I think I read video game novels for the same reason that most people get blind stinking drunk. I look at the book, or bottle, and think, “Hey, here’s a quick, easy way to have fun, and it doesn’t require many brain cells!” Then I finish it and regret it the next day. Okay, so maybe that metaphor’s a bit over-dramatic. I’ve never read a bad video game novel and received liver damage for it, or woken up behind a trash bin somewhere with jackhammers in my skull, but regret is regret. To be fair, there has been a few good video game novels in my life, namely the one about Bioshock, and the first Deus Ex book, and the worst that Splinter Cell has ever given me is a mediocre story once. But for every good video game book, there have been dozens of lame and uninspired books just cranked out for a paycheck and a market tie-in. That is where we find our intrepid hero, Nathan Drake, when he goes searching for The Fourth Labyrinth.
Let me state right off the bat that I am an Uncharted fan. Otherwise I wouldn’t pick up the book, but there’s a reason for that. I love archeology and Indiana Jones is my favorite movie series. When I describe Uncharted to people I just say, “It’s like Indiana Jones, but in modern times, and replace the Nazis or Communists with mercenaries.” I’ve even done an internship for an archeology lab in southern Maryland. Mind you, I spent more time indexing and cataloging oyster shells and broken pottery than cracking a whip in the jungle, but I still enjoyed it. As for Uncharted, I only own one game in the franchise, the fourth one (how appropriate) Thieves’ End where Nate teams up with his long lost brother Sam, and I’ve only watched some of the other games on YouTube. At some point I should look into the Tomb Raider series, but that’s for another day. I know the basic gist of the series. Nathan Drake hears a rumor about a lost treasure or fabled city, and his “antiquities requisition expert” friend/mentor Victor “Sully” Sullivan go out to find it. Some mega-rich bad guy with an army of mercenaries, pirates and criminals is out to get it for themselves, and globe-trekking, action scenes and puzzle solving adventure awaits. They all find the lost city, but there’s an evil twist to why the place was lost in the first place, and then shit blows up, they bury the evil whatever in the rubble, and everyone goes home. Or something to that effect. If you’re good you get a trophy for finding all the hidden treasures (which makes me wonder how Nate can stash them all in his pockets).
This story starts off somewhat different. After Nate rescues a hostage in a drug kingpin’s mansion (don’t ask. Aside from getting the reward money from her Dad, she and the cartel never appear in the book again), Sully calls him up to fly to New York City. His best friend is dead and his daughter, Jada Hzujak, could be the next target. She is Sully’s god-daughter, and despite his checkered past, Victor Sullivan does not leave family behind. Her father was working on an archeology project (of course) in Egypt, and evidently it was important enough to kill her old man for it. So off to Egypt, when Jada’s evil step-mother (we know she’s evil because Jada won’t shut up about it) and billionaire douchebag Tyr Hendrickson show up. And suddenly ninjas! No, I’m serious. Arabic ninja dudes just show up out of nowhere, kill Hendrickson’s hired goons (This is an Uncharted story, and the rich bad guy always puts goons on his payroll), tell Nate his crew not to go to the Secret Forbidden Temple, and they leave.
So what is the Secret Forbidden Temple? The Egyptian version is devoted to the god Sobek, but it’s linked to two more temples in Greece. One in Crete, the other on the destroyed volcanic island of Santorini. They’re all labyrinths built by Daedalus, the mythical engineer who was commissioned by King Minos to house the Minotaur. This book claims that Minos was really Midas, the king with the golden touch, and that Daedalus was also Midas…or something, and his son was really Talos, not Icarus, the dumbass that flew too close to the sun, and the Minotaur was really their pet and…I’m getting confused. They built the last labyrinth in China. I guess because the last one blew up with the volcano so let’s pack up all the gold and travel 3,000 miles over mountains, deserts, and jungles because…reasons?
Quick tangent: when Nate and friends knew to go to China because they find Chinese letters carved into the wall in the Santorini labyrinth. They were just like “We’re going to China kids! Uh-oh! Bad guys!” I was like, “You want to narrow it down a bit? China’s kind of a big country.” The book has a solid destination two chapters later.
