Shadow of the Xel'Naga (Gabriel Mesta)
Shadow of the Xel'Naga was originally published as a 272 page novel. It has since been re printed along with three other early Starcraft stories in the Starcraft Archive.
Shadow of the Xel'Naga is the second in a series of four novels that make up the Starcraft Archive collection. Unlike the previous book, Liberty's Crusade, Shadow attempts to be more true to the game, going so far as to mention nearly every unit and special ability featured therein. While the epic, sweeping battles that make up the bulk of the novel are a good idea, the dry delivery, stock characters, and bizarre ending prevent it from being better than the previous book, though it is far more in the vein of the Starcraft games.
Set between the events of Starcraft and its expansion, Brood War, Shadow of the Xel'Naga begins with a young colonist, Octavia, on a remote, isolationist world and her struggle for survival on a day to day basis. Her brutal existence on Bhekar Ro is changed forever when she discovers a mysterious artifact with her brother, Lars. After a disastrous attempt to explore the inside of the object, the story starts to build steam. It turns out that the device belonged to none other than the Xel'Naga, the creators of both the Protoss and Zerg races. The device activates and summons both races to its location. Meanwhile, Octavia returns to the colony and urges the mayor to send out a distress call to the Terran for military assistance.
Thus the stage is set for the epic throw down between Terran, Protoss, and Zerg. Unfortunately, some rather bad writing keeps it from achieving its full potential. The biggest problem is the author's absolute adherence to the game's instruction manual and basic mechanics. Resource gathering, unit special abilities, and even their weapons are all mentioned precisely as they appeared in the game. This is fine, but the results are so uninspired that it reads like somebody writing a novelization of an unusually boring round of Starcraft multiplayer. One side uses a squad of Terran marines and kills a bunch of Zerglings, but then a Templar comes out from a bunch of rocks and kills them all with a psionic storm! Battlecruisers have Yamato cannons so that is the only weapon they can ever be described using, and we will make sure that at least one of them gets blown up by a Zerg Scourge because that is like the game. The resulting action scenes are very formulaic and tedious, though a scene in which the colonists must repel the Zerg on their own is actually pretty good as it manages to capture a sense of desperation and unpredictability that isn't seen anywhere else in this book.
Another problem are the characters introduced throughout the book. We get a handful of new characters- a few colonists, a Protoss Dark Templar, a Protoss commander, and a generic marine second in command. Additionally, there are cameos by game characters Arcturus Mengsk and Sarah Kerrigan, while Edmund Duke plays a key role in the events of the story. The nicest thing you can say about the characters in this novel is that they are completely bland. This applies to Octavia (though she is a stronger than average female protagonist, she falls a bit flat in personality) the rest of the colonists, and pretty much all the new characters. Bland is bad, but absolutely backwards, simplistic characterization of the recurring characters is even worse.Duke comes across as a xenophobic, tactically retarded, arrogant fool who wants nothing more than to blow everything up. Mengsk is a power hungry vampire eager to execute people and control the universe, while Kerrigan is basically the exact same only alien. The characterizations of these crucial players in the overall saga is insulting and overly simplistic. It would be one thing if the authors just glazed over these characters, especially Mengsk and Kerrigan, who only show up for a total of three or four scenes. But instead of just leaving them open ended, the author uses the most childish, one dimensional characterizations imaginable.
The author's lack of imagination doesn't just apply to the use of special abilities and units, but also to the new creature he tries to introduce into the fold. After explicitly comparing Zerglings to dogs throughout the novel, he feels the need to introduce a completely silly and unnecessary creature based off the dog of one of the colonists. The explanation behind it makes little sense, it has no actual purpose in the story, and it sounds utterly contrived. This is the author's only attempt to expand on the Starcraft universe in any way- everything else any "unit" does is strictly by the rules established in the game, except for when it isn't (Protoss deceased do not vanish, Reavers transport people, Goliaths become people in suits instead of armored walkers.) These glaring blunders are made all the worse by the otherwise strictly unimaginative way in which the author portrays the denizens of the Starcraft universe.
The ending, in which the Xel'Naga artifact flies away from the battlefield, is embarrassingly cheesy. We are treated to the utter destruction of all of the Protoss and Zerg forces, but the remaining Humans aren't harmed by the device. What's worse is that the Humans that were captured (and to this point presumably destroyed) in the device come back to life in an extremely weak, utterly garbage ending that pretty much cancels what little emotional investment there was in the battles before hand. This includes Octavia's brother Lars, and Lieutenant Scott, who then inexplicably becomes a romantic interest for Octavia. To top things off though, we don't actually learn anything about the Xel'Naga. Sure, the artifact has their name on it, but we don't get any explanations about the artifact as the factions are too busy fighting huge battles to worry about studying it. This is arguably the most disappointing aspect of the book, as the end result is that nothing in the Starcraft universe changes or becomes clearer, and the titular organization is still as much of a question mark as it was before.
This is a really, really bad book. The concept was solid but execution was off by a substantial amount. It isn't just the fact that we learn nothing about the Xel'Naga, or that the ending is terrible and the best parts are merely acceptable; it is the fact that very little effort seemed to be spent in understanding the Starcraft universe that makes this book such a disaster. How else can one explain the thoughtless descriptions of each unit's special abilities, the bland writing, the terribly handled characters, or the inexcusable technical blunders? It truly feels like the author sat down and read the manual, scanned through a summary of the game's story and characters, watched two games of Starcraft multiplayer, then wrote the book. Avoid this book at all costs.