[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
From Star Wars to X-Men, Halo to Star Trek, many media franchises also offer tie-in novels, giving fans another way to enjoy their favorite worlds and characters. But which media tie in novels are the cream of the crop? we asked some experts:
Here’s what they said…
Over thirty-five years later, many fans do not realize that A New Hope, known simply as Star Wars back in 1977, used a novelization and Marvel comics to generate considerable pre-release buzz. The Prequel Trilogy continued this tradition, with April publications of the novelizations in advance of the May movies. When Episode III novelization author Matthew Stover stepped on stage for his book panel at the official franchise convention Star Wars Celebration III, after the book’s release and before the film opened, he was greeted like a rock star. The impending release of Revenge of the Sith certainly helped spur on the fan hoopla, but it was the way Stover masterfully wove together the fall of the Jedi Order and its hero, Anakin Skywalker, that excited a fandom that had survived the Dark Times – the period between the Original Trilogy and the Prequel Trilogy – by reading books and comics. The standing-room- only crowd of novel enthusiasts appreciated the way he had turned a visual story into powerful prose. While much of the Revenge of the Sith novelization maintained the traditional third-person-limited point of view narrative, Stover ventured into second-person explorations of the key characters like Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Count Dooku, and Padmé Amidala. He also explained at his panel why the battle scenes that took place on Chewbacca’s home planet of Kashyyyk were not included in the novelization: to maintain the thematic focus on Anakin Skywalker’s fall. While there were no Wookiees in the book, Stover used a recurring metaphor of a dragon to foreshadow the story’s conclusion.
Chancellor Palpatine relaying the legend of Darth Plagueis the Wise to Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith was a nugget of unexplained lore that piqued much fan curiosity. The novel Darth Plagueis was originally scheduled for release in 2008, was cancelled, then saw publication in 2012 – when it spent seven weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. With input from then-Lucas Licensing president Howard Roffman and also George Lucas himself, author James Luceno’s passion project brilliantly elaborates the tale of the mysterious Sith who sought to master life and death.
No stranger to Star Wars lore, Luceno previously had worked on the extensive story bible for the New Jedi Order series, a nineteen-book epic that called upon some of science fiction’s heavy-hitters, including R.A. Salvatore, Greg Keyes, Michael Stackpole, Sean Williams, and Walter Jon Williams. Although the expansive tale wandered at times due to the enormity of the project, plenty of good Star Wars storytelling is found within the books. Between Stackpole’s Dark Tide duology and Walter Jon Williams’ Destiny’s Way, the New Jedi Order created one of the first examples of a Heroine’s Journey being played out in Star Wars, with Han Solo and Leia Organa Solo’s daughter Jaina transitioning from an eager Jedi apprentice to a Rogue Squadron pilot like her uncle Luke Skywalker and finally to a hero of a galactic war. Aaron Allston wrote some of my favorite books in this run, Rebel Dream and Rebel Stand.
Allston was well known to Star Wars fans by the time he penned his New Jedi Order novels. Stackpole had launched the highly successful X-Wing series, which featured fan-favorite movie character Wedge Antilles, and Allston later was passed the reins. Stackpole then wrote the non-traditional novel I, Jedi, a first-person tale of another pilot turned Jedi in the vein of the Original Trilogy, while Allston created his Wraith Squadron novels, concluding with the best Star Wars novel not to include any Force users – Starfighters of Adumar.
Finally, the late Ann Crispin, known for enjoyable tie-in work ranging from Star Trek to the series V, wrote the Han Solo Trilogy, which is still mentioned with love in Star Wars fandom circles.
I discovered the first tie-in for Star Wars ever on a wire rack in my local convenience store: Splinter of the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Foster. That book introduced me to the concept of media tie-ins and would soon have me racing to my local library where I’d discover vast series of books continuing the adventures of my on-screen genre heroes.
The first that made an impact on me was also for Star Wars: Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire.
In Heir, the reader and the Star Wars universe met Admiral Thrawn, a political player who is attempting to control the galaxy and ensure his ascension to power. He does so by manipulating events and creating a genetically modified creature that can neutralize a sentient’s ability to use the force.
