BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Survivors must escape from a zombie plague that runs rampant aboard an Imperial star destroyer and prison barge.
PROS: Some fast, zombie action in the second half of the book; a few welcome surprises.
CONS: Pacing, characterization and being part of a well-established universe issues weigh down the book.
BOTTOM LINE: While it’s not a bad story, a Star Wars/zombie mashup is not the automatic win you think it might be.
As unfair as it may be, a book whose elevator pitch is “Star Wars/zombie mashup” comes with built-in expectations of awesomeness. Anything less is bound to be a bit of a disappointment…which might be why Star Wars: Death Troopers is surprisingly underwhelming.
The setup is simple: an Imperial prison barge comes into contact with a deserted star destroyer and the barge’s occupants (guards and prisoners alike) become infected with a plague that turns them into zombies. A small handful of survivors on the prison barge are immune, among them the ship’s doctor, Zahara Cody; two teenage orphans, Trig and Kale Longo; and the ship’s Captain of the Guard, Jareth Sartoris. The survivors soon learn that the destroyer is not as deserted as it first appeared and that the victims of the deadly plague on their own ship start coming back to life and craving flesh.
What plays out is relatively standard fare for a zombie story, with survivors running from one attack to the next, all the while looking for escape. So…how does mixing zombies and Star Wars not work? The problems are three-fold:
- Pacing. It takes more than one-third of the story to see any real zombie action. This wouldn’t be too bad if that time was spent building suspense, but there’s only so much suspense you can build when you now what’s coming, so why drag it out? Presumably that time could have been used to build up the characterizations, which brings me to the second problem…
- The characters do not elicit sympathy in the reader. They are bland to the point of not caring about them. Are we supposed to care about the evil prison guard? Or the skilled, caring Doctor who is “stuck” on a prison barge by her own choice? Or the kids who lived a life of thievery? (In the latter case, I think we’re supposed to side with them over the Empire’s greater evil.) With such unsympathetic characters, then, is it really a big deal when they are being chased by zombies? This is not to say that a reader wants to see them killed, but it’s not as dramatic as it should be.
- Being a brand new, unheard-of element like zombies to a well-established setting means that you know the story cannot have far-reaching implications. It has to be self-contained or it would mean anarchy for the Star Wars universe. Thus there is this lingering cloud of “safeness”, if not for the characters, then for the state of affairs for mankind. This story might have worked better if it were a straight science fiction/horror mashup. (For an excellent example of this, see Tobias Buckell’s Sly Mongoose)
To be fair to the story, it did pick up significantly when the zombies finally made their appearance. A few other welcome surprises were sprinkled in to elevate the reading experience to something enjoyable overall. The story reads fast. At a scant 288 large-type pages, it’s like a zombie story for the short attention span generation. It works to some degree, but there was room for improvement.