll find statements along the lines of ‘after a few days of recon we identified our targets’. While it keeps the action going, they leave gaps in the narrative. How did the Praetorians know about these targets, and where to find them? What do they know about the targets, and why are these targets so important? At times, the books run the risk of devolving into a blow-by-blow, shot-by-shot account of a series of firefights, leaving the plot lagging behind. I would have liked to see a few more statements substantiating the recon and planning phase, even if it were as simple as an informant or a prisoner telling the team where to look. It’s not terribly bad if you’re just reading the series for the firefights, but if you think too hard about the story these gaps become evident.
Personally, I felt that the romance between Jeff and Mia, spanning Books 4 and 5, was a bit too forced. There is too little time spent showing their growing relationship and attraction to each other, especially since they spend most of the books physically separated from each other. While I could see Nealen’s intent at crafting a romantic relationship, it felt shoehorned instead of organic — more so since the series is, at heart, a story about breaking things and killing people.
Despite these minor nitpicks, American Praetorians is a tour de force. Each book is better than the last, a sure sign of a writer dedicated to the craft. While the series doesn’t end the way I’d hoped it would (SPOILER: the Praetorians don’t rescue the remaining hostages in Book 1), it is nonetheless a slickly-written action thriller series with surprising depth. I look forward to reading more of Nealen’s stories in the future.
If you like military fiction with a fantasy, sci fi and espionage twist, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.