What impressed me most was how Zahn advanced the setting of the saga with new characters, power dynamics and clever science-fiction creations. Some say he created a more logical, more science-fictional playground that the science-fantasy of the movies. To me as a young reader, these additions definitely raised the stakes of the battles between Jedi, followers of the dark side, and all the other non-Force folks just trying to get by.
Also I should mention a fast-paced origin story spun of from another medium of genre storytelling, one that proved video game fans are in it for the story as much as the adrenaline, and yes, they will read! The prequel novel to the video game HALO, Eric Nylund’s The Fall of Reach, had the same effect on a new generation of genre fans in as powerful a way as the Star Wars books did on mine.
Wow. Now I feel old.
Ha, well, the short answer of course is “all the good ones.” Any well-done novelization develops the existing material further, giving you more insight into what’s going on behind the scenes and between them and showing you what the characters are thinking and feeling in ways the original medium couldn’t. My favorite example of this is one of the first tie-ins I ever read, which was Wayland Drew’s novelization of the fantasy movie Willow. There’s a scene early on in the movie where Val Kilmer’s recently introduced character, Madmartigan, is fighting off attackers while struggling to keep his footing atop a rickety old cart. It’s a fun scene, but over quickly and not terribly important. In the book, however, there’s a line where Willow, looking up fearfully as this all takes place just above his head, sees the change that comes over his new maybe-friend as Madmartigan gets his hands on one of his attackers’ swords. The line goes something like this: “He had seen Madmartigan the drunk, and Madmartigan the fighter. But now, for the first time, he saw Madmartigan the swordsman.” Reading that sent chills down my spine. And suddenly that scene—in both the movie and the book—became so much more. It became a pivotal reveal for one of the leading characters, showing us the first glimpse of the man he had been, the man he could once again become. That is what a good novelization can do.
A good original tie-in is similar in that it develops the property further, but instead of going deeper into whatever story already exists or linking the pieces of those stories together more firmly an original tie-in tells a new story that gives us further insight into the characters, the setting, and/or the overall storyline. One of the best I’ve seen of those was Max Allan Collins’ Dark Angel trilogy, Before the Dawn, Skin Game, and After the Dark. The TV series had been cancelled after the second season, and Max was allowed to tie up the existing storylines with his novels. He didn’t retell what had already happened—he just picked up where the show had left off, basically doing a third season in prose form over the course of three books. He did a great job, really nailing the characters and nicely wrapping up everything the show had left hanging when it ended. I’d say that trilogy was a must-have for any Dark Angel fan, and should be shelved right next to DVDs of the two TV seasons because the novels really do complete the set.
Not every good tie-in novel has to reveal something new or tie up loose ends, of course. There are plenty of excellent tie-ins that just offer more of the characters, settings, and stories the property’s fans already know and love. Modesty prevents me from pointing to the Eureka novels, since I wrote two of those myself, but another good example is the CSI novels, like Greg Cox’s Headhunter and Shock Treatment or Jeff Mariotte’s Brass in Pocket. They may not reveal any huge secrets about the characters or alter something that will affect the show as well as any other novels moving forward, but if you enjoy the TV show and want to read what would be a typical episode, novels like that work beautifully. Usually when you write a tie-in you’re working under tight constraints, including strictures against altering any major elements without express permission—you can’t kill off a lead character, for example, or destroy a frequently used location or tie up a long-running plotlines—and you’re strongly encouraged to write something that would not be out of place on the actual TV show or in the actual video game or filmed as the next movie. That’s a lot easier said than done, though—it’s difficult to match the original’s tone and pacing so well that your novel feels like a perfect continuation. A really good tie-in novel manages that feat, and even makes it look effortless, so that you can simply go straight from the game or TV show or movie to the novel and barely notice the transition.
