Assassin's Creed: The Secret Crusade (Oliver Bowden)
Assassin's Creed: The Secret Crusade is the third in a line of novels re-telling and expanding upon the events of the game and the main characters. Unlike the first two books which heavily featured Renaissance-era Assassin Ezio Auditore, this book goes all the way back to the genesis of the series with Altair's quest to save the Holy Land from the Templar menace while the Crusades continue to decimate the people of the region. Like the game it is based on, The Secret Crusade is a more simplistic, monotonous affair than other entries in the series, and even an adaptation of some of the Assassin's Creed handheld games and other material isn't enough to prevent this from being the worst entry yet in this series of questionable purpose.
As anyone who has played the first Assassin's Creed knows, and let's face it, you aren't interested in this book if you haven't, most of the games missions were of a very linear and repetitive nature: Altair is assigned a mission by his master, he gathers intel on his target, he finds a convenient place to attack his target, the target does something unthinkably brutal to show that they are actually bad guys, Altair kills them and their dying words cause him to rethink his mission. This book doesn't sway from that and in fact speeds up this process by cutting out most of step two, the result is that the opening acts, which are a direct novelization of the game with just a hint of an origin story thrown in, are extremely hard to read and things only get worse. These problems extend to the book's next act, set on Cyprus, where Altair is charged with taking down the Templar's hold on the island. Here we aren't even given the pretense of building up the characters getting murdered or any semblance of a plot. Altair needs to kill these Templars to beat the game, so he does. As with previous books in the series, there is no mention of the modern storyline featuring Desmond Miles, but it probably wouldn't have saved or significantly change what is a bored and effortless retelling of the events of Altair's life.
The final act is actually pretty cool, benefitting from a relatively clever story and a bit stronger of a theme then what we've seen leading up to it. Altair, now in his eighties, alone in the world, and exiled from leadership of the Assassins, returns to strike down the corrupt new leader and his sycophants. Just the idea of geriatric Altair kicking butt and taking names is enough to sell this part, but the unusual take on the character and better writing than is featured in the rest of the book also help. It doesn't salvage the rest of the book by a long shot, but this is by far the most enjoyable element of the entire thing.
Characterization has never been a truly strong pillar of what makes Assassin's Creed a successful franchise, so it is no surprise that this flaw carries over to the book. What is surprising is that the characterization here is arguably even worse than in the games. There is an enormous cavalcade of villains, all shown to be extremely bad dudes with fiery tempers and an unquenchable thirst for blood and while the attempts at characterizing these evil doers makes for a very repetitive read since the same trick is used for pretty much all of them, eventually even that bit of pretense is dropped and Altair just starts killing people because someone told him to. There might be a throwaway line here or there about what a mean guy the next target is, but it's nothing near substantive. Altair's allies are just as vapid, and in fact his romance with Englishwoman Maria is among the absolute worst parts of this game. It is truly one of those utterly unconvincing fairy tale romances where Altair must keep rescuing the mouthy damsel in distress as she works her way into new predicaments, all while opposing him and back talking him at every possible opportunity. Altair himself is a decent character and he undergoes quite a bit of growth through the book, but at the same time we don't get a good sense of his essence either. The change is evident but all the conflict and the steady growth that leads him from immature Assassin to Grand Master just isn't conveyed in a way that takes advantage of this medium. It's great to get the story of Altair all in one place, but don't expect any new insights into his persona.
The writing in this book lacks any kind of soul or creativity, and it starts to show after about the third assassination. Granted, a game as repetitive as the first Assassin's Creed is not at all an easy thing to novelize, but there was clearly no effort put into developing compelling action scenes for this book. Most of the assassinations are quickly sped through and after awhile combat sequences are simply skipped over, as the author seemed to run out of ideas to keep them interesting. As for the spectacular viewpoints and anxiety inducing climbing sequences, two highlights of the first game, they have been almost completely white washed with only a few token mentions towards the beginning of the novel. Again, those mentions are about as generic and uninspired as you can imagine, and the promising setting of the Middle East during the Crusades is mostly squandered with only a few lame attempts at world building. This doesn't come close to the level of awfulness seen in Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X., and it does manage to not have very many typos, but the writing in Secret Crusade is certainly nothing to hold up on a pedestal.
While the other books in this series have suffered from many of the same flaws as this one, The Secret Crusade manages to feel even more drawn out and tiresome than the previous, mostly due to the fact that it is based on a weaker and even more repetitive game. That isn't to say that the original Assassin's Creed game was bad, just that it translates extremely poorly to prose format, and even more so when very little effort seems to have been made to ease this transition. If you want Altair's complete history, this book could interest you, but simply being a fan of the games isn't enough to warrant a purchase as this is an excruciating read if you approach it from that perspective.