I, Mengsk (Graham McNeill)
I, Mengsk, one of a series of novels intended to be read as a prologue for Starcraft II, details one of the key antagonists of that game and the history of his royal family. Arcturus Mengsk is the point of view character for much of this novel, and fans of the universe will surely enjoy getting inside the head of such a villainous man. The book doesn't disappoint, foregoing most of the reliability and sympathy that books focusing on an anti-hero often attempt, and instead presenting us with a deeply flawed, occasionally evil man. This book probably won't appeal to many outside of its intended audience, but it does do quite a good job of connecting with that group and delivering a novel that will satisfy most any Starcraft fan.
This book is basically an account of Arcturus Mengsk's life, starting with the end of his high school years and ending with just after the events of the first Starcraft game, where he lead a rag tag group of soldiers disillusioned with the Confederacy to a stunning triumph over their long time tormentors. Along the way, he meets his wife, joins the Confederate military, fathers a child, and watches his home world get destroyed. Predictably, a book focused extensively on Arcturus' school years and family life doesn't make for the most thrilling and action packed read, and it does drag a bit in the middle, but there is enough happening that the plot manages to avoid stagnation. In addition to learning more about Arcturus, we find out more about his father, Angus, through Arcturus' interactions with him, and Arcturus' son Valerian through a point of view shift that occurs during the book's third act. Again, the pacing is a little slow, as Valerian tends to be even more prone to monologues than his father, but a few tedious moments don't stop this from being an above average character-driven novel.
As one might expect, Arcturus Mengsk is the featured character in this novel, although we do get to spend some time with his father and his son, Valerian (featured extensively in the first Starcraft II campaign.) Luckily, this book pulls no punches showing Mengsk to be a two faced belittling antagonist, one that may not be as smart as he thinks he is. A primary example of this is when he gets suckered into signing up with the Confederate military in no small part because he just wants to annoy his dad, a staunch revolutionary. He is revealed to be . If there are any complaints, they would concern the fact that we are told more so than shown just how deadly and intelligent Mengsk is. With the aforementioned foray into the Confederate military, he certainly seems like a buffoon doing stupid things for stupid reasons, and there aren't all that many moments where we see his genius at work to counter this. Most of his life spent building up the Sons of Korhal and establishing his new empire takes place off screen, as we are instead shown Valerian's perspective during those moments. Building on this, we don't really see how he got the urge to do bad and manipulate others. Is it all because his father was a bit overbearing? His rebellious spirit coupled with rigid Confederate military discipline? It would have been nice to explore those pivotal early years of the Korhal movement a bit more, and doing so would have probably mitigated the only real complaints concerning Arcturus in this book.
In the second half of the book, we spend most of our time in Valerian's shoes, learning about his time growing up in the shadow of such a powerful man. Valerian is a far more sympathetic character and not a bad guy in any sense, providing an enjoyable contrast between the two and giving the book a more identifiable hero. Valerian is forced to move from world to world with his dying mother in order to evade the Confederate kill teams looking to deal a critical blow to Arcturus, so isolation plays a large part in shaping Valerian's character. His father forces him to take combat training, read certain books, and stays out of his life for large periods of time. Despite all this, Valerian seems to have an adoration for his father. Even though he is only featured in the third act, in many ways, he is the star of this book. We knew a little bit less about him going in, and the extremely positive portrayal he gets fills out an otherwise mysterious character and puts his actions in Starcraft II in a different context. Valerian is a great foil for Arcturus and a valuable addition to the Starcraft universe.
Since there is so much time spent on those two characters, it doesn't come as much of a surprise that this book has a notably underdeveloped supporting cast. Arcturus' wife is a fairly intriguing character, possessing a wide range of qualities like incredible strength in the face of a terminal illness, but also incredible naiveté in trusting in Arcturus time and again. She is the exception though, as the other characters in this book, whether they are Mengsk's family, Confederate military recruiters, classmates, teachers, or brothers in arms, are totally generic and really only show up to fill out the story. Edmund Duke makes an appearance here, but otherwise the book is suspiciously absent of big name characters from the games. Given Arcturus' apparent obsession with Kerrigan (as seen in the novella Uprising) it was kind of surprising that neither she nor Jim Raynor featured in this story, but at the same time this novel was clearly not crafted with supporting players in mind.
Having just read his Horus Heresy novel False Gods, I was expecting brilliance from author Graham McNeill. Instead of the sweeping grandiosity of that work, we are instead treated to a more intimate and simple story that isn't told in as rich of a manner as McNeill is capable of. He does a fantastic job with things like the setting, giving us great portrayals of Korhal and the many military bases and cities Arcturus travels to over the course of his career, while sprinkling in lots of lore and filling out the history of the Mengsk family. Most notably is working the Guild Wars, a previously unexplained event mentioned at the very beginning of the first campaign of the first Starcraft, into the plot and giving us a relatively comprehensive summary of the conflict. As a long time Starcraft fan, this was a particularly welcome treat and one of the best examples of McNeill expanding the Starcraft universe in this book.There isn't as much action as you might expect, outside of Mengsk's stint in the military and the climactic sequence at the end, but McNeill does a fairly strong job handling a quieter, more slow paced novel and in doing so proves that he is capable of shifting gears from the high octane material of the Warhammer universe.
I, Mengsk is a book that most Starcraft fans will have an appreciation for, due to its depiction of one of the most important families in the entire universe. There is quite a bit of lore here about their history, Korhal, the illusive Guild Wars, and Arcturus' life prior to the events of Starcraft, but the average reader new to the setting probably won't be familiar with these things or understand the importance of it. I, Mengsk may be an unsatisfying read for general science fiction fans, but those who enjoyed the blockbuster PC game will find something to like here.