Saturday, July 5, 2014

Nitpickery -- Starcraft: Firstborn, Dark Templar Saga

Hey y'all.  It's time to talk about Starcraft official fiction again!  Next victim: Firstborn, part one of the Dark Templar Saga.

Which is mysteriously lacking in Dark Templar.

I was sort of dreading this trilogy.  This book was written much later than the other ones I reviewed, and it's a part of Starcraft 2's "canon."  Well, ain't that a great omen?

However, I did want to read an official fiction written by a woman.  Firstborn is written by Christie Golden, someone who has done a lot of Warcraft, Star Trek, and Star Wars stuff, besides doing some stuff of her own with the Final Dance series.  Which apparently involves incest.  Um, ew.

In any case, I wanted to compare a female writer to the host of guys that have had their turn trying to make fantasy novels out of Starcraft's lore.  Guys, generally, are more event-driven in their writing. Women are more person-driven.  But gender isn't the only difference here.  While the male authors involved were very, very obviously participating in a Blizzard-made cash grab meant to capitalize on the popularity of Starcraft, Christie clearly had an idea of the story she wanted to tell.  Sure, maybe Blizzard gave her some lore from Starcraft 2 to base her story on, but it's easy to see that Christie constructed her plot, giving it that personal edge to the point where it's genuinely her book. Otherwise it never would have held up the foundation of a trilogy.

Someone I talked to on a Starcraft forum claimed that I was biased against this book because I'd read other Starcraft novels first, and expect this one to be like them.  That's a very special accusation.  For one thing, I do have the right to feel negative, particularly since Blizzard has made it clear they aren't too picky about the kind of writers they hire.  Simple logical inference.

For another, I am always biased against every fiction book I read, with the possible exception of books written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (who has already earned my trust by this point).  Due to my intellectual personality and inclination toward things of literature, at every step I'm looking for flaws, inconsistencies, and opportunities for the writer to amaze me.  What makes my bias fair is that every book has the same disadvantage.  I'm the editor type.  What do you expect?

In other words, Christie Golden gets to prove herself just like everybody else.  Alright, Ms. Golden, show me what you got.  Okay, here we go, the prologue.

Time was not linear.  Far, far from it.  Time wrapped in on itself, converged and entwined and embraced events and feelings and moments, then danced away into separate gleaming, shining, precious strands that stood alone and resonant before merging again into the vast stream.


The Preserver rested and dreamed, and time wove itself in and around and through her. Memories fluttered through her mind like gossamer-winged insects: a word that shattered centuries, a through that changed the course of a civilization.  Individuals whose insights and aspirations and even greed and fear turned seemingly inalterable tides of destiny into something new and fresh and hitherto inconceivable.

....Uh.....inconceivable.  Got it.

Each though, word, deed, life was a mere drop in the vast ocean of time, constantly merging and separating to merge again.  The concept would challenge some minds, the Preserver knew; but her mind had been destined to hold such contradictions as things being separating and having no separate identity.  That semi-colon up there should be replaced by a regular comma. Either that or get rid of the "but."

Over all these thoughts of words and lives and ideas floated a terrible urgency and fear.  Time was not linear; time was shifting and changing.

Yeah, I saw that episode of Dr. Who.

She opened to what was out there, every second that ticked by in its nonlinear, unique majesty challenging her to close in on herself, to not expose herself to the pain of the debris caught in the swollen river.  She could not allow herself such luxuries.

How mysterious.  I'm so friggin' enthralled.  Granted, I don't like emo fluff in stories, but that doesn't mean everyone else doesn't.  Maybe there's teenagers out there who still think that being confusing is the same thing as being mysterious.

Okay, fine.  Upon second reading, the prologue makes a bit more sense.  Some of the words hint at things that actually do happen in the book.  The trouble is, the first time reader has no clue at this point who this person is, or what is happening to her.  None of the vague hints here refer to anything in the next few chapters.  Instead the reader has to go through a lot of stuff involving archaeologist Jacob Ramsey and his misadventures in serving under Valerian Mengsk before we find out the Preserver's name, and even longer before we find out what a Preserver does.  By that point, we've forgotten all about the mystical prologue.

Simply put, the prologue communicates nothing that isn't better stated or shown later on in the book. It's rather like a mystical omen in a fantasy: strange, obtuse fluff that only makes sense after what it's talking about happens, making it basically useless to the person it's told to except to make that person think that the mystic is important.  Moreover, it implies that this book has something to do with changing fate or time. Sure, Firstborn has plenty of flashbacks, but it's made clear that nothing seen in them can be changed.  So what's the point about time splitting and turning?

So yeah, Firstborn did make a bad first impression.  Not only with the prologue, either.  You may remember that I was quoting Christie Golden when I mentioned how unpretentious Richard Flores' narration was in my Volition Agent review. Sure, Flores was too straightforward, but here we swing around to the other side, where everything is too fanciful, trying too hard to impress.  Every writer, at least early on, suffers from one or the other of these problems, so it's a thing we all need to be aware of.

Despite the fact that the first impression wasn't all that good, Golden's narration gets increasingly better as the book goes on.  Perhaps because all the weirdo stuff that happens makes fanciful narrative appropriate.  I actually like the way the ending feels, even if not everything about it makes sense.  

Nitpickery is spoilers.  Seriously, this may be a book you don't want spoiled.

Man it's hard to summarize this story.  There are so many plot turns that it's very difficult to make a brief statement that just summarizes everything.  Not that that's a bad thing, it's just a little annoying for reviewers.

Well, in its basest form, Firstborn is the story of Jacob Ramsey, an archaeologist who takes a job for crown prince Valerian Mengsk to investigate a potentially dangerous alien artifact on the barren world Nemaka. Only when he's there, a Protoss mind gets sucked into his brain, uploading all her vast memories into it. Turns out she has memories from Protoss who lived a long time ago, right when they first discovered the Khala. Zamara chooses to reveal this to Jake so that he'll understand why he need to take this information to the rest of her people.