That’s actually the first roadblock to this book, the made up history and mythology. I’m aware that archeology adventures take some leeway with historical truth. The pirate Captain Avery probably did not settle a secret colony somewhere in the Indian Ocean with a bunch of other famous pirates. Likewise, the Ark of the Covenant probably can’t shoot fire or summon killer ghosts when you open it, and I doubt the Holy Grail is being protected by a 700 year old Crusader knight inside of the ruins of Petra. But here’s the difference between those adventure stories and this one. Those stories bring on the creative liberties late in the story, not right away. By that point the audience is willing to buy the concept of mythical forces or epic historical betrayal because the rest of the story had a logical, sort-of historical path (even if I have to add the adjective “sort-of”). And it’s all fun. Lots of fun. I get to part about the crazy supernatural stuff, and I think it could work, because I’ve already enjoyed the gunfights, car chases, and things going boom. Here, Golden feels like he’s making up the history and mythology as he goes and he just picks the locations by spinning a globe and stopping it with his finger.
The worst part? There are barely any action scenes at all. I can think of two times when Nate and crew get into a gun fight. No vehicle chases. No explorations of ancient cities or the wilderness surrounding them. No puzzles. Nothing! The book title mentions these ruined labyrinths and they feel about as confusing as walking down a staircase. Okay, so there is a chance to get lost, but once Sully and Nate figure out that Daedalus/Minos/Midas/whoever just carved his initials in the right path it kind of loses its appeal. This book never feels like an Uncharted story, and that’s its biggest crime. Nate and crew just walk into a room, read some hieroglyphics (or take pictures of them so someone else can translate them on Google. Lame), and they say, “Oh, we have to go here now.” What does Nathan Drake do in the games? He climbs on stuff, shoots bad guys, gets himself in and out of treacherous situations, solves puzzles, and finds lost cities with his almost nervous but still sarcastic attitude. Here, Golden only remembered to keep the sarcasm.
The second greatest crime in this book: Elaine isn’t in it! For those unfamiliar with the series, Elaine is Nate’s journalist girlfriend and eventual wife (in Thieves’ End). She was the rational, level-head to Nate’s gung-ho enthusiasm. She was also decent with a gun and used her journalism career, which often coincided with Nate’s latest search for treasure, to stop evil warlords and criminal kingpins. Here, and this just burns me up inside, she isn’t mentioned once! She marries Nathan Drake and she’s not even thought of in casual conversation in the book! Nate has to keep glancing at Jada the whole time, who is probably underage if she wasn’t already Sully’s goddaughter, and not once does Sully (or Nate’s conscience) tell him, “Don’t you have somebody in your life, Nate? Someone blonde and beautiful and short-tempered if she found out?”
So what do they find in Nanjing, China (city of over eight million people and nobody noticed the GIANT UNDERGROUND LABYRINTH NEARBY. Actually, Golden explains that the government labeled it as a potential site of the Emperor’s Tomb, so it’s off-limits to mere peasants like us. That’s communism for you)? Well it turns out that the labyrinths are all protected by a cult of ninjas calling themselves the Keepers of the Word. More like “Keepers of the Hallucinogenic Flowers,” because that’s how they keep their subordinates in line. First they kidnap Sully in Santorini and the chief archeologist from Egypt, drug them to be mindless slaves, and then take them to Nanjing to protect their mighty Queen. Yeah, there’s a Queen of the Labyrinth now, not a Goblin King (Rest in Peace David Bowie). She makes Minotaurs somehow, by feeding some lucky slave more flower petals and mutating him/her into a giant bull monster. At this point, after I’ve been let down so much by the rest of this book I just don’t care. Nate cures Sully by beating the crap out of him, thus literally knocking some sense into him (another tangent: Short-Round saved Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom by scaring him with fire. I’m willing to buy “cure him with fire” over “keep punching him in the jaw until he falls down”). Jada’s godmother takes Tyr’s mercenaries away from him, what a twist, she really was evil, and they all find the big treasure room which immediately explodes. Turns out if you take the big obvious jewel-encrusted Minotaur statue off its pedestal, it all goes boom. It’s a design flaw.
What is wrong with this book? It was supposed to be a simple run-and-jump adventure. I understand that it’s hard to literally translate video game stories to print, because how exciting would it be to read, “Then Nate jumped again! He had to climb this big thing by grabbing this hand-hold, then this one, and then this one…”? I like Christopher Golden’s work. He’s a good writer, but here it really just felt like he wanted to crank this thing out as fast as possible to collect his paycheck from Naughty Dog Games. I did mention that he gets Nathan Drake’s sarcasm right, but not his charm. He tries to back up his story with something resembling history and myth, but only a passing resemblance. Much as I love his other works and the Uncharted series as a whole, I can’t recommend this one. I have to give it a…
…for disappointment. Just play the games or read the Indiana Jones books instead. They’re hard to find but some are pretty good.
Listening to: John Williams music
Reading: Giants of the Lost World
Playing: Fallout 4 (almost done)
Drinking: Raspberry Lemonade