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Ranking the StarCraft Novels

Hawki October 18, 2016 User blog:Hawki

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So, with Evolution coming up (and I'll refrain from discussing that until it's actually released, provided I discuss it at all), thought I'd indulge in another blog post, namely ranking the StarCraft novels. As in, all of them bar the Archive (which is redundant to discuss by its lonesome), and War Stories, as I feel I can't really evaluate it since it's a collection of short stories and the Project Blackstone campaign. So, with that said:

Update (28/11/16): Added Evolution to the list.

15: Shadow of the Xel'naga

Well, you knew this was coming, didn't you? I mean, has anyone ever said anything positive about this work? Even the work that comes after this has had people saying nice things about it, but I've never met anyone who actually enjoyed this book. And that's kind of a shame, because at the very least, it did give us our first hint at the energy creatures, even though that idea remains unexplored. I don't fault Legacy of the Void for this - you can enjoy LotV and never even know what an energy creature is, after all, but, yeah.

Problem is, the writing's...well, bad. Really bad. Bad, as in, this is a book where Edmund Duke literally goes "eenie meenie" when choosing enemy targets. This is a book that reads like someone played StarCraft and decided to literally transpose the mechanics of the game into narrative format. This is a book where the entire plot is predicated on a game of king of the hill. Now, even a bad plot can be a good read, but...yeah.

Since I'm also going to discuss the authors of this book, let's talk about Kevin J. Anderson. A man who's fairly unpopular in the Dune fandom (per his shared works with Brian Herbert), and has written some of the most disliked Star Wars novels (e.g. Darksaber). I can only personally comment on his Saga of Seven Suns works, and the weaknesses in this novel are shared there. Good premise squandered by poor writing. But Saga of Seven Suns at least has an interesting universe. Shadow of the Xel'naga doesn't take part in any worldbuilding, so there goes a potential good element.

So, yeah. Bottom of the list.

14: Uprising

Okay, I'm going to detour into Diablo and Warcraft for a bit, and this won't be the only time. Thing is, Uprising shares its lineage in the same way that Of Blood and Honor (Warcraft) and Demonsbane (Diablo) do. E-books released when Blizzard was only just starting with EU works. Of Blood and Honor is a bit of an outlier, since it isn't actually the first Warcraft novel, but aside from that, it shows. Of Blood and Honor is, IMO, the worst Warcraft novel, and Demonsbane shares that honor for worst Diablo novel. What's surprised me is that there does seem to be people who like these novels, claiming that they're examples of "pure" Warcraft/Diablo. And that's fine, I've nothing against people liking what they like, but I can't help but wonder how much first impressions factor into this. I bring this up because I've seen people like Uprising for similar reasons, which was also released as the first StarCraft novel, and...yeah.

To be fair, Uprising is much better written than Shadow, but I don't think it's that well written regardless. There's not any one big flaw, but the writing feels...I dunno, basic? I will say in Neilson's defense that he's improved tremendously as a writer since this time, but, yeah. There's nothing too egregious, but I can't say this is a good novel per se. It's a "first." First time Neilson wrote a book, first time a novel was released for StarCraft, and it shows.

13: Liberty's Crusade

Liberty's Crusade is a novel that I rarely see any love given for, and I can understand why. I do like the character of Michael Liberty, but this novel suffers in two key areas. One, it's trying to compress an entire campaign into limited page-space, and it shows in that a lot of the events feel broad in their depiction. Two, Liberty suffers from what I call "me too" syndrome, when a new character is attached to existing events, and feels like he's hogging the glory, so to speak. Him being present for the events of Rebel Yell isn't bad in of itself, but it can feel like a forced presence. So, with that said, is there anything this book does well?

Well, yes, it does, and namely expands on what Rebel Yell kind of hints at, but doesn't really flesh out - that there's a war going on. In Rebel Yell, we have one line from Mengsk to Duke about the Confederacy falling apart, a line that, at the time, is dubious (is he telling the truth, or lying to get Duke on his side)? Liberty's Crusade establishes that yes, the Confederacy is losing. Badly. Like, extremely badly. The Great War is effectively the protoss vs. the zerg with humanity caught in-between, and Liberty's Crusade, more than anything, illustrates this. It's overall a very pessimistic novel, with little in the way of joy, or actual victory. I've seen people criticize WoL for not having this element, and while I don't agree with that criticism, that doesn't mean I think despair is out of place in the setting (heck, it's how it started out). So, yes, Liberty's Crusade at the least does convey how bad things are for the terrans at this point in time.

