Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Nitpickery -- Starcraft Ghost: Nova

Hey y'all.  So I've read three Starcraft novels so far, and besides the world, they have one thing in common.

They all suck.

So Starcraft Ghost: Nova is no exception, but it is the best.  Liberty's Crusade was far too dry and made mannequin of previously established characters.  Heaven's Devils had trite, flat narrative and a plot as stale as a slice of bread that's been hanging out under a bed for a month.  SCG Nova, however, actually has a plot.  It's fairly emotional, and what happens to Nova makes sense. I legitimately wanted to find out what happened in the end.

This novel was supposed to be a companion book to the game Starcraft: Ghost, a game which got scrapped in its beta days.  It was a first person shooter game where you play as a ghost and get to take down targets.  Since I care more about the plot of Starcraft than gameplay (I stink too much at RTSs to win much), the gameplay change would have been alright, so long as SC2 eventually came out. Honestly, SC Ghost looked like fun.  Well, except for the part where you have to play staring at Nova's whorish butt the whole time.  Seriously, Blizzard, that outfit is just no.

In any case, the novel was to flesh out the backstory of Nova and give the player a reason to identify with her.  I'm sort of suspicious that this was a sideways method of approaching Kerrigan's backstory. Like, they tell the story of a ghost girl who went through tragedy without ruining our imaginations of what Kerrigan's past is.  After all, Kerrigan was a ghost too, and there isn't a whole lot of physical difference between their two character models when Kerri is shown as a human.

Nova and Kerri.  Feel free to use this picture elsewhere, if you like.

I guess I don't mind the idea in concept.  If the story's good, what's there to complain about, no?

The tragedy here is that the novel would have actually worked if it weren't for one huge problem: the writing style.  The narrative is so painfully amateur that I could write a blog on it of how not to write. I'll definitely point out the serious writing flaws that sink the narrative, as it stands now.

But first, a plot summary.  Oh, and this is a spoilerific review.

November Annabella Terra is the teenaged daughter of Constantino and Bella Terra, a power couple in one of the Confederacy's old families on the planet Tarsonis.  They throw a lavish birthday celebration for Nova, only it turns out to be the last happy moment of their lives.  In the attempt to keep her safe, Constantino attempts to send her away, but Nova returns home just in time to find a fringe, anti-Confederacy group murdering everyone she loves.  In a psionic rage-wave, she kills them all, and is forced to retreat into the Gutter, the worst part of town.  The rest of the novel refers to her struggle to survive at odds with a drug lord.

Okay, just to make something clear, I'm going to divide this review into two.  One part is going to be all the plot/conceptual problems, for the people who just want me to nitpick the book.  While the writing style is perfectly awful, I'm saving that for another blog so that I can reference all the things fellow writers need to keep in mind.  Sure, non writers can read it if they want, but maybe they don't want to.  Especially since DeCandido makes a lot of writing errors.

My first problem with the plot is that most of it is with Nova in the Gutter.  Sure, it's a plotline that can be compelling, but when you pick up a book that's about a ghost character, you kind of expect it to be about her becoming a ghost, and the grueling, hard work it takes.  Not to mention the fact that when the Confederates made ghosts, they cruelly experimented and forced people into the role.  At the end of this book, Nova is so sick of the Gutter that she willingly joins the ghosts, not realizing that the Confederacy (or later Terran Dominion, as it turns out), is using her just as much as the Gutter lord. While this is an obvious ending, it's an interesting one and an opportunity to subvert expectations.

So basically, when I pick up a book about ghosts, I want to read about the whole idea of being a ghost. I went on with the story, ready for her to get out and do something ghosty.  Instead the training is relegated to a few paragraphs about pushups and a vague reference to martial arts and target practice.

To be fair, this is a subjective criticism.  Sure, this is a downside if you were looking to learn more about ghosts, but if all you wanted was to read about Nova, then this doesn't bother you at all.  Also, the possibility exists that if Starcraft: Ghost the game had actually been made, it would have explained more about the ghost project.  This was, after all, a book meant to push people into the game.  It's not DeCandido's fault the game got cancelled.

Early image of Nova.  I love the bad attitude and more modest outfit.

So lets talk about things that are his fault!

I'll briefly touch on the bad writing here.  Basically, there's a lot of backstory whenever a new character or place is mentioned, and characters that need little or no explanation are packed with loaded backstories that render the narrative tedious.  It's not the worst I've read (See: Heaven's Devils) but it's very clumsy, amateur writing.  It's clear that this novel was written for promotional purposes rather than for love of the material or writing show-offery.