I’ve got to start with Uhura’s Song, by Janet Kagan. Not only is it one of my favorite Star Trek novels, it’s a wonderful book, period. Kagan wrote with such joy and heart and love for her characters, and it shows. Kagan specifically wanted to give Uhura a more central role, which she did beautifully, incorporating her love of song and her friendship with an alien diplomat. There’s a character who’s been described as a Mary-Sue, and I can’t really argue the point, but she’s a great character. And this book has one of my favorite quotes ever: “Never underestimate small things, Captain. They have to be meaner than large ones to survive.”
I suspect others will bring up Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy of Star Wars books, starting with Heir to the Empire. My memory as a young geek was that these were the books that brought Star Wars back. I had a copy of Alan Dean Foster’s Crystal Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, but that was the only original Star Wars tie-in book I had been able to find. Then Zahn comes along, like the Big Bang that started the Star Wars expanded universe. I’m sure there was more going on, and that Zahn wasn’t single-handedly responsible for saving Star Wars, but that’s how I remember it.
This one might be cheating a bit, as I don’t believe the book is out yet, but I’m very interested in the Disney Fairies book written by author Nnedi Okorafor, called Iridessa and the Secret of the Never Mine. Okorafor is a brilliant and inventive writer, and I would love to see what she did with the Disney Fairy universe.
Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire and it’s sequels in The Thrawn Trilogy immediately spring to mind. In these books, Zahn follows the adventures of Luke and the rest of the crew from shortly after the resolution of A New Hope.
Not only did Zahn do a masterful job of capturing the feel of the original Star Wars films but he also made significant contributions to the canon. For example, he introduced Coruscant, the capital world of the Republic and Empire which was further explored in the prequel trilogy. Also, Zahn has done a great deal to move Star Wars from science fantasy to science fiction, rationalizing and explaining many of the aspects of the films. For an excellent article on the subject, check out Ryan Britt’s post on TOR.com: How Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire Turned Star Wars into Science Fiction .
Most importantly of all, Zahn’s Grand Admiral Thrawn may be the best Star Wars antagonist since Darth Vader himself.
There are many good tie-in novels from a wide number of sources, including a few written by friends of mine for the Star Wars, Guild Wars, and various and sundry other universes. That said, noting those that made a worthy addition to the franchise (setting the issue of whether or not the franchise considered any of such canonical aside) is a far shorter list.
I’d give my personal vote to Peter David and a number of his Star Trek novels that improved upon the source materials/characters. His Vendetta novel folded the Doomsday Machine of original Trek into the Next Gen universe and made it and the Borg better for it. His Q novels worked in the same vein, retconning the Squire of Gothos as a Q.
When I was younger I had an extensive collection of “movie novelizations” I would pick up at garage sales around town, especially for movies I either wasn’t old enough to see or simply had never found a copy of to watch. I eventually realized that these were mostly of questionable quality, but a few do stick out in my mind for one reason or another….
- The novelization for the original Karate Kid (by Bonnie Bryant Hiller) had an additional scene at the end where Mr. Miyagi fights the Cobra Kai coach outside the competition, completely hands him his ass, and then when the time comes to finish him he tweaks his nose. It was always my favorite part, and when I finally found a copy of the movie I was horrified to find that it wasn’t actually in the film.
- Several times I’ve read novelizations by Max Allan Collins that turned out to be better than the film actually was because he would go in-depth and give backstory or cultural tidbits where appropriate, making up a convincing rationale for why something happened that would otherwise smell of plot hole.
- The novelization of Pitch Black (by Frank Lauria) was mostly unremarkable, but contained a little bit of extra insight into Riddick’s backstory that humanized him a bit more than in the film.
- The novelizations for X2: X-Men United and X-Men: The Last Stand proved surprising, in that the author (Chris Claremont) had written most of the comics they were pulling material from. As such, he changed the endings as he saw fit! For the better, in my humble opinion…
I’m also an unapologetic fan of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. There’s a lot of stuff there that would be of interest only to the die-hard devotee, but there are also quite a few that even a newbie would enjoy so long as they enjoy the films.
- Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy (Heir To The Empire/Dark Force Rising/The Last Command) are excellent, and my recommended introduction to the post-Return Of The Jedi timeframe.