That's the spine of the story, and Jake is frequently knocked out to view what Zamara shows him. The stuff going on outside of his head is a lot more complicated.  First of all, when Zamara first zaps into his brain, "bodyguard" Rosemary Dahl reveals herself as a traitor, forcing everyone to be sent to Valerian for interrogation. And then Valerian backstabs her, setting up a way for her and Jake to team up and escape. They have a misadventure while trying to stay with an old friend of Rosemary's, leading to one final escape and no other place to go but to the Protoss.

At least that's where I think they're going.  The book doesn't say, because other stuff is going on at the same time.  It's easy enough to assume, anyway.

So my overall impression of this book.  It's alright, at best.  Thing is, it's the sort of story that hits a lot of the right emotional points, but not so much the logical points.  Thus, Firstborn somewhat hinges on one's desires in reading.

If you're a casual reader, the type that likes romances or action thrillers, you'll probably like it, if you can get past the first 100 pages.  The story doesn't really begin until then.

If you're a more serious reader, who likes to read about rich science fiction worlds, you'll finish the book, but might be a bit miffed at some of the details.  And you'll likely think that the golden ratio thing is bonkers.

If you're a fan of Starcraft, you'll get constantly confused and irritated with how much this book changes the lore of the original game and explains the Khala in a really nonsensical way.  Or you'll have already given up on Blizzard's ability to tell a story and just try to enjoy the book for what it is.

Those touch on three of my four main problems with this book: The early part gets too much emphasis, shoddy ideas are promoted as important things, and Christie shows about as much respect for Starcraft's lore as....well, as all the other official novelists do (to be fair, Tracey Hickman did pretty good).  The fourth problem I have with the book is the way it's written.

But before I go into complaining about this book, let's say some good things.  As I stated above, Golden seems to care a lot about putting together something that makes sense with itself, even it makes no sense with official lore.  Her plans and work into the concepts of the Dark Templar Saga are obvious right away, and I appreciate her not being lazy.  She also avoids capitalizing words like "Zerg" or "Protoss", because technically those aren't proper nouns.  I've gotten into the habit of capitalizing them, so I'm still going to do it, but it's nice that Golden is adhering to proper punctuation.  After all, if we really did need to capitalize "Zerg", "human" would be another capitalized word.

I also like how she treats the Khala.  Well, not entirely, but we'll get to that later.  It's just that, so many fanfiction and official writers want to throw the Khalai 'Toss (or, more specifically, the Judicator) under the bus and allow them to be antagonists simply because "Judicator are narrow-minded and evil, and so is everything they believe in."  This sort wants the Khala to be a symbol of everything they hate about religion, and that means the Khala and the Judicator are all stupid, in their minds, despite the real problems with the Protoss being cultural rather than religious in nature.

Besides that, you know how many characters we've had in the entire Starcraft franchise who are Judicator?  Just one, Aldaris (until Legacy of the Void comes out, anyway).  And on his personality alone, they condemn anyone similar to him.  They call that judgementalism where I come from.  But Christie Golden really emphasizes the unifying factor of the Khala, and why it came into existence in the first place.  I like that. Weird for a book supposedly on Dark Templar, but okay.

...if you didn't plot a jump with great care and precision, you could end up A) dead, B) dead, C) so far away from wherever you wanted to be you'd never get back, or D) all of the above.

I really like this joke.  Not all of the humor works, but this one definitely does.  Made me chuckle.

Okay, let's do what I do best, and complain about everything!  Yaaaay!

I looked up Xel'Naga on the internet, and this is what came up.  Your guess is as good as mine.

Let's start with what I mentioned earlier.  The first one hundred pages of this book are really, really meh. This is due to a number of reasons, such as questionable descriptions and use of established characters, but the main reason is conceptual: nothing much happens.  We meet Jacob, who is eking out a living on a planet he describes as Hell.  Valerian contacts him about a job, and then flashbacks over a conversation he had with his father.  Jacob gets to the alien artifact and complains a lot about bodyguard Rosemary following him everywhere, then solves a minor, irrelevant conflict with Rosemary's group and his team.

Ho-hum.  While Golden couldn't escape setting up Jacob's background, she wastes a lot of pages going on about stuff that turns out to be irrelevant.  For example, major spoilers, all of Jake's team die.  Not a one of them escapes their horrible fate.  So that means any effort Golden put into their characterization and explaining their backgrounds is entirely wasted.  If Jake were simply a noob on the dig team, this problem would be solved because Golden would only have to describe those that Jake interacts with.  As a leader, however, he becomes responsible for everyone, and that demands attention and pages.

Also, Firstborn's primary characters are Jacob, Rosemary, and Zamara.  There's no need to talk about Valerian's history with his father, or his desire to explore strange artifacts.  Well, unless Valerian suddenly becomes really important in the second and third books.  Which is doubtful, considering that this is supposed to be a primarily Protoss trilogy.

Besides, Valerian's scarier when we don't understand him.  Although I did chuckle at the scene where Valerian swings around a katana, like he's all bad.  I like the idea he's physically dangerous. Valerian's hair is in the same style as Kenshin's in Rurouni Kenshin, to boot. Amakakeru ryu no hirameki!

It always bugged me how Valerian's hair doesn't really match his face.

Before we get too far, let's complain about the narration and plot errors early on.  While Golden's narration isn't as bad as many others who wrote for Starcraft, the way she describes backstories is fairly novice.

He trudged over to the vidsys, an out-of-date tangle of dinged metal, wires, and lights, divesting himself of the frost-covered protective armoring that encased his body as he went and running fingers through his sandy brown hair before realizing that they still had luminescent bug guts on them.

