Thursday, May 3, 2012

Shepherd492 reviews: Splinter Cell

Splinter Cell (David Michaels)  

             Splinter Cell is the first novel set in the video game universe of the same name. Focusing on agent Sam Fisher and his efforts to thwart yet another megalomaniac terrorist in his attempts to blow up Baghdad. The story is spiced up by a feature appearance by Sam's daughter, Sarah, and some minor sub plots between the two evil groups at the heart of the story, the arms dealer group known as the Shop and the terrorist outfit known as the Shadows. It is an entertaining, if flawed,  novel full of the typical twists and turns, tense action sequences, and mega-high stakes common place in the Splinter Cell video game franchise. However, it fails to make good use of its format, Sam's character rings false, stealth scenes are extremely formulaic, and the antagonists are extremely hollow characters.
            The first notable element about the book is the style of narration, it being the rare book among video game tie ins to utilize first person narrative. Interestingly, the point of view still rotates, but when a character other than Sam is the narrator, the mode switches to a more common place third person style. At first, the unique style seems kind of odd, as Sam randomly mentions all of his equipment, finds reasons to think about his past, and details bits of his life in a heavy handed, tell don't show manner that significantly weakens the writing. It feels a little more natural later, but voice is an important element in first person writing, and the author doesn't quite capture Sam's voice here.
            As anyone who has played the video games knows, Sam has a very caustic, dry wit that keeps him cool and composed in even the most dire situation. He also uses stealth, not brute strength, to achieve his objectives. Here we see a character that rarely displays this important element of his persona, instead getting angry/outmaneuvered early and often in conversations, and engaging and killing his foes when he doesn't necessarily need to. The voice and general personality of Sam is inconsistent throughout the book, occasionally fitting, but most often hard to reconcile with the character we know.
            Another failing of the book concerns the predictable way stealth scenes are plotted, and also Sam's manner of espionage. The break ins are often completely laughable, many of them concerning Sam infiltrating a warehouse or secret base with only one or two guards on patrol. This significantly cuts back on the amount of strategy and planning involved in his espionage, a cornerstone of the franchise. Generally all he has to do is knock out one guy then move on. However, without fail, if Sam does this to get in, he has to get out by evading a hail of bullets, hyper alert security forces, and the odd policeman or two. This represents poor planning on Sam's part and an extremely limited imagination on the part of the author. So many sequences in the book read something like this: Sam breaks into a restricted area, knocks out one guy, and gets the info he is after->more guards come in and find the first guy, wake him and find/chase Sam-> Sam barely escapes after nearly getting shot, guards lose his trail. The all out action sequences are decent, nicely showcasing Sam's resourcefulness and knack for getting out of a bad spot, but the stealth sequences (the crucial element of the franchise prior to the most recent game) are desperately under plotted and badly mis-characterize Sam.
            In terms of what we learn about Sam's life, the book is rife with minor details but surprising lacking in major revelations. This novel marked the first time the audience is told about Sam's deceased ex-wife and their tumultuous relationship, and it does a very good job of fleshing out the dynamic between Sarah and Sam, but other than that the book is light on insight. One of the biggest questions I have about Sam is his motivation. We learn throughout the book about all the concessions Sam has to make for his job: his daughter doesn't know what he does, he can't get in a relationship with any women (a particularly poignant scene occurs when Sam is forced to turn down the advances of his civilian hand to hand combat teacher,) and he is out of the country for much of the year. Yet for all the sacrifices we learn about, we are never shown why he does it all. One might assume it is for his daughter, but nothing concrete is revealed and after the events of this novel that explanation doesn't hold up to scrutiny in the slightest. Whatever his reasons for fighting the good fight are, you won't learn about them from this book, and that is one of the most disappointing elements of a book that aims to get inside Sam's head.
            The third person sequences help us get into the heads of various one-scene characters, Sam's daughter Sarah, and the various antagonists at the heart of the plot. These sections are better written than the sections featuring Sam, but they are far from perfect. Much of this has to do with the scatter shot nature of the plot. At any one time, there is a lot going on with the story. Sam's daughter in a cell in the middle of nowhere, terrorist Nasir Targihan and his plot to exact revenge on the people of Iraq, Sam's investigations into the Shadow organization, arms dealer Andrei Zdrok and his efforts to kill all the Splinter Cells, and Third Echelon's investigation/manipulation of the situation. There is too much content stuffed into this book, diluting what is honestly a solid couple of plots. The antagonists come across as garden variety criminals and ne'er do wells, but that doesn't prevent the book from creating an enjoyable, if inconsequential, Splinter Cell adventure. Sam's investigation of the mysterious Shop leads him all across the Middle East, and many of his travels are punctuated by well written action scenes and increasingly important revelations. The writer also does a good job working in the political climate of each region and tying it into the plot in a convincing manner. Sarah's plight is somewhat similar to the movie Taken, although she actually comes across as even dumber than the girls who were kidnapped in that movie. It is a good storyline because of how it affects Sam, and helps to illustrate the relationship between the two, but the actual premise is deeply flawed and relies on Sarah being an absolutely irresponsible moron. Overall, none of the storylines are terrible, and in fact Third Echelon's manner of destroying the two antagonizing organizations is brilliant and helps to establish Sam's role in an larger group, as opposed to setting him up as an agent completely on his own. The point of view rotates far too much, and the strange mix of first and third person narrative seems even more bizarre as a result.
            Splinter Cell gets quite a bit wrong, and it is at best a relatively uninspired novel. It is fun for a quick read or easy spy adventure, but it offers precious little insight into the character of Sam Fisher, and in fact manages to badly mis-characterize him on multiple occasions. The villains are nothing spectacular and Sarah is a downright moron, but if you are looking for little more than some killing, explosions, and one or two particularly clever/well written scenes, this is well worth a read.
Final Score

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