Speed of Darkness (Tracy Hickman)
Speed of Darkness is the third book seeking to expand on the Starcraft universe. Thankfully, it ditches many of the annoying tropes from the first two, giving us a setting very near to that of the game, and important to events of the game, but keeping game characters out of it. Additionally, the author does not try his hand at writing Zerg/Protoss point of view sequences, which seem to be rather difficult for authors to grasp, instead focusing on one Confederate Marine, Ardo Melnikov, and his company's mission to infiltrate an abandoned settlement and retrieve a mysterious box. This premise leads to an action packed book highly reminiscent of the movie Aliens, but the most interesting facet of the book is Ardo's quest to remember who he is, a task made infinitely more difficult by the neural resocialization every Marine undergoes. Ultimately, Speed of Darkness is the best Starcraft novel to date and a surprisingly solid work for people who have no interest in the franchise.
The book starts with a frantic Zerg invasion sequence on Ardo's homeworld, in which he is saved at the last second by Confederate dropships. Alas, Ardo is forced to leave his girlfriend behind, ostensibly to be ripped apart by the Zerg. During this time we learn a little about who Ardo is, a religious man with a bright future ahead of him. This initial sequence is crucial to future events, though it is probably the least exciting action sequence in the entire book.
The narrative flash forwards to a few months later. Ardo has completed Marine training and is shipping out to his first mission, recovery of a suitcase on the backwater world of Mar Sara. From this point the book becomes more of a straightforward action novel, as we are introduced to his team, fight off lots of Zergs, and discover increasingly chilling revelations about the contents of the box and Ardo's personality. The end of the book indirectly ties into the third mission from the game, and the contents of the box will be familiar to any fan of the game, but other than this the plot is entirely self contained. The side characters, Ardo's comrades, are nothing special and little more than names. Luckily, Ardo is a rather interesting character to help offset the relative blandness of the other characters in the book. We get the typical wise second in command, erratic commander, and rival soldier. None of them break these molds in any way, and when mixed with a large number of characters who literally are nothing more than names, the book is thin on support characters. Thankfully, the author does refrain from writing in Zerg antagonists, instead portraying the group as the mindless, limitless hivemind that seems to be the most effective use of the race.
Ardo is made interesting through a compelling conflict within himself. After saving a lone colonist from the ruins of their target location, the Marines entrust Ardo with her safety. This ill-fated decision leads to the character revealing several important things to Ardo and forcing him to question not only his own sanity, but the moralities of serving in the Confederate Army and his own identity. We are told that Ardo's memory has been significantly altered and that his girlfriend and family may actually still be alive- that what we were shown at the beginning was probably a false memory imprinted during resocialization. Ardo struggles to come to grips with this, and the more aggressive nature imparted upon him by the army(he seems to be a pacifist at heart, showing deep remorse for killing a Zergling.) As he works through these issues, he becomes a more relatable character, developing from a kind of awkward screw up into a reluctant hero.
The writing style is much like the other books in the series, featuring the same action oriented sequences as its predecessors. Fans of the Terran will love the writing as the author goes out of his way to showcase Marine tactics and background information. Of particular interest is how Marines and Firebats work together to achieve objectives. There is also a bit of detail about the Confederate chain of command, civilian life (the stuff on religion was a particularly nice touch.) We also spend some time inside the iconic structures from the game, like the factories and command centers. These segments provide even more detail on the Terran army, as we get to learn how the buildings function and what they look like on the inside. The dialogue is a little weird; characters are prone to sounding very similar, often uttering the same declarations of surprise or anger. There are a few overwritten sequences in which Ardo explores his memory, where the various emotions at play are squeezed for all they are worth, but the book mostly shows a respectable amount of restraint and touch when dealing with Ardo's inner turmoil.
Starcraft: Speed of Darkness is the first truly good novel to be based in the popular universe. Unlike Liberty's Crusade, which had a terribly repetitive premise, or Shadows of the Xel'Naga, which was all around awful, this novel does a great job of balancing the human touch with explosive action sequences. Due to the excellent background details, Ardo's surprisingly compelling character, and the nonstop, fast paced nature of the plot, Speed of Darkness is well worth a read for any fans of action oriented science fiction.