While the accidental bug-in-the-hair bit is funny, there's plenty wrong with this.  This is a run-on sentence, for one.  It's trying to convey too much without taking a break: describing the vidsys, noting that Jake is removing protective clothing, having Jake get bug in his hair, and describing Jake's hair. Each sentence of narration should try to stick to one or two purposes.  Actually, there should be at least three or so sentences to describe Jake's surroundings, but whatever.  In any case, this here is a prime example of trying to do too much with too little.  It really hurts the bug joke.

The Dominion insignia flashed on the screen and Jake raised an eyebrow in surprise.  Ever since they'd had their butts handed to them on a platter, the Terran Dominion had been somewhat less than dominating.  

Continuity issues abound, making the fan's head spin.  And for the person who isn't familiar with Starcraft, this is bound to make them feel like they missed out.

The Terran Dominion is a collection of several planets, all ruled by Mengsk.  Sure, in Brood War the main world Korhal was taken out by both the UED and the Zerg, that by no means is the entire Dominion. They're not a tiny enough group for "having their butts handed to them" to not have extremely serious consequences for all of humanity in the K Sector.  Keep in mind that even third person is told from a character's perspective, and someone neck-deep in archaeology wouldn't likely know the real story behind the events of Brood War, especially since Mengsk is extremely secretive.

Also, it's pretty cheesy to say "their butts were handed to them" outside of dialogue from a character who would say something like that.  It's not a good way of communicating information to a reader, besides being a cliche.

Kendra, who as all of twenty-four and who often lamented the lack of attractive men on the digs, chuckled.

This is called spew characterization: describing the character by spewing her personality traits onto the page. It happens a LOT in this book.  For one, don't tell us randomly she wants a hottie around while she digs up fossils, have her complain about it.  Or have one of the male side characters hit on her, and then she makes a smart remark about the lack of hot guys.  They're supposed to take place while watching a recording of Valerian Mengsk at this point, so can't it be shown by her commenting on the prince?  Anything's more interesting than just saying she wants attractive men, and using a word like "lamented" to say so.

Darius made a comment that made even Jake, who had known the other man for ten years, blush.

This book has cursing and hints of nudity in it.  If you can put that in a book, you can think of something nasty for Darius to say, or you can take the cursing/nudity out.  And Golden really needs to be careful about her "who had" prepositions.  They're at risk of being spew backstory.  Besides, what about a respectful recorded message from the prince of the Dominion would inspire a nasty sounding comment?

So after Jake gets his message from Valerian, the book spends several pages going over the relationship between Valerian Mengsk and his father, and why Valerian is trying to convince his father to let him dig for the artifact. Yawn.  There's no reason for this part of the book to exist.

For one thing, Golden is still no better at portraying established characters than the other writers. Sure, her version of Valerian is fun, but Mengsk feels very generic and dull, like someone scooped out his personality. It doesn't help that the narration directly just states Valerian's and Mengsk's past. Quite frankly, this book isn't about either of them, and it would be better if Mengsk never appeared on the page, maybe having a couple of references here or there, and Valerian were a shadowy figure doing who knows what.  They're a distraction from the main plot, as is.

I've been dodging this for a bit, but those who haven't read the book yet may be wondering about the artifact Valerian wants to study so badly.

"Not so long ago, a strange construction--completely different from anything we've ever seen before--was discovered on the planet Bhekar Ro.  I'm sure the incident is familiar to you."

...No, she's not doing, she didn't say Bhekar Ro, did she?  She doesn't mean that weird, Xel'Nagan phoenix thing that emerged from a crystalline cocoon and killed so many Protoss?  Oh no...Golden is literally referring to Shadow of the Xel'Naga, the single worst official fiction Blizzard ever released for the franchise. It failed in both concept and execution, butchering canon and stereotyping characters left and right.  It was literary bloodshed.  Don't believe me?  Look at Shadow of the Xel'Naga's ratings on Amazon.  The top 6 highest rated reviews of the book are all one star reviews.  Even lame books generally have as many positive as negative reviews because of non-picky readers, but Shadow the Xel'Naga has 9 five star reviews, and 30 one stars.

That reeks of Blizzard intervention.  I can't imagine why Christie Golden, or any self-respecting author, would want to base their own novels on a story that is best forgotten.  Though, to be fair, Golden doesn't dwell on the failures of Gabriel Mesta.  She takes only the seed of an idea from Shadow of the Xel'Naga, and that's the crystal structure that the phoenix creature emerged from.  The characters never even go to Bekhar Ro, but rather to another crystal structure where the creature inside is assumed to have gone.  I'll let it go for now, because it depends more on how Golden uses the idea than where it comes from, but I still don't like that some people might read this and assume they need to read Shadow the Xel'Naga to understand it.

Also, why does Jake have trouble saying the word "temple"?  Is he so afraid of anything slightly religious in nature that he'll jump out of his skin if someone stands behind him and whispers "Zeus"? Pfft.  They call levels in Legend of Zelda temples, and how religious are any of those?  If this over-sensitivity had any relevance to Jake not accepting the fact he has a religious Protoss in his head, it could be a fun character trait.  As is, it only makes him look like a tool for no reason.

Wow, that's a lot of rant for only 30 pages.  Let's pick up speed.

So for the next 70 pages, We get to see how the transportation to Nemaka, a barren, entirely uninteresting world.  We meet R.M. (Rosemary, but we find that out later) Dahl, and her crew of scurvy "bodyguards." Neither this crew or Jake's team are anything more than background extras, except for Marcus Wright (but we'll get to him later).  There's some minor drama over them not being the first scientific team to go over Nemaka, and some minor drama about R.M. being taken seriously as a leader if something happens to Jake. Neither of these things are important to the overall plot or interesting in and of themselves.

