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Dead Space: Martyr | Book Review

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It’s all too easy to be skeptical when approaching novels based on popular video game series’. There’s good reason to believe that most of them will be lazily plotted and written tripe that exists for no other purpose than to cash in on the popularity of a franchise and will most likely disappoint anyone looking for an engaging extended look into a game’s universe.

Such were my expectations going into the 2010 novel Dead Space: Martyr, not having known that its author, B.K. Evenson, was in fact a prolific horror writer. What I ended up with, however, was a genuine page-turner that succeeded in fleshing out the backstory of the Dead Space saga while also providing a read that was interesting and well-written in its own right.

Martyr is set during what is arguably the earliest point of relevancy in the Dead Space timeline, in the weeks leading up to and during the initial finding of the Black Marker and, as a result, the first ever contact with its byproduct: a viral outbreak that turns humans into savage mutants called Necromorphs. At the center of the plot is Geophysicist Michal Altman, whom Dead Space fans already know by now as the man who famously discovered the Marker submerged in the Gulf of Mexico and inadvertently started the religion known as Unitology.

However, Altman is far from the only character who gets the protagonist spotlight. In what is initially a quite jarring technique, the story regularly switches up its main character between chapters, giving you the perspectives of characters such as a young boy named Chava, the corporate agent Tanner, a submarine pilot by the name of Hennesey, and many more. At first, it might make the plot seem unfocused and hard to follow, but after just a few pages, this regular protagonist shift succeeds in bringing a larger sense of scope to the narrative and allowing the reader to experience the full effect and consequences of the events in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

Thankfully, the characters still manage to be likable and relatable despite the often short amount of time they’re featured for. This is achieved largely thanks to smart, subtle characterization and an emphasis on interactions between the characters that effectively establishes motivations, conflicts and goals while rarely resorting to all-out exposition dumps. A lot of the time, readers will be able to pick up on a character’s personality simply in their mannerisms and speech. All of these people are also important to the overarching plot, each of whom play a vital role in the discovery and cover-up of the Marker. Altman still feels like the centerpiece, however, and his journey of discovery, doubt, and the hunger for knowledge is ultimately both sympathetic and tragic.

Martyr is essentially one part conspiracy thriller and one part horror, and thanks to Evenson’s great use of methodical pacing and a colder, more objective writing style, he successfully fuses the genres together. Indeed, the always third-person writing is usually absent of imagery, verbose description and emotionally resonant phrases, but Evenson uses this to his advantage, making events and encounters feel realistic and to the point. The writing here is remarkably focused and breezily minimalistic, but it contributes to a tight and focused feel where you’re able to trust that Evenson is delivering every piece of detail and information that you need to know and nothing more.

The few instances where he does inject more artistic, descriptive touches make sense and help the reader to understand just what the characters are up against. Hallucinations and nightmare sequences employ some creative techniques within the text that paint a disturbingly effective image of what it must be like to be under the influence of the Marker. Fans of Dead Space’s graphic gore will also be pleased to know that Evenson takes the time to write death scenes and Necromorph descriptions in grisly detail, adding a sense of shocking payoff to the horror sequences and furthering both the feeling of dread and, in many cases, sympathy towards the characters.

Unfortunately, besides the gory descriptions, fans may be dismayed to find that a lot of the time, Martyr doesn’t really feel like Dead Space. Despite taking place in 2241, very little in the way of nifty sci-fi technology is described besides the occasional holo-terminal or vid-screen, and more often than not the book will display rather modern and familiar concepts such as pistols, helicopters and freighters. Marker symbolism is prominent throughout, along with creative Spanish mythology behind them, and there are a few occasions where we meet appropriately named ancestors to various secondary characters from the Dead Space games, but much of the physical combat against Necromorphs is relegated to nightmare sequences and the final, more action-packed chapters of the novel. Then again, it could be argued that shoehorning more references and description in would have detracted from the vision and fluidity Evenson displays here.

It must also be said that there’s some unavoidable dramatic irony throughout. For the uninitiated, this is when the reader knows important plot-related info that the characters do not, and this is often due to us having found out the info a few chapters prior when another character witnessed the events. Certainly, such a device can be effective when used in the context of horror, but too many times this is employed in the more mystery/thriller segments, where it falls flat on its face. There will be quite a few times where characters will struggle to find out something the audience is already well aware of, all the while nothing terribly drastic is at stake at that moment. While definitely a difficult thing to fix in a multi-perspective novel like this, it nevertheless slows down the otherwise stellar pace in a few cases.

Beyond that, there are a few moments of stiff dialogue and caricature. Occasionally someone will spout a line that either feels too intelligent for them, jumps to conclusions, or is generally out of character. Thankfully, this is incredibly rare, as are the few minor characters, such as a trio of cartoonishly sadistic bodyguards named Tim, Tom and Terry and an old homeless drunk, who feel stereotypical and one-note and are fortunately a brief presence. Overall, Martyr feels like a genuinely passionate and well thought out story by someone who respects the franchise but also has an interesting story to tell within it. The book is a success in almost all regards, and the few flaws it does have are never a result of outright laziness.

