(2008) Sean Williams, Titan Books, £17.99, hrdbk, 319pp, ISBN 978-1-845-76756-3
Adapted from a computer game of the same name (released to some fanfare in gaming circles), this novel is set not long before the events of Star Wars: A New Hope. Darth Vader's secret apprentice (known only by his call sign 'Starkiller') is given the task of hunting down the remaining Jedi left in the galaxy. This is only a prelude to Vader's ultimate plan though: to depose the Emperor and take his place ruling the galaxy. To reach that end Starkiller must take his companions, a killer robot named PROXY and a beautiful Imperial pilot named Juno Eclipse, to seek out those who would rebel against the Empire and form an alliance, to be manipulated by Vader for his own goals.
The format of the narrative is noticeably repetitious; our anti-hero is sent on a mission, succeeds, is sent on to his next, and so on, interspersed with some character development and unrequited romance. Even when the hero acts under his own impulses, it is much the same. The fact is, the book betrays its computer game origins in adapting the material. Once the episodic nature of the plot becomes obvious, it isn't hard to spot the end-of-level bad guy, and the worlds probably look more breathtaking on your computer screen than on the page. Williams' prose is competent enough, leading us through action and exposition as necessary, without diverging too heavily from a linear plot. Action is very much of the hack and slash variety (we are talking lightsabres here) and is frequent and copious, as befits an apprentice of the Dark Side. Character development is low and uninspiring; the lurking romance between Starkiller and Eclipse is unconvincing.
Having said all this, perhaps it is a good thing that computer games are becoming complex enough entertainment to warrant expansion in a novel like this. This is not the first adaptation of a computer game to hit the shelves, and games designers have become so much more daring in recent years that turning a game into a multimedia experience in this way may be the next necessary step. I just do not feel that this book is adding new dimensions to the game, and is merely a convenient marketing opportunity. There is merit in the concept of The Force Unleashed, but I do not think it is exploited very well at all. Despite the efforts of computer game programmers to produce story-driven games, they are still very much limited by their format. This novel could have been an intriguing examination of the Force from the perspective of the Dark Side, an insider's view into the relations between the Sith, or the untold story of how the last of the Jedi met their ends... perhaps the game is? But this is not, and I would like to think it is the fault of the source, and not the author.
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