The crew has some nightmares and anxiety attacks, putting everyone on edge.  Including Jake, who displays some very non-investigative behavior by stomping on some fossils inside the crystal temple because he can't figure out some Protoss scribbles written on the wall. This is where the story starts to get better.  Jake found a rectangle on a wall that indicated a hidden doorway, with the writing his only clue of how to get in.  As he stomps on some fossils of leaves and shells (what's the story behind these things?), Jake remembers the golden ratio.  And this is somehow the code to get past the rectangle door.


So the golden mean is the mathematical ratio that exists if the ratio of two quantities is equal to the ratio of the large quantity to the sum of the quantities.  Or so sayeth wikipedia.  Basically, the idea is that if a thing fits into this ratio, it's automatically more beautiful.  Yeah.  There's also philosophies developed by Aristotle and Confucius that are referred to as "golden mean", each stating that extremes should be avoided and the middle route or "mean" is taken.  That's trivia, though, as neither philosopher or philosophy is mentioned in this book.  All we got is the "beauty" of a math equation that helps Jake get past a door because he draws curvy images on it.

You totally can see the mysteries of the universe now, right?

Beyond the door he discovers the body of a badly mutilated Protoss.  The Protoss had apparently crashed into the temple, judging from the ship wreckage in the cavern.  How none of the scientists Valerian apparently sent to Nemaka never noticed any signs of a crash through the temple we'll never know.  In any case, the body turned out to be at least a little alive -- it apparently had preserved itself until another person could find it.  To Golden's credit, she shows this by having Jake notice that some of the blood on the body was wet and then having a drop of blood maintain its shape momentarily, rather than simply stating directly what happened.

And then, as the blood drop loses its shape, the Protoss comes to life long enough to zap her brain into Jake. It's Zamara.  She mutates Jake's brain so that he can carry her mind in his, though the process knocks him out and puts him in the infirmary.  There's a really weird jump here, where Jake passes out and then suddenly we cut to R.M. playing poker.  And then his rescue is told in flashback.

Exposition in flashback should generally be avoided, by the by.  It's not a story-wrecker, but things are more exciting in present tense.  Particularly when the earlier plot hasn't been very exciting.

Okay, so then when Jake gets all mind-befuzzled, R.M. reveals she's working with Valerian, and that everyone's going to be taken to be interrogated.  And then some more of Valerian's misfits come and capture not only the archaeologists, but R.M. and her people too.  Which means that nobody's favorite princess has betrayed the scientists he hired, and then hired more armed mofos to betray the betrayors.  Besides this not making any sense and probably costing a crap ton of money, it's really all just a setup for Rosemary and Jake to be on the same side, despite the fact that Rosemary has been nothing but annoying to both Jake and the readers at this point.

That, and even bad guys and black markets run on trust.  Real life isn’t quite like the movies.  Sure, bad guys’ll sell one another out from time to time, but that’s only under pressure.  No one’s forcing Valerian to kill a bunch of scientists for simply working on a barren wasteland.  In fact, hurting them means you have to make up some sort of lie to their loved ones about why they’re not coming home.  It’s implied that Val-val has interrogated and killed the previous scientists on Nemaka, so that’s even more people he has to cover.  Add Rosemary and her generic peeps, and that’s even more.

Sure, Rosemary’s a criminal, but if she’s as infamous as the narration states over and over again, other criminal elements will notice she is missing.  Even if they weren’t friends with her, over time they’ll see that those that associate with Valerian tend to not show up again.  So essentially, Valerian’s betrayals alienate him from the people he hires, and they’ll avoid him.  You have to wonder what’s going on in the minds of those who capture Rosemary and her minions.  Surely they have to be wondering if they’re next, if they’re not completely stupid.

To make it worse, Zamara doesn't reveal herself until page 137.  Given that the entire story is based on Jake’s Protoss history flashbacks, don’t you think that maybe some of the chaff in the front of the book needed a good trim?  Entire pages of it should have been cut, and the book would have been fine without them, or easily extended by making the Protoss flashbacks more deep.  Make Rosemary more directly evil, and have her “ally” with Jake because Zamara forces her to, not because Rosemary is suddenly just as much of a victim as Jake is.

Okay, so before I rant and rave about the plot anymore, let’s take a quick break.  I know I’ve been coming down on this book really hard at this point, but I promise, it does get better.  Somewhat.  If you’re one of those people who isn’t apt to finding logic errors, a lot of the stuff I’m complaining about might not seem as obvious or important as I make it.  Also, given the fact that I can nitpick it this much, there must be something good about it.  The idea of having a Protoss stuck in one’s brain is very interesting, as is the telepathic potential that Jake suddenly gains.
Let’s get some narration nitpickery out of the way before moving on to the next thing.

On the bed in the infirmary, Jake's hands twitched.  His eyes darted back and forth beneath closed lids.  He wanted to kill.

I know that Jake just had his first mental vision of the violence in Protoss history, but it's unfair to imply he's going to do something violent and then never have it become relevant to the plot again.

"I thought nothing could damage it," came a cool voice from the back.  Jake's head whipped around from the vidsys to see R. M. Dahl standing at the entrance to the bay.  She leaned against the door, arms folded across her chest.  She hadn't shouted, yet her voice carried.

That last sentence needs to go.  If the characters can hear her, the readers know her voice carried without being told.  Also, stop adding R.M. to the scene by describing her voice only.  This is the third time in the book there’s been a “came a ___ voice” for R.M. so far.  And why would Jake whip his head around to her?  Can't he just look back normally?  It’s not as if Rosemary’s presence is unexpected at this point.

"It's what I can do for you that's important." she said.  "And what I will be doing for you.  I'm R.M. Dahl.  I'm the head of your protection unit."

Did this make it past an editor?  Her first and second statements are too identical.  And if can versus will in the two sentences makes a difference, then they should be italicized.  And have some relevance to the plot or conversation at hand.

She seemed to read his expression, for a small line of annoyance creased her otherwise smooth, pale brow.