It’s important to know what exactly you’re getting into before reading Dead Space: Martyr. If you’re expecting a very personal tale that serves as a singularly focused and meaningful character study, you’ll probably be disappointed, because that’s not what Martyr sets out to do. What is does set out to do is create a vast and complex web of intrigue that forms a grand and eventful portrait of Dead Space history, witnessed by characters likable enough to root for that never distract from the narrative’s tight and informative flow. If you’re a fan of Dead Space that is interested in delving into the series’ rich backstory and the mind of Michal Altman, Martyr is a must read that is at once gripping and rewarding.

Stay tuned for a review of the 2012 follow-up novel, Dead Space: Catalyst, which should be coming very soon.

Now an occasional contributer, Michael Urban is the former Editor-in-Chief at OnlySP and has the nickname "Breadcrab" for reasons his therapist still doesn't understand. From the moment he first got hacked in Runescape, he's been uninterested in multiplayer games and has pursued the beauty of the single-player experience, especially in terms of story and creative design. His hobbies include reading, writing, singing in the shower, pretending to be productive, and providing info and feedback regarding the games industry. It is an industry, right? You can ask him a question or send him spam at michaelurban@www.onlysp.com. Also, follow him on Twitter or the terrorists win. (@MichaelUrban1)

Book Reviews

Assassin’s Creed: The Fall Series

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Yeah, it’s a comic. What’s your problem? Graphic novels are books too, y’know, just in picture form (and in my opinion a lot less cluttered).

All joking aside, the critically-acclaimed Assassin’s Creed: The Fall comic series  follows the complex interwoven stories of a Russian Revolution-era Assassin named Nikolai Orelov and his modern-day descendant, Daniel Cross (be warned, I’m proceeding here assuming you, the reader, understand the basics of the Assassin’s Creed universe, but if you’re not in the know, look through the AC Wiki). Shortly after the last of the three-issue series was released, I purchased them as separate issues, and was promptly disappointed when, after only a few months later, they began pre-orders on a Deluxe Edition, collecting all three. Tying snugly into the  pre-and-post-Desmond-capture Assassin’s Creed story arc, The Fall series now has a  sequel titled AC: The Chain available for purchase by its Ubisoft Montreal-based creators Ubiworkshop (link goes to their main website), conveniently located in the same building as the development team working on the Assassin’s Creed series. If you’d prefer to avoid any further spoilers than what I have already typed here, then stop after the next paragraph.

Now that the formalities in most reviews are out of the way, let me get to the good stuff: the review. The front cover art of each issue stays relevant to the content of each issue’s plot, except for the first issue (try to figure it out yourself by comparing the cover to the story in the third issue). The progression from the dark and moody cover of issue one to the vivid colors of issue three relates well to the plot as well. Page one is a harsh tease at readers, most of whom probably won’t guess who the man with the glossy, unreadable badge is. Once you know, however, you’ll be kicking yourself in the buttocks for not thinking of it before. Heads up: BIG story spoilers ahead. I’d stop reading now if you don’t want to spoil yourself. For those who can’t resist the temptation of spoilers, to save your eyes from wandering, here’s a non-spoiler picture (though that’s debatable):

Okay, no more spoiler-phobics left? You have been warned…. So, on to a synopsis of the story: Occurring in a time frame around the turn of the century (~2000 A.D.), AC: The Fall, as I typed earlier, centers around the stories of Daniel Cross, a social outcast whose life seems to drastically change for the better with the Assassins, and Nikolai Orelov, a Russian assassin who grows from being an unquestioning hitman into a dropout from The Order of Assassins. Having gained the blessing of The Mentor (look up his information on the AC Wiki) to join The Order after being violently “retrieved,” Daniel is told a phrase (You’re very special…) that activates hidden assassination instructions in his head, planted there during his time in captivity at Abstergo that has been the reason why he has felt driven to seek The Mentor. Daniel proceeds to unconsciously assassinate The Mentor, and when he wakes up, he leaps out the window to escape the assassins outside the room they were meeting, finding his way back to the Abstergo facility that he was held at and ending with Daniel returning to the Animus that Abstergo first experimented with him in.

 

The painstaking attention of the writers to the historical accuracy of the series shows itself in the events around the Russian Revolution and even the election going on during issue 3. The beautiful and elaborate composition , the story, and the little details like shading all delivered a package that I am quite frankly blown away by. Being not much of a comics junkie, I was greatly moved by the series.

Unfortunately, I won’t be getting my hands on the continuation of Daniel Cross and Nikolai Orelov’s story in AC: The Chain until after October 30 (the release date of AC3, if you didn’t know), so you’ll have to wait for that. Don’t worry, Ubiworkshop wisely made The Chain a single-issue release, but here’s a preview pic that ought to cause chills in those who have read The Fall:

In conclusion, the Assassin’s Creed: The Fall series is a worthy tie-in to the massive AC universe, and is a worthy addition to any gamer’s collection. While they are all slightly short and quick reads, they are definitely worth the depth and content they add to the Assassin’s Creed universe as canon. I have high hopes for both Assassin’s Creed: The Chain and what it adds to the story arc of Assassin’s Creed 3. Look out for my review of (possibly?) both this November.

 

So, final verdict? Definitely Highly Recommend.

 

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