- Steve Perry’s Shadows Of The Empire bridges the gap between The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, explaining why it took Luke and company a whole year to finally rescue Han from Jabba’s palace.
- Karen Traviss’ Republic Commando series, set during the Clone Wars and based on the video game, was absolutely incredible. It ends without concluding due to a conflict with Lucasfilm over the final installment,* but while it lasted it was incredible.
- Yoda: Dark Rendezvous by Sean Stewart was also pretty great, with some hilarious humor surrounding Yoda and his interactions with other characters. Also, the droid servers in the Jedi Temple cafeteria attempt to take away Yoda’s homemade stew because their sensors say it is “inedible,” making Luke’s reactions in Empire that much funnier.
- Scoundrels, again by Timothy Zahn, is a Han Solo-centric heist story ala Ocean’s Eleven that was a fun read.
There are others, of course, but these are some of the best for someone just getting into things. I also recommend the comic series Knights Of The Old Republic and anything written by John Ostrander.
I read the first trilogy of novels based on the Halo universe before ever getting to play the games. The Fall Of Reach remains one of my favorite sci-fi books to this day, and is infinitely better (and makes more sense!) than the game that came much later. The Fall Of Reach basically had the job of setting up the world we encounter in the first Halo game, and led right up to the beginning. The Flood was simply a novelization of the game, and while it did add some character development it wasn’t nearly as good. First Strike bridged the gap between the first two games, and since I had no idea what was going on in Halo 2 I didn’t initially find this one or Ghosts Of Onyx (set at the same time) to be all that great—too confusing, and didn’t give me the information I needed. After playing the games I did go back and reread them all, and they were much better in the proper context.
Dark Horse’s Serenity comics are welcome additions to the world of Firefly/Serenity, a universe that was cut short far too soon.
*The makers of the CGI Clone Wars TV series wanted to do an episode on the planet Mandalore, so Traviss was told she couldn’t touch it. Since her entire storyline for the last several books was set there, she chose to walk away instead. Seeing as her books were infinitely better than most of that TV series, I was rather miffed over the whole affair. But you really don’t want to hear my rant about the Clone Wars TV series, so I’ll shut up.
As the editor for all novels tied into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, and a tie-in author myself, I spend a lot of time thinking about tie-in. What I often find funny is how quick people are to dismiss the whole subgenre, even as tie-in books fly off the shelves and introduce hordes of new fans into the SF genre. Who among us doesn’t have a few Forgotten Realms or Star Wars novels on their bookshelves somewhere? And with everyone from Greg Bear to Brandon Sanderson writing tie-in these days, it’s hard to argue that the authors are any lower-caliber than creator-owned SF.
While it might seem gauche, I have to start out by noting some of the Pathfinder Tales authors, for the simple reason that these days, whenever I read a great book, my first thought is “Do you think they’d write for Pathfinder?” Fortunately for me, that process has led to me hiring a number of fabulous authors, many of whom have done tie-in for multiple companies.
Dave Gross, for instance, is one of the authors most associated with Pathfinder fiction at this point, having created the characters of Count Varian Jeggare and Radovan, who I often describe as “a half-elven Sherlock Holmes and a devil-blooded Watson.” Their adventures include the novels Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, Queen of Thorns, and King of Chaos, as well as numerous stories in other formats. Yet in addition to Pathfinder, Dave has also written several novels for Forgotten Realms and Privateer Press’s Iron Kingdoms.
Tim Pratt is another hired-gun author who proves that tie-in fiction is nothing to sneeze at. In addition to two ongoing series for me, starting with City of the Fallen Sky and Liar’s Blade respectively, Tim’s also written a Forgotten Realms novel–along with more original novels and stories than you can shake a stick at, one of which won him a Hugo.
I also have to give a shout-out to Jim Zubkavich, who in addition to writing comics for such awesome properties as Samurai Jack and his own Skullkickers, also takes the time each month to write the Pathfinder comics. Everything that guy touches is hilarious. (And if you’re saying “but comics don’t count as books!” then I’m afraid we have nothing more to say to each other.)