Get used to the eyebrows thing.  It's gonna happen a lot in this book.

"Rewiring?  What does that mean?" Kendra wanted to know.

If she's asking a question, clearly Kendra wants to know.  The readers don't have to be told.

She brought the thin white stick of death to her lips and inhaled again.

Everyone knows that cigarettes will kill you.  Metaphors are only clever if they are to some degree unexpected.

I’m having too much fun with this.

This is the point where things start to improve.  It’s where Zamara finally acts like a character, and where Rosemary is finally in the position to co-star this thing with Jake.  Again, so much of the earlier parts of the book should have been scrapped so that we could get to this point sooner.  So Jake is in the brig, guarded by redshirt Marcus Wright. 

I probably should have mentioned before that Wright is a resocialized cannibal murderer, whose memories of the past have been chemically repressed.  And Zamara suddenly thinks it’s a good idea to unleash these memories so that Wright will go nuts and somehow make it easier to escape.  When Jake very reasonably objects on the basis that Wright could kill innocent people on the ship, she replies, “I will not trade a certainty for a possibility, Jacob.”

The hell?  What’s so certain about letting loose a cannibal killer?  How is she so certain Wright will let Jake go?  It’s very possible that since Jake is the nearest person to Wright, that Wright will simply kill and eat him first.  Would Wright like being reminded of his past?  What if he suddenly feels guilty?  And how would he know that “Jake” is the one that “set him free”?  But since Zamara says so, when she inevitably forces Jake’s mind to undo the resocialization process, Wright allows Jake to leave the brig and goes to hunt everyone else instead.

Things may not make that much sense at this point, but you have to admit it’s pretty interesting.

This brings me to my major problem with Zamara’s character.  She’s so…blobby.  As a character.  If you know what I mean.  She doesn’t seem to feel anything too deeply.  She’s not noticeably disturbed by Wright, she reacts only minimally to being forced to use a human mind for her preservation work, and isn’t even slightly creeped out that she’s a female now trapped in a male’s body.  Sure, I know that Protoss are to Starcraft as Vulcans are to Trek, or elves are to Lord of the Rings, but surely homegirl’s got an emotion in there somewhere.  Protoss have always had more emotional depth than their literary equivalents anyway.  There’s a lot for her in this book to be freaked out by, and she takes it too in stride. 

You might argue that this is because she’s seen so many memories that she’s numb to everything, but that’s just too convenient to be interesting.  Besides that, the prologue indicated that memories affected her.  And being a part of the Khala (and presumably being a part of other Protoss minds) didn’t stop Tassadar from being Mr. Melodramatic.  Zamara, however, always acts in a way that avoids conflict or interesting debate.  It’d be a lot more fun if her and Jake argued more.  Especially in front of Rosemary.

For that matter, Jake should have reacted to Zamara more.  Heck, she used him to set loose a murder, and apparently this process involves Jake witnessing some of Wright’s memories.  Urgh.  Not only that, but Wright really does go to murder everyone on the ship.  Even the prisoners.  And if by chance one of them happened to be hiding in a vent, then they would end up dead when Wright destroyed the life support systems.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not so cruel I want even Valerian’s lackeys to die that way.

Seriously, Jake should have been really mad at Zamara for this.  A normal person’s reaction might have been something like, “Screw you, you Protoss monster, I’m not going to be your tool!  If you think it’s alright to kill so many for the sake of the Protoss, then I think it’s alright to jump out of the airlock so that your stupid people can’t benefit from senseless murder.  Your memories die with me, witch.”  And that would be a great setup for Rosemary to stop Jake from offing himself. 

Fortunately for Zamara’s purposes, her taking over Jake’s mind weakens him to the point where he passes out -- right after rescuing Rosemary, who for some reason Zamara trusts.  Um, okay then.  If you're the kind of psychic that can make Jake fight like a superhero, then maybe he's fine alone, but whatever.  I guess he's psychic noob, so it's for the best.  The only truly annoying issue when the two escape is that it's followed by an expository scene.  Valerian finds out what happened by recovering a recording made by Marcus Wright as he's about to shoot himself.  That's not a very dramatic way of getting that information across.  Wouldn't it be better if investigators just found the remains of the crew and had to put together for themselves what happened?  

The thing to remember is that despite this part’s flaws, it’s all really interesting.  We get to see resocialization expanded and Zamara’s abilities explained.  Sure, it’s more interesting in concept than in execution, but finally the memories of Protoss history come into play.  And feel utterly ridiculous.

This is the point where the plot goes out in two different directions.  One part is the flashbacks that Jake continually has of Protoss history, and the other is everything happening outside of his head.  For simplicity's sake, I'm going to go ahead and talk about each part separately.  We'll start with the flashbacks, why not?

So most of the flashbacks entail watching the Protoss live a "caveman" or tribal state of life.  They have little technology, and all of the tribes are fighting each other.  The given reason is that some tribes blame others for the Xel'naga leaving them, while others are apparently upset that some tribes (like the Shelak) long for their teachers again.

This is the basis for a war?  Really?  I'd buy into it if one or more of the tribes here hoarding useful Xel'Naga artifacts/gear, but a simple disagreement?  Thing is, tribes are family based divisions.  A difference of opinion can just as easily occur within a family as without.  If it really was such a big deal that different Protoss had different opinions about the Xel'Naga and their departure, then it would not result in tribes, but sects.

That, and I think a simple disagreement in and of itself isn't a big enough deal.  Sometimes ideas can destroy societies and cause fear, like communism, for example, but communism represents a huge, negative change in economic status for a nation.  It's more than just an idea that people dislike.  There are logical reasons to believe that communism or other ideas can have a huge affect on established culture.

