Books based on videogames have a somewhat ‘dodgy’ reputation. There’s some fantastic examples of authors taking the established and sometimes unique themes of a game and running with them. Bringing out new nuances and situations, broadening the game world and characters for the players – or introducing them to potential new fans. Others, well, they tend not to represent the franchise and are little more than a cash cow for the publishers.
Dead Space : Martyr I am happy to say is the former, a chilling novel which builds convincing atmosphere slowly with memorable characters. The novel tells the origin story of the Black Marker, the Church of Unitology and the legendary Michael Altman
Although the exact time and place is kept purposely vague, Dead Space: Martyr is set a couple of hundred years from now, in and around the Chicxulub crater in Mexico. Deep beneath the Yucatán Peninsula, a signal has started to emit from a mysterious Black Marker, causing headaches, nightmares and even death. Geophysicist Michael Altman begins to investigate the signal and soon becomes involved in a complex web of government cover-ups, secret military operations and a dangerous alien artefact that could change the face of humanity forever…
This is a somewhat surprising book because it doesn’t simply regurgitate what happened in the games. Instead of staying religiously close to the source material and offering plasma-cutting monster combat as its main ingredient, it chooses instead to delve deep into the character of Michael Altman, a figure who was largely shrouded in mystery throughout the games. Although most of the supporting characters are underdeveloped (a trio of goons known as Tim, Tom and Terry feel particularly out of place) Altman himself is an engaging protagonist, likeable and resourceful, slowly working his way towards a bleak destiny and cursed legacy.
Although the action is set firmly on Earth, Evenson manages to evoke the terror of the ‘USG Ishimura’ and the ‘Sprawl’ from the games by setting the latter parts of the novel onboard a floating compound that extends deep beneath the water, offering enough claustrophobia and isolation to make the inevitable last-act Necromorph outbreak sufficiently horrifying. Over 400 pages long, Dead Space: Martyr seemingly has no interest in offering mere fan service. Instead, Evenson wisely writes the book as a self-contained narrative, one that ties into the larger story whilst remaining entertaining and self-contained in its own right. The aforementioned Necromoroph outbreak doesn’t occur until the final 100 pages and even then, these sequences only account for a small portion of the overall narrative.
Some fans may be disappointed that the tie-in novel contains little action, but I actually found this approach rather refreshing. The central mysteries play out well and I found the book thoroughly engaging from beginning to end. The idea of using the real-life Chicxulub crater as a plot device was a masterstroke and the story fits very well into the established Dead Space universe. It actually made me care about Michael Altman, a character that had meant very little to me previously. I feel that somebody unfamiliar with the games could still pick this book up and enjoy it as a pulpy science fiction novel too, which is a huge compliment.
Dead Space: Martyr does make some mistakes. It isn’t always written as entertainingly as it could have been and, as previously mentioned, the large cast of characters are often throwaway. Stilted dialogue also damages the flow of the plot, although there are enough standout moments to help propel the reader onwards regardless. The chapters set within the bathyscaphe – an experimental drilling submarine – are particularly chilling. The psychological horror elements (such as cryptic messages from the dead) are far more effective than the expected gory fighting and Evenson was wise to strike such a delicate balance between the two. A great tie-in novel that takes risks whilst remaining faithful to the Dead Space video games.