Oh, and as for Jeff Grubb...well, he did write The Last Guardian, which is among the top Warcraft novels in my mind, but I can't really comment too much on him as a writer.

12: Twilight

Here we have perhaps the most 'average' novel. Novels I rank above this are above this one in other ways, but this doesn't really have any major flaws. So, it's fine. Writing's fine, plot's fine...I think it's the weakest DTS novel in that the flashbacks of its counterparts were far more interesting, and the xel'naga revelation comes way too early in the novel, so that everything after it lacks the same 'punch.' Good read overall, but not really a novel that made much of an impact. As for Golden, I'll discuss her writing style later on.

11: Spectres

Ah, Spectres. A novel that I always feel was going to come up short, but by no fault of its own. Thing is, it's adapting Ghost, but only vaguely, taking the bare bones of what we know about the game's plot, but making it its own thing. Now, this is probably for the best - games are...well, 'gamey,' and as someone who's read and written a fair share of game novelizations, it's that this shows. Really shows, especially with FPS games. A novelization of Ghost, to the letter, wouldn't have ended well, unless the novel could have been huge. So, with all said and done, I don't begrudge Spectres for doing its own thing.

And yet, this novel is...fine. It's similar to Twilight, in that it doesn't really have any glaring flaws, but doesn't really excel in any one area either. I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of references to other installments in the series, to the extent where the description of Augustgrad is taken straight from this wiki's pages. And while that's flattering, the novel feels like it lacks its own identity. Don't get me wrong, I think if you're writing tie-in fiction you should at least familiarize yourself with the setting, but this is on the other end of the spectrum. But I guess that's a minor gripe. Spectres is...fine. It's average, it's decent, it's fine.

As for Kenyon, I do think his Diablo works are overall better than Spectres, but if I ranked the Diablo novels, they'd probably rank fairly low as well. However, that's a list for another time (if at all) and another wiki.

10: Heaven's Devils

Heaven's Devils seems to be well regarded overall. I do consider it a net positive, but I'm not that enamored with it. Thing is, out of all the novels, Heaven's Devils is, without a doubt, military sci-fi. Bear in mind, having soldiers in of itself isn't military fiction - if it were, Star Trek would be military sci-fi itself. No, military fiction tends to have a style of writing and 'values' that distinguish the genre from stories that feature these elements. As part of a writing group, I've often read military fiction and done my best to evaluate it, because, truth be told, military fiction isn't a genre I'm that fond of, and if I do enjoy it, it's usually in spite of those elements rather than because of them. So, here we have Heaven's Devils, which is a military sci-fi work, with fairly dry writing, a focus on machinery and tactics, and a group of three core characters (Raynor, Kydd, Tychus), and broad archatypes covering everyone else.

So, to be fair, Heaven's Devils is arguably good. It captures the desolation of Turaxis II well enough, conveys the cost of war, and does a good job of making this feel like "the world before," as we have things like Avengers and the most basic forms of resoc. Granted, that doesn't quite sync with I, Mengsk, but regardless, I feel it works. Heaven's Devils shows what a human vs. human war is like in all its dirty glory. So in that, it succeeds. What it doesn't succeed as well as is giving us a definitive conclusion, given how abruptly the story ends, but we have Devil's Due to continue that.

9: Flashpoint

...okay, let's talk about Christie Golden.

I like Golden's writing, and I've read a lot of it. It doesn't really have any one selling point (unlike say, Deitz, who's primarily a military sci-fi writer), but it's decent. I like the characters, I like the writing, I like the style. However, Golden isn't really a romance writer, but character relationships play a central role in her works most of the time. Often there's at least one romantic interest, and if not, the character dynamic is the key focus. Now, I like character-focused works, but as for romance? Nothing against it, but whether it succeeds or not is on a 'by book' basis.