As for the Protoss, when the Xel'Naga leave them, they have no established culture for outsiders to change. In fact, they would have no outsiders at all.  Every Protoss is more or less equal because so much of their identity hinged on their suddenly gone creators.  If an Aeon of Strife occurs, it would more logically arise not from difference in opinion, but from suddenly having no way of life at all. The Protoss were something else before they were Protoss, and since that old culture is gone, they have to make up their own societies. Hence, disagreement and war.

Seriously.  Conflict between large numbers of people can't hinge on one idea.  You can write simple conflict in a book that way, but it'll just seem too contained.

Anyway, the Protoss flashbacks are mostly centered around two dudes, both of the Shelak tribe (one of the future Judicator tribes).  Temlaa is the Protoss Jake sees through, and his mentor is Savassan. They are the guardians of old Xel'Nagan artifacts and keepers of what little the Protoss know of the Xel'Naga and their own history.

And....oh my bleep, what is this?  Note that in flashbacks, Jake's name replaces Temlaa's.

Savassan bent and smoothed out the patch of earth, clearing it of pebbles and grasses.  He glanced up at Jake and then back down at the earth.  Grasping his spear, he began to cut into the soil.  Shapes appeared, lines following the spear's point.  Jake frowned as he watched a circle, with two smaller circles in it.  Two lines from near the first circle running horizontally, another line running vertically.  
....Clearly Savassan wanted him to infer something from this--this strange collection of lines scratched into the earth.  But what?  He began to panic.  This was a test, he knew it, and if he failed, perhaps Savassan would not deem him worthy of further enlightenment.
...."It's you," he thought.  " have put yourself in the soil!"
....As excited by Jake's ability to see as Jake himself was, Savassan made more lines in the dirt.  "This is a tree," he said, busily scratching lines.  Now that Jake grasped the concept, it was as if a covering had been lifted from his eyes.

That's right.  Two Protoss are freaking out over drawings in the dirt.  I am not even kidding.  They're acting as though something a five year old can do is the best thing ever.  I swear, if I were the Xel'Naga and my supposedly super intelligent creations didn't know how to draw in the dirt, I'd be ashamed of them too.  Or have the Xel'Naga, having created a giant entity capable of mass destruction of life, gone so freaking stupid that scrawling pictures in the dirt with one's finger is suddenly an impossible feat?  I refuse to believe that people intelligent enough to fight in a war or study Xel'Naga artifacts are too stupid to understand drawing.

Don't even bring up evolution; the Xel'Naga engineered the Protoss. Protoss have more efficient brains than humans; an act that is childishly simple for one of us isn't going to prove a stumper to them.  Besides that, the Xel'Naga left at least a temple behind on Aiur. Surely there's a drawing somewhere there, or on the artifacts Shelak protects.  Not to mention that the Protoss were not created from nothing -- they existed as something else before the Xel'Naga showed up, and probably would already know about drawings prior to this.  Besides, anyone with a mind older than two years instantly knows a drawing for what it is.

In other words, having Protoss celebrate because they figured out how to draw people is terrible, terrible backstory.

Later on Savassan has to explain in tedious detail that by putting drawings of where they are on an animal skin, the two of them can have a map.  Ugh.  This is the exact reason why I don't like it when Picard explains things to Data on Star Trek.  Data doesn't know how to be a human, but since the rest of us do, we have to sit there bored while Data listens to something we already know.  It's the same thing here.  No one's enthralled by Protoss being told how to make a map.  Given that the Aeon of Strife involves a lot of fighting and war, you'd think that getting around and formulating strategies would force all tribes into creating maps.

And finally, the Ara tribe.  I'm a bit put off when Golden portrays the Ara tribe as one of the bloodier ones. It's another instance of a large group being judged simply because Aldaris was hard-headed. Aldaris is bad, so that means all his ancestors are too, right?  Wait, shouldn't Ara have become one of the Templar tribes later on if it's so tough?  Why would it become one of the Judicator?

You may think this is a personal problem because I think Aldaris is cool.  Well, it kinda is, but this is still an example of oversimplification.  The very simplistic cause of the Aeon of Strife, the dumb "discoveries" of Protoss history, and little aggression actually shown from non-Ara tribes makes the entire Aeon of Strife seem, well, lame.  And if Ara is so violently independent, wouldn't they be the ones more likely to reject the Khala?

Basically, why are the Protoss so retrogressed?  They were mutated by the Xel'Naga, yet instead of them developing the beginnings of technologies that we see in the Starcraft games, they're basically cavemen or prairie people.  Shouldn't they be showing signs of creating the really awesome buildings and robots that we know they are capable of?

Any Starcraft fan imagines in his head how awful the Aeon of Strife was, and how the superior minds and tech of the 'Toss means that their internal wars have got to suck.  Golden's ancient Protoss, by nature of simplification, are pretty dang dull.  Nobody cares about Temlaa learning to draw or Savassan making a map.  It's to the point where the reader must wonder why Zamara is even showing Jake any of this.  Why does it matter?  She could have just skipped to the part where the two touch crystals to make their brains....more psionic?

So Savassan and Temlaa go on a journey to find out more about the Xel'Naga, when they come across khaydarin crystals.  These crystals are probably the least offensive part of the Protoss backstories in the book.  Sure, you can claim it's cheap for a mystical, magical crystal to appear in a fantasy story, but at least the crystals don't imply dumb things about Protoss history.  Sure, the crystals are never really explained, either in what they do or where they come from.  It's implied that the Xel'Naga put them there, which is okay, I guess.

Yeah, the khaydarin crystals apparently bring Protoss....more thoughts?  Increases their abilities?  Uh, okay. The problem with this kind of mysticism in stories is that it can be kinda cheap, in the "don't question it" sort of way, just like why fairies have magic.  Stuff like that.  Again, not something I care about too much.  Golden gives their description some pretty good narration, so it works well enough. She's good at describing events or objects that are highly dramatic or mystical in nature.