But as much as I’d love to list the rest of my favorite Pathfinder-and-more authors–Howard Andrew Jones, Liane Merciel, Chris Jackson, Wendy N. Wagner, et al.–I also want to point the finger at some tie-in folks I haven’t edited. Of those, some of the best are:
Ryan North: While probably best known for his independent creations like Dinosaur Comics and Machine of Death (itself now an awesome tie-in property), Ryan’s writing for the Adventure Time comics continues to be even more creative and hilarious than the show itself, which is saying a lot! No wonder he won an Eisner…
Richard A. Knaak: Though I always loved his original Dragonrealms series the most, there’s no question that Knaak’s The Legend of Huma was the Dragonlance novel that first got me into tie-in fiction, and since then he’s gone on to write both novels for both Warcraft and Diablo.
Timothy Zahn: It’s been more than a decade since I last read Heir to the Empire, but I would still count myself among the kids who held his Star Wars books above all others. If only George Lucas had made those movies instead of the prequels…
But seriously… aren’t we all playing in the giant playground created by H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and J.R.R. Tolkien? (or Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby… really, take your pick). All of us are building on the work of the great creators who came before. Media tie-in writers are just more honest about it.
Besides, anyone who looks down their nose at media tie-in fiction clearly came to the genre through a totally different avenue than I did. They weren’t a bored pre-teen, wandering through the paperback racks at Woolworths, confused by the bewildering array of choices… until their eyes lit on Star Trek 2, a slender paperback by James Blish with a tough starship captain and his loyal Vulcan first officer on the cover. I snatched it off the rack, begged my Mom for sixty cents (sixty cents! Nothing makes me feel as old as recalling that I once paid for a new paperback with two quarters and dime), and took it home with me.
I can’t tell you for a fact that Star Trek 2 single-handedly turned me into a science fiction fan, but I can tell you it was the first SF book I can remember buying. I read it countless times, and eagerly sought out more.
What made James Blish’s Star Trek tie-in books so great? They were fun, fast-paced, and most of all, familiar. Before I plucked Star Trek 2 off the rack, the adult section of the bookstores was a strange and unfriendly place, filled with covers of stiff, formally attired men and much less stiff, partially-attired women. In short, Blish’s books were a gateway drug to a much wider world. With phasers.
Yes, I knew the stories already. That wasn’t the point. Why do we love fairy tales? It’s because of the warm familiarity of the tale. Knowing how it all turns out makes it easier to delight in the art of the telling. Blish understood this, and his playful episode adaptations were filled with warm character details and intriguing background elements that fleshed out the tales in surprising directions.
Blish added to the Star Trek franchise in another very important way: his books were everywhere. He was a crucial part of the shared experience of 70s fandom. Seriously, if you were trying to work up the nerve to talk to the girl in the I Dream of Jeanie costume next to you at con registration, you at least knew that she had read Dune, The Foundation Trilogy, and one James Blish Star Trek book. What else did you need? I always opened by commenting on his version of “Devil in the Dark”. Chicks dig that episode.
Next, I want to jump forward about 25 years, to the Alien novel Music Of The Spears, by Yvonne Navarro, published in 1996.
Music Of The Spears is a major departure, and I think that’s what really makes it a worthy addition to the Alien franchise. It’s not set on a lonely outpost or distant world, where a group of scrappy survivors must face off against an overwhelming alien threat. Instead it’s set on Earth, where a cult has grown up around the deadly xenomorphs, and experiments with alien queen jelly have turned it into an ultra-additive drug being tested on unsuspecting cultists.
The plot involves a Manhattan composer in the year 2214, who turns to the aliens for inspiration to create a deviant musical masterpiece to shock the world. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that things don’t turn out precisely as expected…
There are enough familiar themes – including greedy corporate vice-presidents, and arrogant and foolish scientists – to let you know you’re reading an Alien novel. But there are surprises, too. The first surprise was the lack of action… this isn’t at all like most of the movies, with their frantic life-or-death struggles. Instead, it’s much more about corporate intrigue.