So here we have Flashpoint, a book that obstensibly bridges Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm, but in reality, is an examination of the Raynor-Kerrigan dynamic for people whose first exposure to said dynamic was in Wings of Liberty. It re-treads ground covered by SC1 and Liberty's Crusade, not telling a lore fan anything they didn't already know per se, but filling in the gaps, while for the everyday reader, this is all new to them. Is this a bad thing? In my mind, no, it isn't - I'm fine with how it's portrayed. But it is noticable, in what's otherwise a standard "run from the bad guy" plot. There's a tone to Flashpoint that doesn't quite mesh with past works, and it's best exemplified by how often the battlecruisers jump, whereas in Queen of Blades, the difficulties of quick warp jumps are a plot point. I can accept that tech can improve in four years (certainly the Hyperion is souped up), but, yeah. It's noticably different.

Still, Flashpoint is fine. Not a necessary bridge between games, but I don't begrudge its existence.

8: Queen of Blades

Queen of Blades is to Liberty's Crusade what Devils' Due is the Heaven's Devils - an obvious sequel, that's obviously written by a different author. The divide here is less pronounced than in the HD/DD contrast, but regardless, Rosenberg isn't Jeff Grubb. The writing is different. It feels far more free flowing, and far more optimistic. There was apparently meant to be a novelization of The Fall, but that seems to have disappeared, so we're left with these works. And honestly, I prefer this of the two, but it's not without its detractors. Thing is, this novelizes the zerg campaign of SC1, but it feels like the zerg are losing a lot more than they did. The protoss don't get hit nearly as bad (if anything, the Raiders have it worse), and the novel focuses far more on Kerrigan-Raynor than the zerg as a whole. If that's bad or good or not is down to personal taste. Me, personally, I like it. I like how it highlights their connection, I like how it conveys the firendship between Tassadar, Raynor, and Zeratul, I like how it shows the beginnings of the Raiders as a small but effective fighting force. Writing this now, I realized something - Liberty's Crusade is in the tone of SC1, Queen of Blades is more towards the tone of SC2. Not without darkness, but not as 'gritty' in of itself. Maybe that's why I like it more?

Anyway, that's it. I will say that I think it's better than Rosenberg's Warcraft novels, namely novelizations of Tides of Darkness and Beyond the Dark Portal. Not entirely his fault, as you're trying to novelize an entire game into a single novel, but, well, that's the way the cookie crumbles.

7: Shadow Hunters

Now we're really getting into the good stuff. Everything up to this point has been "bad" or "average," but in this list, you can consider everything from this point to be good. And Shadow Hunters is good. Not quite as good as Firstborn, but good all the same. I like Jake as a protagonist, and Dahl gets knocked down a bit (I'll discuss her more with Firstborn). The flashbacks are still interesting, as we're covering material previously only summarized. I like how we have a case of human-protoss interaction that helps convey how alien the protoss actually are. I also like the Tal'darim. Yes, a different Tal'darim from the ones we see in the games, but whatever the case, these Tal'darim are a nice touch. There's a sense of awe, being on Aiur, exploring the caverns, etc. So, all in all, good job.

6: Devils' Due

I mentioned before that Devils' Due is a case of a sequel being written by a very different author. And, well, it is. It really is. Heaven's Devils is military sci-fi through and through. Devils' Due is far more in the vein of a space western. The Raynor-Tychus dynamic is more interesting, and the personal issues come to the forefront (Raynor and his parents for instance). The downside is that the fight scenes are lacklustre and Daun is a 2D villain through and through. Still, I enjoy space westerns. WoL is a space western with space opera mixed in, and I've always loved shows like Farscape, Firefly, Cowboy Bebop, and Blake's 7 (though whether that's a 'western' is admittedly iffy). So, yes, I like this novel. I like the writing, I like the characters, I like the catharsis of Raynor killing Vanderspool, I like how it feels like a complete, overall story when combined with Heaven's Devils. So, like I said, I like it.