And then things get dumb again.  Apparently the golden ratio that Jake figured out earlier is a magical formula for understanding Xel'Nagan creation.  Temlaa and Savassan discover a new cave, and Temlaa, a dummy impressed by drawing in the dirt, suddenly figures out the golden ratio by staring at his own fingers.  Well, maybe the khaydarins made his brain more wrinkly or something, but seriously, the golden ratio being perfect?  Pssht.
Remember, if a/b = b/a+b, then it's the golden ratio.

The golden ratio has lots of myth and mysticism about it, but it's really not anything important.  No, the Parthenon wasn't built according to the golden ratio; no, people do not find the golden ratio more aesthetically pleasing than they would other shapes; no, the fact that a sequence of numbers seems cool doesn't make it important.

Basically, putting this kind of magical emphasis on the golden ratio is the exact same thing as being impressed by the number nine.  Did you know that the digits of multiples of nine will sum to nine? Think about it.  Nine times....say, three, is 27.  Two plus seven is nine.  Nine times seven is 63.  Six plus three is nine.  Nine times 56 is 504, and those digits equal nine.  Nine times 888 is 7,992.  If you add those digits, you get 27, which, if you add again, brings you back to nine.

Alright!  I'm ready to find my Xel'Naga temple and discover the mysteries of the universe because I figured out a math trick!  Wheee!

The climax of the Protoss flashbacks is a bit where the two Shelak, having used the golden ratio to enter into a cave, find six corpses connected by wires to a bunch of crystal.  There is one from each tribe, as Savassan notes.  Savassan hooks himself to the wires and gets Temlaa to activate the crystals (how did they know it would work?) and Savassan suddenly gains both physical and mental power. He suddenly understands that all Protoss were meant to work together, and with the power of the crystals, they can all be mentally linked and lose the desire to harm one another.  Seeing into another's mind means understanding them, apparently, and that will cause the Aeon of Strife to end.

Mm'kay.  Sure, this is a bit of mystic oddity, but it works well enough for what Golden is trying to present. She's trying to make the Protoss' religion, the Khala, feel important and united.  The only downside is that it takes away a lot of the mystery of what exactly the Khala is, as her version of mental linkage...well, I can't tell the difference between it and normal telepathy.  Can't any species that sees inside another's mind learn to sympathize with each other over time?  Do they really need some mystical power from the past to tell them that war sucks?

The power of prettiness compels you...

If the Khala were less of a magical crystal power thingamaby and more of a socio/political/religious philosophy, that would make more sense.  I always imagined that the Xel'Naga had some sort of plan for how Protoss society turned out.  After all, who decides who gets to be the Judicator, the Templar, and the Khalai 'Toss?  Why not have that be the Xel'Naga's ancient writings, rather than any of the tribes that have been warring against each other for an eon?

It may sound like I'm hating on Christie Golden here, but I'm really enjoying myself.  I love nitpickery, and this book isn't Shadow of the Xel'Naga bad -- that is, so bad it's not worth reading at all.  It's just....a really silly science fiction plot, so far as Protoss history is concerned.  The problem rises when a really big fan reads this, knowing that the Protoss are a far more complex society than what is portrayed here.  Maybe someone less familiar with Starcraft wouldn't notice.

I'm not going to correct the narration for the Protoss flashbacks.  That's primarily because Christie Golden is much better at writing mystical, strange things, but also because this nitpickery is long enough, and I have to cut back somewhere.

So that's one half of the late-book storyline.  The other half consists of Jake and Rosemary on their escape pod, going to Ethan Stewart, Rosemary's on and off again lover.  The story stays here a good bit while more of the flashbacks go on, and then the two make it to Paradise, the not-so-paradise crime haven.  Where, for some inexplicable reason, Ethan Stewart has set up a mansion with servants.  No really, there's even a servant to help Jake get dressed in the morning.  You'd think that keeping up appearances would matter more if Ethan didn't live in a place where Rosemary can get away with shooting people in the head in broad daylight.

Why did she shoot the person?  Because Ethan, being the ever so special mofo, says that they'll "know" when they meet their contact with him.  Great idea, guy who claims to like Rosemary.  And sure enough, they run into someone Rosemary knows, who is going to sell them out.  Hence Rosemary shooting her in the face.

Y'know, it's clear Golden likes Rosemary better than Jake.  Jake is just some schlub with an alien chick in his head, while R.M. is the character with actual interesting backstory, besides describing and re-describing Rosemary's looks and personality fifteen times.  Assuming I haven't missed one. There's so many "she was a very deadly woman" and "her dark locks" and "her lithe body" that it really got on my nerves.  Especially since no other character is re-described in this manner.  How about making her do violent things instead of just saying she's dangerous?  Shooting someone counts a bit, but when it's in self-defense, that weakens the feel of danger.

So once at Ethan's, and Jake wakes up from his latest vision-coma, he gets stuffed into a tuxedo and brought to a fancy dinner with Ethan and a now gussied up Rosemary.  Sheesh, you have to wonder why Rosemary just didn't decide to stay with Ethan before this story took place.  But my favorite part of this book takes place during the dinner.  That is, when Zamara tells Jake that a sorbet Ethan serves was made from a fruit from Aiur.

I really like this.  It was a very red alert moment, where you know something is wrong.  After all, the only humans who know anything about Aiur are Raynor's men, and therefore the only information about it would have to come from them (DuGalle's mentioning of it in Brood War is kind of a plot hole).  So either one of Raynor's men is a traitor, or one of them was interrogated by Ethan or an associate, or by some other means, Ethan has acquired something from a planet that is currently occupied by Zerg.  The possibilities are near endless, and nearly always sinister.  Unless, y'know, the Protoss for some reason have decided to export fruit to humans.  That would be cute.

A digital creation by 'net friend SgtHK.  Cool, ain't it?