The second surprise is how domesticated the aliens are. When some of the alien jelly goes missing, the police show up with muzzled aliens on a leash, to track the jelly through the streets of the city (!!). I know New Yorkers have a rep for taking almost anything in stride, but domesticated aliens used as drug-sniffing dogs seems a bit over the top, even for Manhattan.
Overall though the book is a breath of fresh air, in a franchise that has showcased edgy SF much better than most.
I can’t wrap up without mentioning the first media tie-in book I remember getting really excited about. Like, force it on my friends and neighbors excited. It was, of course, Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye.
Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye isn’t just a media tie-in novel. It’s sort of an alternate-world, parallel-universe media tie in novel. A tie-in novel for a Star Wars universe in some time-stream that has nothing at all to do with our universe.
This is because Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye was written well before the release of The Empire Strikes Back. Before we knew that Vader was Luke’s father, before Han and Leia started making goo-goo eyes at each other, and before Leia traded in her princess gowns for a blaster with a full clip.
So Luke and Leia get a little more frisky in this book than you would reasonably expect from long-lost siblings, and Leia is a bit more of a helpless princess than you would anticipate after seeing Empire. Also, Darth Vader is a total dick, and has no compunctions at all about carving Luke up with his glowy red light sabre. Clearly, the paternity results had not arrived yet.
Alan Dean Foster ghost-wrote the Star Wars novelization. The one I read, like, a hundred times after seeing the movie. (I take good care of my books. Ask anybody. I don’t let my children borrow my books unless they promise not to take them out of the shrink wrap. My 1977 paperback copy of Star Wars is the only book I literally read to death. I read it so often the spine finally said, “Dude, seriously?” and the book fell apart in my hands.)
So reading Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye is a smooth, seamless transition from the Star Wars novelization. Sure, the continuity is all wonky, and there’s some weirdness about a gem that gives you power over the force (um, what?), but on every other level, THIS IS REAL STAR WARS. The characters feel the same, the dialog feels right, the creepy swamp planet Circarpous is a terrific setting, and the interplay between Luke and Leia is excellent.
Mostly excellent, anyway. I don’t recall if they kiss or anything, and honestly, I don’t wanna recall. Because, yuk.
Remember, this is alternate-universe Star Wars. For six months after this book appeared, I thought it would be the next Star Wars movie, and I couldn’t wait. Things didn’t turn out that way, but Empire turned out to be pretty great anyway. Still, there are times when I wonder how things might have played out if Lucas had hired Foster to write the screenplay for the second film, instead of Leigh Brackett.
In a mirror universe somewhere, Spock-with-a-goatee is watching Luke and Leia make out on a widescreen. I wonder if he’s eating popcorn.
You know, as a kid I spent hours and hours re-enacting my favorite tv shows and movies. Sometimes I’d add new story lines, sometimes I’d just act out the original, but I loved doing it. It let the adventure and the characters keep living, even beyond the end credits. I think that the best tie-in works do the same thing–give fans the opportunity to have more of the great experience they’re craving. So I really enjoy tie-in creations that stay true to the characters or the setting of the original universe, but expand upon it somehow. When I was younger, I gorged on the Dragonlance books. I can’t even count how many times I read Piers Anthony’s novelization of Total Recall! I’ve always been a big fan of tie-in, and now I write it. I think that’s pretty damn cool.
I have three favorite tie-in novels. One is definitely Death’s Heretic, by James L. Sutter. (Note: James is a good friend and my super-awesome editor at Paizo. But since his book was a Barnes & Noble top ten fantasy selection for 2011 and was also a finalist for the Compton Crook award, I’m guessing I’m not the only one who thinks this book rocks.) The Pathfinder tie-in novels do a great job building on the game’s amazing setting–seriously, everything is cool and dangerous and intriguing in Golarion–while still functioning within the framework of the rules. Since I started playing the game, my appreciation for the fiction really deepened. What makes Death’s Heretic so great is the way it takes one of the bedrocks of the game, the presence of gods who are engaged in the world’s function, and shakes it up. The main character is an atheist in a world where there is actual empirical evidence for gods. Sutter not only makes that work, but he makes it totally meaningful. And he doesn’t break any rules while he does it.