On to the plot.

Okay, well, there's a brief prologue where Nova, the trainee ghost, is going after the murderer of her family.  I was going to say that this guarantees we know that she survives the story, but then again she's in her own game so we know that she lives.  Really though, it adds little to the plot, besides spoiling what's to come.  By stating that she's going after the man who killed her family, we already know what happens to them.  Sure, we don't know how it's done, but eh.  That, and DeCandido seems to be using it as an excuse to put up a lot of exposition.  Granted, that's what he does the whole book, but a prologue has to serve a purpose, and that's the only reason I can think of.

Then, there's a couple of chapters where Nova is having her birthday party, with utmost exposition concerning the Terra family, old families of the Confederacy, and Nova herself.  Hooray.  At least we know buffalo meat exists in the K Sector, despite the fact that buffalo are an Earth creature and the chances of them having been sent on one of the original convoys to the K Sector is pretty unlikely.  Mm'kay.

I don't know, the birthday party just seemed like a cluster of generic stuff.  Like Constantino being called to business during it, Nova getting hit on by a creeper (fifteen year olds generally don't have big boobs, Keith), and some inane chatter with her brother that serves as more exposition.  Seriously, there are literally thirteen breaks from the narrative that interrupt the present happenings to talk backstory, and that's just the first chapter.  Though it's nice to see that Nova gets along with her brother.  Sort of weird that both of her parents have their own consorts that appear together with them in public.  I wished that was established as a cultural thing by the old families.  Though, of course, not through a paragraph of exposition.

Also, if Constantino can only afford to either replace his destroyed factory or compensate the families, why the heck is he throwing an expensive birthday bash in a giant, hovering dome?  You'd think he'd barely be making much if he couldn't do both.  Too bad nothing ever comes of his choice because he dies too quickly.

A strange thing about the party scene is that Nova asks her father to let the servants enjoy the food too. Thing is, that's not a very entitled attitude, and someone in Nova's position is likely to feel entitled. There needs to be a concrete, sure reason why she does this.  Also, the care Nova shows for the servants isn't echoed later in the book -- she's never shown to be a naturally compassionate person, and neither do any of her actions reveal her as anything other than a normal little girl.

And I do mean little.  She's fifteen when this story takes place, and most of the time she either feels like a small girl (in the Gutter) or a full adult (in the prologue and at the end).  Real young minds go especially hormonal, irrational, and possibly try too hard to grow up.  None of that comes across by her behavior.  Nova just doesn't feel like a teenager.  For that matter, neither does she feel like the daughter of a high class muckedy-muck.  She's just too dang normal.

Very cute art by artipelago_by_woeky-d6y13lz.  Yes, that's the name.

So it turns out that Bella's consort is really a traitor from a fringe group who plans on killing them all.  He and his conspirators bring the Terras (besides Nova) to the floating dome to be killed.  Nova, who was about to go off in a shuttle, suddenly hears their thoughts and knows she has to save them.  She rushes off the shuttle in time to watch her brother die.  As the group tries to finish her off, she gives off a psy wave that ends up killing them all.

Now, this is an interesting way for her to react, but the thing is the attack basically comes out of nowhere.  There's no reason for Constantino to be a target, and since this is a calculated plan by Bella's consort, surely he believes that the family in one way or another deserves what happened.  Why bother with a whole conspiracy if you just plan on murdering all the Terras?  Couldn't that position as consort be used in a way to help a fringe group?  After all, if they just wanted to kill the Terras, the easiest thing to do would be capture one, use their thumbprints to get into the door, and then attack.  It's a waste of trouble, otherwise.

Or there should be a reason why the fringe group is being so careful.  Maybe Constantino treats his servants like robots to do his bidding, or he's exploiting workers in his factories, or the fringe group is just crazy and want to take out their troubles on the Terras.  Since Cliff Nadaner comes across as a common thug in the prologue, why not have it a robbery gone wrong?  Anything that keeps it from a fringe group taking the time to infiltrate an old family home and murdering them all for no reason.  And no, being an "old family" isn't good enough, as there are plenty of old families to choose from.

So Nova, overwhelmed by her sudden jump in psychic ability, runs off to the poor part of town in a mental daze.  Meanwhile, we suffer through the life story of Malcolm Kelerchian, a slightly psychic detective who is sent to find Nova and bring her into the ghost projects.

Sorry about the meh image.  Mal's a minor guy in SC, so there's not much art of him.

