Dead Space: Martyr (B.K. Evenson)
Dead Space: Martyr is the first book set in the universe of the notably gory survival horror video game franchise. As a prequel to the series, it has very little to do with the quest of Isaac Clarke, but instead focuses on the supposed founder of the Unitology Church, a major player in the games. Michael Altman's story is told for the first time here, but is this book anything more than a lore dump accessible only by the most devout of fans?
In Martyr, we learn about mankind's first contact with the mysterious Markers, the conduits for everything bad that happens in the Dead Space games. Set on Earth, most of the action surrounds a research team in Central Mexico during the year 2215 (roughly 300 years before the events of Dead Space.) The team has been picking up all kinds of strange readings lately, and the locals are restless, concocting new myths surrounding the "tail of the Devil." This corresponds with strange readings emanating from the bottom of a nearby lake. The military gets involved, the operational budget increases exponentially, and before long this sleepy town becomes a hub of activity.
The main draw for this part of the book is the doomed expedition that our research team embarks on, best embodied by a couple of terrifying trips to the bottom of the lake to examine the site first hand. We get to see everybody lose their minds, turning to suicide and suffering from hallucinations caused by proximity to the Marker. Through it all, Altman remains dedicated to finding the truth and stopping it, but it is quite obviously a lost cause. While in the games you get to see the kind of mess that crops up once the Marker has finished its job, here we get to see the Marker wreak havoc on unsuspecting people and cause them to become the instruments of their own destruction. There is a great amount of attention paid to more subtle elements, crafting the story into one that is legitimately memorable and quite sturdy even when dissociated from the game it draws inspiration from.
The final act of Martyr is basically a return to the roots of the franchise. Alone and armed only with a plasma cutter and whatever else he manages to salvage, Altman must make his way through hordes of necromorphs in order to get back to Marker and shut it down. The more familiar enemy types from the series are shown here, although there are also a few new types that are fairly enjoyable. This is a perfect contrast to the slower paced deterioration of the lead up, though one staple of the Dead Space games- epic boss fights against gigantic and terrifying monsters- doesn't make an appearance, much to my dismay. Otherwise, this part of the book will be the part Dead Space fans will make the most connection with, but in terms of horror it probably isn't as well crafted as what came before. It's still a good time, but it doesn't require the craftsmanship of the slow descent into madness that the rest of the book features.
If there's one flaw in this book, it is characterization. Maybe it is because everybody's minds are already being corrupted by the Marker, but there is very little of interest where the characters are concerned. Altman's motivations are very unclear, and his relationship with Ada, a sociologist, is strained right from the get go. Even as their situation worsens, neither of them thinks to try to escape, which would be acceptable if we got some insight into why they were so willing to risk being around the Marker, but instead it starts to feel a little bit contrived. The rest of the crew is introduced only to spout some exposition or serve as cannon fodder to prove the deadliness of one thing or another, and our human villains are fairly stock crazy military types. The only interesting bits of characterization are when characters really go off the deep end. The hallucinations and delusions that various characters experience once they are under the grasp of the Marker is far more entertaining than anything else anybody does in this book. The characters feel very inorganic and don't do much beyond advancing the plot or filling a very specific role, which is mostly understandable, but the only red mark on an otherwise brilliant novel.
Evenson is actually an accomplished writer with his own works of fiction, so it is no surprise that he does a great job capturing the Dead Space universe. This book is just as creepy as the games, giving us plenty of gore, awesome hallucinations, and a truly great atmosphere for the events of this story to unfold in. The dialogue can get a little boring, especially when it veers into exposition-heavy, techno-babble territory (something that is all too frequent, perhaps due to the fact that the cast is almost entirely comprised of scientist types) but for what it is trying to accomplish, this book has what counts.
This series has never had much fleshed out beyond the stories of the Marker and the people who come into contact with it. There hasn't been much material in any of the games about how their history has differed from ours, or what the state of the Earth is like. This book actually gives us a handful of insights into this, with a nice bit of world building, particularly early on, that adds yet another layer to the already rich work. We learn that food shortages and poverty are all too common on this future Earth setting, as corporations have depleted natural resources and the Earth's population must rely almost exclusively on cheap, unsatisfying, mass-produced foods. We also learn about something called the Moon Skirmishes, a conflict several characters in the book experienced, and one that is as brutal and disturbing as many other elements of the novel. Just getting to see Earth is a rare experience for this series, and coupled with the insights into Michael Altman and the origins of the Church of Unitology, this book provides plenty of background info for series fans.
Dead Space: Martyr is tie-in fiction at its best. Newcomers have an enjoyable horror novel that stands completely on its own merits and builds a compelling world which is subsequently torn down in awe-inspiring fashion, and series enthusiasts are treated to a look into the origins of the Church of Unitology and its messiah, Michael Altman, and a final segment that could pass as a novelization for one of the games. There's no reason not to give this book a shot, even if you know nothing about the Dead Space universe.