It’s all too easy to be skeptical when approaching novels based on popular video game series’. There’s good reason to believe that most of them will be lazily plotted and written tripe that exists for no other purpose than to cash in on the popularity of a franchise and will most likely disappoint anyone looking for an engaging extended look into a game’s universe.
Such were my expectations going into the 2010 novel Dead Space: Martyr, not having known that its author, B.K. Evenson, was in fact a prolific horror writer. What I ended up with, however, was a genuine page-turner that succeeded in fleshing out the backstory of the Dead Space saga while also providing a read that was interesting and well-written in its own right.
Martyr is set during what is arguably the earliest point of relevancy in the Dead Space timeline, in the weeks leading up to and during the initial finding of the Black Marker and, as a result, the first ever contact with its byproduct: a viral outbreak that turns humans into savage mutants called Necromorphs. At the center of the plot is Geophysicist Michal Altman, whom Dead Space fans already know by now as the man who famously discovered the Marker submerged in the Gulf of Mexico and inadvertently started the religion known as Unitology.
However, Altman is far from the only character who gets the protagonist spotlight. In what is initially a quite jarring technique, the story regularly switches up its main character between chapters, giving you the perspectives of characters such as a young boy named Chava, the corporate agent Tanner, a submarine pilot by the name of Hennesey, and many more. At first, it might make the plot seem unfocused and hard to follow, but after just a few pages, this regular protagonist shift succeeds in bringing a larger sense of scope to the narrative and allowing the reader to experience the full effect and consequences of the events in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
Thankfully, the characters still manage to be likable and relatable despite the often short amount of time they’re featured for. This is achieved largely thanks to smart, subtle characterization and an emphasis on interactions between the characters that effectively establishes motivations, conflicts and goals while rarely resorting to all-out exposition dumps. A lot of the time, readers will be able to pick up on a character’s personality simply in their mannerisms and speech. All of these people are also important to the overarching plot, each of whom play a vital role in the discovery and cover-up of the Marker. Altman still feels like the centerpiece, however, and his journey of discovery, doubt, and the hunger for knowledge is ultimately both sympathetic and tragic.
Martyr is essentially one part conspiracy thriller and one part horror, and thanks to Evenson’s great use of methodical pacing and a colder, more objective writing style, he successfully fuses the genres together. Indeed, the always third-person writing is usually absent of imagery, verbose description and emotionally resonant phrases, but Evenson uses this to his advantage, making events and encounters feel realistic and to the point. The writing here is remarkably focused and breezily minimalistic, but it contributes to a tight and focused feel where you’re able to trust that Evenson is delivering every piece of detail and information that you need to know and nothing more.
The few instances where he does inject more artistic, descriptive touches make sense and help the reader to understand just what the characters are up against. Hallucinations and nightmare sequences employ some creative techniques within the text that paint a disturbingly effective image of what it must be like to be under the influence of the Marker. Fans of Dead Space’s graphic gore will also be pleased to know that Evenson takes the time to write death scenes and Necromorph descriptions in grisly detail, adding a sense of shocking payoff to the horror sequences and furthering both the feeling of dread and, in many cases, sympathy towards the characters.
Unfortunately, besides the gory descriptions, fans may be dismayed to find that a lot of the time, Martyr doesn’t really feel like Dead Space. Despite taking place in 2241, very little in the way of nifty sci-fi technology is described besides the occasional holo-terminal or vid-screen, and more often than not the book will display rather modern and familiar concepts such as pistols, helicopters and freighters. Marker symbolism is prominent throughout, along with creative Spanish mythology behind them, and there are a few occasions where we meet appropriately named ancestors to various secondary characters from the Dead Space games, but much of the physical combat against Necromorphs is relegated to nightmare sequences and the final, more action-packed chapters of the novel. Then again, it could be argued that shoehorning more references and description in would have detracted from the vision and fluidity Evenson displays here.
It must also be said that there’s some unavoidable dramatic irony throughout. For the uninitiated, this is when the reader knows important plot-related info that the characters do not, and this is often due to us having found out the info a few chapters prior when another character witnessed the events. Certainly, such a device can be effective when used in the context of horror, but too many times this is employed in the more mystery/thriller segments, where it falls flat on its face. There will be quite a few times where characters will struggle to find out something the audience is already well aware of, all the while nothing terribly drastic is at stake at that moment. While definitely a difficult thing to fix in a multi-perspective novel like this, it nevertheless slows down the otherwise stellar pace in a few cases.
Beyond that, there are a few moments of stiff dialogue and caricature. Occasionally someone will spout a line that either feels too intelligent for them, jumps to conclusions, or is generally out of character. Thankfully, this is incredibly rare, as are the few minor characters, such as a trio of cartoonishly sadistic bodyguards named Tim, Tom and Terry and an old homeless drunk, who feel stereotypical and one-note and are fortunately a brief presence. Overall, Martyr feels like a genuinely passionate and well thought out story by someone who respects the franchise but also has an interesting story to tell within it. The book is a success in almost all regards, and the few flaws it does have are never a result of outright laziness.
It’s important to know what exactly you’re getting into before reading Dead Space: Martyr. If you’re expecting a very personal tale that serves as a singularly focused and meaningful character study, you’ll probably be disappointed, because that’s not what Martyr sets out to do. What is does set out to do is create a vast and complex web of intrigue that forms a grand and eventful portrait of Dead Space history, witnessed by characters likable enough to root for that never distract from the narrative’s tight and informative flow. If you’re a fan of Dead Space that is interested in delving into the series’ rich backstory and the mind of Michal Altman, Martyr is a must read that is at once gripping and rewarding.
Stay tuned for a review of the 2012 follow-up novel, Dead Space: Catalyst, which should be coming very soon.