5: Evolution

So, Evolution. Ooh boy. This leaves me a lot to talk about. Mostly good stuff, mind you, but there's a giant ultralisk in the room, and that's its take on the zerg. Reading the descriptions of the novel, I will admit to being put off - personally, I thought Legacy of the Void left things in a good place, as I've described elsewhere. Among that are the zerg - doing their own thing, but with no real inclination to restart another war. And why should they? Terran essence is useless to them, protoss essence is a no-go (well, at least the Nerazim, not sure if Khalai or Tal'darim are protected from infestation), they've come from a war where a sizable portion of zerg were used against them, so, sure, I can buy the zerg not sparking more conflict. Evolution seemed to be taking the zerg down the path of peace-loving peaceniks. Having read the book, the question is thus asked, are the zerg "ruined?"

My answer? No. There's far too much in the novel reiterating that the zerg are nasty. Combat strains are nasty, Zagara is a terror to look at, and a terror when push comes to shove in close combat. She seems to have done a personality flip of sorts, but her intent of fostering peaceful relations is still to ensure the survival of the zerg in the long term, just survival through peace rather than conflict. It is fair to say that the zerg are less hemogenized though - Abathur is the main example, but, broodmothers/queens that have yet to follow Zagara's lead are mentioned, and at least going by Mukav, they can operate outside her control. The zerg aren't unified like they were under the Overmind or Kerrigan. In a sense, I'm reminded a bit of the formics from the Enderverse. Up until this point, the zerg's main sources of inspiration were the tyranids and xenomorphs, but Evolution sets up a sense of parallel with the formic queen. Seeks coexistence rather than conflict, helps life on a verdant world, etc. And come to think of it, de-hemogenization is the name of the game. Terrans go without saying, Daelaam are dealing with inter-cultural issues (again), etc. Evolution feels like the Star Wars EU after Return of the Jedi (fitting that Zhan is the author then) - unnecessary sequel in the narrative sense, but it's at least a sequel that does take a realistic path.

So, overall, decent book. So why isn't it higher on this list? Well, a few reasons. One, I feel it suffers from being stretched out too much in some areas, and underdeveloped in others. Evolution is effectively one third alien diplomacy, one third military sci-fi, one third character adventure/espionage story. It lacks any central main character, and the protoss feel far less developed than Valerian and co. Valerian gets all these conversations with Matt, Artanis is never seen outside his communications with Valerian. The protoss suffer the most from the psyolisks, and it's the terrans that suss out Abathur's plan. I can live with that, but looking at the novels after this on the list, I feel they're stronger for a 'cleaner' character focus, and a more focused sense of what they are. Evolution knows what kind of story it wants to tell, and tells it decently, but I can't say any of the characters come up to the level of, say, Jake Ramsey, Nova, Ardo Melnikov, or Arcturus, to label the core protagonists of subsequent novels. Of the ground crew, Tanya is really the only one that has any form of character arc. I've ranked it above Devils' Due, if only because the combat is better and the antagonists are far more interesting than Daun, but even that was clearly Raynor's story, with a clear start and end point for his character development.

Second minor gripe is that by far the most interesting aspect introduced in the novel is the adostra, and yet, they're technically barely glimpsed at. We get far more of the psyolisks than them. I can't really fault the novel for this, but still, it feels like sequel bait, and, well, it is. So there is that.

So, where does Evolution leave the setting? Well, in an interesting place, I'll give it that. It still falls into the realm of unnecessary sequel for me (like Nova Covert Ops), but it's a far better sequel than NCO in my eyes (so far, yet to play the third part of the mission pack). I'm kind of left to wonder if this will be the status quo, that like Star Wars, the setting will continue on past Return of the Jedi/Legacy of the Void, and continue in EU form only. Iffy about that, especially if, gag, it leads to the equivalent of The Force Awakens, but at the least, if Evolution is taking the story forward, I can honestly say there's no obvious direction the story is headed (in a good sense). But hey, more adostra please. :)

4: Firstborn

Yep, it's true, I feel that each installment of the Dark Templar Saga is weaker than the one before it. Not that the other books are bad, but this one does have the hardest 'punch.' Namely, we're introduced to Jake, who's a nice, average guy that I can remain invested in. We get flashbacks to the Aeon of Strife, which helps flesh out this time period in protoss history (and yes, I didn't guess that Savassan was Khas until the actual reveal came). We get a sense of granduer with the xel'naga temple. We get a sense of how the protoss are different from humans. I feel Shadow Hunters illustrates this more, but nonetheless, Zamara is a good character to have. And likewise, Valerian. The only downside is that I feel Dahl, in this book, feels like a Mary Sue and arguably even a self insert, but she thankfully mellows out as time goes on.

