Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Star Wars: Death Troopers review

Death Troopers is written by horror novelist and Star Wars fan Joe Schreiber. That sentence, the title and the cover of the book should tell you almost exactly what the book is about. Death Troopers is a zombie horror novel set in the Star Wars Expanded Universe and it’s surprisingly enjoyable.

In a world where books such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can exist, it’s no surprise that someone decided to mash up two well-loved genres as Star Wars and the Hordes of the Undead together into one gloriously gory book for fans of both genres who, at times, can be just as insatiable as zombies themselves.

The plot of Death Troopers is simple. An imperial prison barge, Purge, is on its way to a prison planet with roughly 500 hardened criminals aboard. The crew and passengers are subjected to a mechanical breakdown. They drift towards an abandoned Star Destroyer and decide to raid it for parts to repair the Purge’s engines. What they encounter on the abandoned Star Destroyer will forever change the lives of the passengers and the crew.  Schreiber takes the time to establish human conflict on the prison barge before introducing the horror elements but he does this with the use of quick characterization which makes some of the later scenes somewhat predictable. It’s a straightforward plot that ends up having a few more twists and turns than expected but nonetheless remains simple for the duration of the novel. All of that is perfectly acceptable, though. Death Troopers isn’t meant to win literary awards. Its purpose is to entertain in delight in gruesome fashion.

Schreiber insure that the book is simple and accessible to new and old readers of the Expanded Universe by keeping the Star Wars elements to a minimal. The whole thing takes place in space and not on a new planet written specifically for the novel. Most of the characters have no appeared in other Star Wars books or movies except for two notable exceptions which I won’t spoil for you (but beware, a quick search on Death Troopers will undoubtedly reveal to you these surprise guest stars). The whole of the action takes place on two ships and there are less than half a dozen alien species. This is very important because any Star Wars fan can pick this up and enjoy it, whether you’ve seen all the movies, read all the books and played all the video games or if you’ve only seen the original trilogy. Some readers may view this as a weakness because the story could take place outside of the Star Wars Universe with just a few small modifications but I argue it wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable. This book is good because of the genre mash up and not despite the zombie presence in our beloved Star Wars Expanded Universe.

Now that you’ve got a sense of the book, here’s what I liked about it. I really liked the idea of ghost ships, particularly when it’s a very large (nearly 2 kilometre long) ship like a Star Destroyer. These things are so big it’s like a mobile city filled with imperial troops. It also just makes sense that if the rebels can and have (reluctantly) abandoned military bases, why wouldn’t the Empire occasionally do the same with their equivalent of a military base? I like this idea so much I would be interested in reading a story about a ghost space ship that doesn’t have zombies. Quick, something thing of a good story and write it for me, please. 

Related to the idea of abandoned ships is the one about the emotional and psychological effects of working primarily on a space ship. Sartoris, captain of the prison guard on Purge, reflects on the claustrophobic feeling he experiences aboard most space ships. It must be mentally exhausting to work about a self-sustaining space ship for extended periods of time. At that to a cabin fever type feeling and suddenly working in space takes a dark turn. 

I mentioned earlier that the book wouldn’t be as effective if it didn’t combine elements of both genres together, let me explain. It’s an effective mash up because of the strength of existing Star Wars imagery. You all know what a stormtrooper is. Now picture a stormtrooper in uniform with parts of the helmet ripped off to allow for biting and eating and you’ve got a pleasantly horrific image. Not only that, but if you think about the same idea in a more simplified way: it’s a space faring zombie with armor that can protect from laser blasts. How do you fight that? I’ve mentioned the importance of visual elements in the Star Wars universe before and it’s nice to see that Schreiber took that into consideration. 

I would like to point out two more things I liked about Death Troopers. Schreiber, probably due to his horror novelist background, is good at writing gross and squishy scenes. He takes full advantage of the possibilities here by making one of the main characters a medical surgeon. I could easily visualize the sickening creatures, medical procedures and all around nasty horror stuff happening to the characters. The other thing is that Schreiber takes the time to explain the reason why Purge and the drifting Star Destroyer bump into one another in the middle of space. What first seemed like a coincidence later becomes a small, crafty mystery to be explained by events later in the novel. It was a nice touch by Schreiber because it explains the beginning of the book’s as something planned and thought out as opposed to using a coincidental plot hole as the basis of the story while also making it something interesting and clever.

As a whole, Death Troopers does what it sets out to do. Schreiber adds a few unexpected interesting elements. He also allows for the existence of too many coincidental moments but I didn’t let that bother me too much because I was mostly expecting it and it doesn’t matter. The zombies take over a small, small corner of the Expanded Universe and that’s what was advertised. For all intents and purposes it’s mission accomplished for Schreiber and Death Troopers. Now have can we make it better? Maybe Schreiber should write a prequel including a user of the Dark Force, lightsabers and zombies…

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