But yeah, it's obvious to anyone Ethan is going to sell Jake out.  He keeps mentioning that Jake's abilities will somehow make him money, but how would that happen?  Who's going to pay money for memories of Protoss history, other than Valerian?  So Jake convinces Rosemary with a recording that Ethan is a bad lad, then they use him to escape.  Rosemary then coldly shoots Ethan with absolutely no reluctance, despite her history with the guy.  Then when they go off in a shuttle and try to fight off Ethan's men, Jake has his final flashback vision for the book, and then gets the ever so witty idea to connect all nearby humans into their own mini-Khala.


Okay, as a science fiction trope, connecting people's minds can work.  It could be a suitable setpiece for an idealistic, bizarro fantasy where society learns to better itself.  However, in the Starcraft universe, there's a problem.  It's been long established that the Khala has something to do with nerve cords, and that Dark Templar sever their cords so that they can't join the Khala.  Guess what humans don't have?  Nerve cords. Even with Namara in Jake's mind, she's still stuck in a human body.  I doubt even a normal Protoss could force the Khala on humans.

It's really sad that Golden doesn't realize this.  Her melodramatic narration really makes the moment work, especially as a way to let Jake and Rosemary get out of a hazardous situation.  It turns Jake from a normal guy into some sort of weird mystic, whose Preserver knowledge will lead not only to hope for the Protoss, but human good as well.  There's all sorts of implications that go with that.

Of course, there's the whole issue of the Khala being too strong.  So if the Khala really is so great that it erases all differences and wars between the tribes, why would the Dark Templar reject it?  Well, this is only the first book, so maybe it gets explained later.    For now, let's just point at narration errors.

Altered minds are disconcerting and sometimes difficult to manage, Zamara sent, oddly comforting.

Wait, what?  Is it the words or Zamara that's being comforting?  When you use a comma in this manner, the subject of the dependent phrase "oddly comforting" is the subject of the independent phrase, "Zamara sent." So, is Zamara comforting in an odd manner or what?

Sure I might be able to extrapolate the meaning of what's supposed to be said here, but good writing is clear, even when it's trying to describe something odd or intangible.  Basically, I'm saying that even if what you're talking about is ambiguous, the words you use to describe that subject should be effective.

He blacked out and fell heavily.

How does one, pray tell, fall heavily?  Was he fat?  Considering that Rosemary is dealing with one of Ethan's guards, we can figure that Ethan probably doesn't hire fat security guards.

Ethan cried out in a most satisfactory way and started to fall.

Out of context, this sentence makes no sense.  Sure, those who have read the book know that Rosemary was fighting him, but it's still really weird that the cry is described as "satisfactory" and then he falls.  It feels like Golden is trying to say Ethan is getting the upper hand and then suddenly isn't.  What if there's a dyslexic or otherwise not great reader (or person who has gotten really disinterested at this point) who accidentally skips the bit before this?

I know Golden is trying to say that the cry was satisfactory to Rosemary, but that's not clear, particularly since Ethan, not her, is the topic of this sentence.

Rosemary Dahl liked to keep things impersonal and businesslike, but if someone stabbed her in the back, it got very personal very quickly.  She'd trusted Valerian and he'd turned on her--or at least his people had, which was the same thing.  He could trust her with his safety, if only for the hatred she now bore toward the Heir Apparent and what he represented.

See, this right here is my main problem with the entire narration of the book.  We're not learning anything about Rosemary through her actions, but rather through Golden just saying "Rosemary is..." over and over again.  Instead of saying "it got personal very quickly", how about having her take a cheap shot at one of Val's men when she and Jake were escaping from Marcus Wright's ship of doom?  Maybe have her insult Valerian from time to time and call him a backstabber?

There's a part early on in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly where a similar idea comes across.  It's where Tuco and Blondie have completed their first scam, and they're counting their money together. During a conversation, Tuco says, "Whoever double-crosses me and leaves me alive, he understands nothing about Tuco. Nothing!"  This is exciting, because to this point in the movie, Tuco has not been impressive.  He's been helpless in a gunfight, carried butt-upwards on a horse, thrown on the floor, and sitting with a noose around his neck.  The audience is immediately interested because the statement is said in a way only Tuco could say, and gets a later kick when it turns out messing with Tuco really isn't a good idea.

Thing is, when you have someone say that they're going to get revenge on a traitor versus writing in the narration, the difference is opinion vs. fact.  A character can say anything he wants, but that doesn't mean their statement is necessarily true.  You can have that character try to get revenge, or wuss out, or possibly abandon revenge for a bigger purpose.  That says things about a character when their actions match or don't match the things they say.

When, however, you say something with narration, the reader has no choice but to accept it as true, because the author is the narrator of the story (in 3rd person, of course) and is the one trying to communicate ideas to the audience.  Certain things should be absolute fact for the story, such as settings, or where an object is in a room, or if something important is happening.  But when you describe a character trait in narration, you waste an opportunity to create tension and stop the readers from interpreting the characters in their own way.  Real people are interpreted through actions and words, so it makes characters feel more real when they're not described with "he was..." or "she was..." statements.

Alright, that's enough.  We've trashed a book long enough for one blog, no?  Besides, despite every single flaw this book has, it had some really good concepts to it.  However, this book is sunk by two major flaws. One is a clear issue with how she describes characters and their backstories, and another is not using characterization and events in ways that best increase the tension.  There should be a lot more character argument, a lot less description of Valerian and his father, and more detail to the one of the two belief systems responsible for causing so many issues in Protoss society during Starcraft.

However, like with the other authors, I am very willing to blame a lot of this on Blizzard interference. Golden's overdramatic flair would be better served in her own, original works.  That way she wouldn't be forced by Blizzard dictates to have the character and situation exactly as Blizz wants them to be.  And she can stick to fantasy, where she is the strongest.

I dunno.  Well, this is a trilogy, so we'll see how it goes.

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