The trouble with him is that his whole story is boring.  Sure, his backstory is pretty nice: he was forced into psychic hunting because he was too good of a cop and went after a baddie from a wealthy family.  Pretty cool.  Trouble is, he doesn't really do much.  He bickers with superiors some, asks some people some questions, and gets hurt in the end.  And several pages are dedicated to this guy's "search" for Nova.  Thing is, dude is a terrible detective.  He doesn't even think to look and see what crime lords are around, and considering how powerful psychics are, of course the crime lords would try to take them in.  Or maybe kill them.  I also think it's awful convenient that the traffic cops that just so happen to delete footage of homeless Nova having a psychic episode.

All this reduces Mal into a character who just happens to be there, and the only chance he gets to show his true self is when he finds Nova and sees that she wants to join the ghost projects.  And then his idiot partner blows up the building, nearly getting both him and Nova killed.

But I'm getting too far ahead of myself.  So Nova ends up being caught by this one Gutter crime lord named Fagin.  He's alright, I guess.  As much as the narrative explains and overexplains backstory, I don't feel I have a grip on this guy's character.  He's an opportunist, that much is sure, and he even lets Nova go for a while so that she can suffer in the streets while he gets hold of anti-psychic technology. The tech feels a bit convenient, but hey, it's entirely plausible in a world where psychics exist.  Dude's got his act together.

So, rewinding a little, Nova's first action after fleeing in a psychic daze from her psi attack is to wake in an alley to the sound of a mobile ad machine.  Kinda weird that someone wastes advertising space in the worst part of a city, but alright.  In any case, she gets approached by two would-be rapists who she ends up psi-killing.  And then she passes out again.

Honestly, I would have preferred it if Nova simply woke up in the gutter, and we get to feel her first sensations at being homeless in a really bad place.  Then she can get kidnapped the first time by Fagin or something. As it is, the plot goes too fast.  Plus, we're never told why Nova doesn't just ask for help from her sister, ask for help from an old friend, find a better part of town and get a job under an assumed name, or possibly just turn herself into the police.  She basically just gives up without thinking about more options.

Still, I was very wrapped up in the plot.  It was very creepy how the crime ring wanted her, and how she tried to destroy them but ended up their prisoner.  That was very interesting and good, as was the way that Fagin tricked her by letting her think she could defeat him and then blocking her psi signal.  Its very appropriate.

Then the plot takes a really bizarre turn -- it skips ahead six months.  For no reason.  The implication is that Fagin has forced Nova into killing for him and investigating their minds.  Trouble is, this is talked about more than it's shown.  We don't get to see Nova's first un-called for killing, and to that point she's been pretty stubborn in resisting Fagin.  At this point, the best choice for drama is to show the killing, and either have Fagin successfully force her, or she successfully show mercy to the intended victim.  Or heck, maybe have Fagin give her deserving targets, and then Nova develops a taste for dolling out her own version of justice, and Fagin manipulates this in her.  Just anything that would show us what it is Nova does for him, and how she goes from a girl willing to destroy Fagin to his fearful servant.  As it is we don't get that path.

There is also a really bizarre addition of a character named Kehl.  She's a druggie, addicted to something called "hab".  Sort of like a more addictive weed, I assume.  For some reason, DeCandido spends a whole chapter and more talking about her.  What does she have to do with Nova?  Nothing. She reveals nothing about Nova, has no past connection with her, and has little to do with any other prominent character in the story.  Kehl's just an addicted schlub that just so happens to depend on Fagin.  She doesn't reveal anything about him or his schemes.  She happens to talk to Mal once, but that doesn't justify being so well established.  Given that she probably died in the Protoss purification of Tarsonis, the character has no potential future use.  She's just there to fill out pages.

That brings me back to a threadline that was going through all the story, and gets mentioned at points. Chronologically speaking, this story takes place throughout the first Terran missions of original Starcraft.   Thus, there's bits and pieces of Zerg and Protoss whatnots in the news or brought up by people in the know (that is, none of the primary characters), but it feels weird.  Sometimes this is through circumstances -- it's weird that Constantino turns on the news right in the middle of arguing with his wife.

Tarsonis!  by Peter Lee, probably official fan art guy.

Overall, it feels like most of the Starcraft references were shoved in there just to show where this story fits in with the main plot.  I guess that's why the unnecessary six-month forward jump happens -- DeCandido wanted to make sure that the story ends when Tarsonis is invaded by the Zerg.  They could have simply have pushed the story up six months, but whatever.