My other favorite is Willow, a novelization by Wayland Drew. Drew was writing from Lucas’s and Dolman’s script, and it includes a handful of scenes that wound up being cut from the movie. It also includes a lot of characters’ back stories which aren’t a part of the original film. The book really deepens characters like Sorsha and General Kael, but it does its finest work on the character of Madmartigan, who is one of my all-time favorite characters in any movie or book. It’s just a joy to read a book that brings new material to established characters in such a believable and heartfelt way.
My final choice is total guilty pleasure reading. Death Troopers, by Joe Schreiber, is the perfect combination of zombie action flick and … Star Wars. Mostly, it’s a fun romp through a terrifying setting, but when Han and Chewie show up, their characters are really illuminated. In A New Hope, Chewie and Han seemed like such bad asses–I always wanted to hang out with them! I really admire their ability to crack wise while trouble is brewing all around them, and in Death Troopers, which is set shortly before A New Hope, their skill for getting in trouble while staying unflappable is pushed to the brink. I really look forward to reading Schreiber’s other novels set in the Star Wars universe.
I probably wouldn’t be a writer if it wasn’t for Dungeons and Dragons. Not only did the game encourage me to create characters whose heads I wanted to live inside of over weeks, and months and years, but it also served as my first fledgling steps in telling stories of my own. Because they had the name of that hallowed property on their covers, I devoured the early Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman and R.A. Salvatore. I used to think of them as a guilty pleasure, but there’s nothing to feel guilty about in reading a book you enjoy.
Do bad tie-ins exist? Of course! But excellent tie-in novels exist alongside them, just like dreadful non tie-in novels exist. I hate to use the word “original” there, as there is a lot that is original in tie-in fiction, even if they are building on someone else’s world. I mean, come on, so-called “realistic” fiction uses an existing world, our world, to tell its stories, and no one poo-poos it for that fact (well, I do, most “literary fiction” would be improved in my mind with the addition of a dragon or robot).
While I’ve enjoyed a lot of tie-in fiction over the years, there’s a few authors who have really jumped out at me:
David Annandale’s entry into the Warhammer 40000 universe, Death of Antagonis, was a phenomenal read. I knew Annandale as a writer of thrillers and horror prior to Death of Antagonis, but he brought both lightning paced action and creeping dread to the grimdark future of Warhammer. Not only that, but he made a series with a huge back catalog accessible to a reader with only a passing familiarity with the game and its worlds.
Dave Gross I’ve come to know through his Pathfinder Tales novels, featuring Count Varian Jeggare, and his hellspawn bodyguard, Radovan. Gross grafts humour on to high adventure, and manages to change the tone of his books in an almost chameleon-like fashion. Master of Devils is my personal favorite, a story that infuses classic kung fu movie action on to a western quest narrative. The banter between Gross’s protagonists is as good as anything you’ll find in fantasy or crime fiction, and his dynamic duo are Half Sherlock Holmes, Half Sam Spade, and all wonderful.
Don Bassingthwaite’s Eberron novels (but really anything I’ve read by the man is worth picking up–track down his World of Darkness novels too, if you have the chance) were in my opinion the finest stories told in that world. He brought an anthropologist’s eye to his goblin cultures in Doom of Kings, and did more with that classic monster in one chapter than most writers have in entire novels.
Most of my responses are based upon tabletop roleplaying games, because when I read tie-ins, that’s what I read. With movies and television shows, I try to avoid spoilers as much as possible, usually not even watching a trailer after the first initial teaser if its something I’m really excited about. But Joss Whedon’s extension of the Buffy the Vampire universe as comic books was inspired. As were the Serenity comics. Finally, if George Lucas had filmed Matthew Stover’s novelization of Revenge of the Sith, I might have actually enjoyed the last of the prequels.