So, all in all, good read.

3: Nova

This novel doesn't get much love, and I can sort of understand why. You have a book that takes place in one location, focusing on one character, acting as a prequel to a game that was never released, that is incidental to the greater scheme of things bar fleshing out Nova herself. It's also the least "StarCrafty" novel out there. StarCraft tends to be a mix of military sci-fi, space opera, and space western. Most of the stories told in the universe can fall into one of those three categories. This novel, on the other hand, is a crime drama first and foremost. So, yeah. Not your usual fare.

And yet, I feel that's why it works for me. I like how it fleshes out what living in Tarsonis City (or at least the Gutter) is actually like. I like how it fleshes out Nova and her character. Oh, sure, you can like Nova without knowing her backstory, but she's all the better for having it. I like how atypical it is in regards to its approach. I like its style of writing, in regards to how it conveys telepathy, and what deCandido brings to the table. Yes, discussing deCandido, I've read quite a few works of his, and one thing he's very good at is interweaving humor into a story. Not laugh out loud humor, but more idiosyncratic humor, focusing on how silly life, the universe, and everything can actually be. Here, we see that in full force, as a war is being waged, and people are worried about Old Family dramas.

So, yes, I like this book. Not usual fare for the setting, but if anything, that's part of its selling point.

2: Speed of Darkness

Fine, I admit it, I cried the first time I read the ending of this novel. Happy?!

Okay, that was teenage me. Adult me still likes this book, even though it has one weakness - it adds nothing to the overall setting. Out of all the novels, even more so than Nova, this is a book that very much is a story told in the setting rather than a work that drives the setting forward. The novel's events have never been referenced in any other work bar the timelines, and even then, it's nothing more than a footnote. This isn't bad in of itself, but compared to the other novels, it's still noticable.

But that aside, this is a good read. It's similar to Liberty's Crusade, in that it conveys just how bad things are for the terrans at this point, but balances out that grimness with likable characters, and moments of light. Ardo and co. die, but they die doing the right thing and make a difference. Unlike Liberty's Crusade, which shows how inept the Confederacy was in fighting a sector-wide war, this shows how terran forces can be effective if given proper direction. Personally, I'm more onboard with this approach. I can enjoy both light and dark works no problem, but having elements of darkness in a light work and vice versa does make it more appealing for me. There's also the religious elements, which I'm fine with - there's lots of references to religion, but none that they feel obtrusive.

So, yeah. Solid all around. Can't comment on Hickman outside this book, but good read.

1: I, Mengsk

God damn it McNeil, why? Why? Why did you never give us that second novel you hinted at?!

Well, maybe Games Workshop flexed their muscles, I dunno. I like McNeil's Warhammer works, but last I heard he was working with Riot Games. But anyway, this novel. The novel that takes the top spot on this list. And the reason it does is that it doesn't really excel in any one area, but does a good job in a number of areas. Solid character focus with Arcturus and Valerian? Check. Good worldbuilding? Check, at least in the first two sections. Decent action? Firefights are relatively small scale, but check. Good book all in all? Check. Oh, and what's gratifying is that this novel, while it's obviously written with a knowledge of the setting, is done so in a way that's unlike Spectres. Like it's not afraid to be its own thing.

So, yeah. All in all, solid work.

Conclusions

So, yeah, that's me. To be honest, I don't read as much tie-in work as I did half a decade ago. With StarCraft and Diablo I'm kind of obliged to, what with being wiki admins, but aside from that, it's mostly on original works. Still, the novels have been a net positive for the setting in my mind. They've filled in the gaps, they've had a variety of authors, they've had highs and lows, and honestly, my thoughts have always been that an expanded universe is never a bad thing for any setting. But, that's just me.

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