In any case, the Starcraft references never blend with the narrative.  They're just stuff stapled on, which have no affect on the main characters.  Nova knows nothing about Zerg or Protoss, Mal only works with potential ghosts, and Fagin doesn't venture outside the Gutter.  There's no reason for a reference to be anything more than a passing headline.  Sure, there's some sort of belief with Mal's bosses that somehow ghosts will help them defeat the Zerg, but quite frankly ghosts are only good with intelligent enemies.  Plus, any given Protoss is bound to be more psychically capable than a human, given that Protoss live so much longer.  Not sure that ghosts are extremely better than any other soldier in wars that involve anyone besides other humans.

So in the end, Mal finds Nova, Nova kills Fagin, and then Mal's stupid partner Ndoci blows up the building, because killing fellow agents and the person you're trying to bring in alive is the most intelligent thing in the world to do.  But it's okay, Nova gets them out.  And then the Zerg invade (note that this is shown by people talking about it rather than showing Zerg landing), and cut.

No really, cut.  The narrative shows nothing of a planet being destroyed by vicious toothy beasts and how Nova escaped all that.  It just goes to Mal recovering in the hospital.  And then he has a really boring conversation with Arcturus Mengsk.  No really, some random wrangler gets to talk to the new emperor of a multi-planet nation.  This might have worked, if Mengsk knew Mal personally, or if Mengsk had some sort of reason for visiting the ghost training.  After all, this would have been about the time that he abandoned Kerrigan to the Zerg.  Not sure he'd be all that eager to associate with the type of person he betrayed.

What makes it worse is that Mal seems to know that Mengsk is a scumbag.  He isn't fooled into thinking that Mengsk is a good leader.  Mengsk is supposed to be the kind of guy that makes you trust him when you're in his presence, like a creepy magician with a magical aura.  It weakens one of my favorite villains ever when you make it so some random dude can see through him.  It's also not very interesting.

Nova we don't actually see for a chapter, and then it just cuts to her doing some pushups with a loud, strict trainer.  Nothing psychic in nature.  She's just training as hard as she can so that she can get through the ghost training and get her memory wiped.  Uh huh.  So why don't they wipe her mind first, so that she isn't distracted by her memories?  Or if her past makes her a better ghost, why not let her keep them?  After all, if her brain is blank, what makes her want to serve the Dominion, and not her own aims?

Nova demonstrates the meaning of women's empowerment.

Blah blah blah.  Cut to Nova killing the man who ordered her family's death.  And it's really boring.  It turns out that the guy isn't some sort of important criminal leader, or separatist faction head, or something interesting.  He's a guy with an inferiority complex who's taking it out on whoever happens to earn his ire.  Maybe they could have made that idea work, but since Cliff Nadaner is never established, his death means nothing to the readers.  It doesn't help that Nova says perhaps the most stale thing ever.

"Yes Cliff...I'm the one who killed all your people.  I killed Edward and Gustavo and Adam and Tisch and all the other ones you sent to kill my family.  Because you did that, I eventually became the very Ghost that the Dominion has assigned to finally put an end to your pathetic existence."

Uh huh.  Way to sum up the story in the most boring way possible.  And you're missin' a few commas there, hon.  Given that she's Lady Exposition in Starcraft II, perhaps this makes sense.

Anyway, it ends with four pages of Nova completing some sort of unrelated mission, and then speaking to Ndoci, who she now doesn't remember because her brain got wiped.  Y'know, brain wiping would be a lot more dramatic for the reader if Nova hadn't wanted to forget her past.

That's enough now.  I wanted to keep this shorter, and I've said enough about the plot of this thing.  Overall, this story had some potential.  I like the idea of the Gutter, and showing how the rich families lived was also a good idea.  The idea of having psi ability judged with the label "PI10" or "PI3" was an effective shorthand.  Clearly DeCandido did at least a little thinking about the world he wanted to create.  Also, Fagin was reasonably intelligent for a baddie, and I was impressed by some of his choices.  Through the middle of the story I wanted to see what happened next, despite the atrocious writing style.

So much potential, so little result.

In any case, Starcraft Ghost: Nova is the least offensive of the Starcraft novels I've read.  It has interesting points, and I actually wanted to read more of it.  Sure, it has a lot of flaws, but at the same time I enjoyed this book as it was, and not just for all the stuff I could nitpick.  It was a real story, and I had fun.

Next up I'll be doing a writer's review of this book, going through the narrative pieces and explaining the things that a new writer is tempted to do but really shouldn't.  Also, I want to do some reviews of the Dollar trilogy.  You know, A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.  Because I can.  See you then!

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