Darksiders: The Abomination Vault by Ari Marmell – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first tie-in novel to the popular Darksiders video game series.
“Smart and witty, this is the kind of video game tie-in fiction that I absolutely love to read, but find precious little of in the wild” ~The Founding Fields
In my review of James Swallow’s Deus Ex: Icarus Effect, I remarked on how common it was for most video game novelisations to so utterly miss the mark, and just be terrible repetitions (at best) of the narrative gameplay, rather than something with a character of its own. If I want to get a straight up adaptation of the in-game narrative, I might as well play the game missions again rather than read them. You can easily guess I’m sure which is much more exciting I hope! When it comes to Darksiders, I have zero experience with the setting since I’ve never played the game. I didn’t even know about it until earlier this summer Ari Marmell blogged about it. I’d been following Ari for a while by then and had read his first Widdershins novel, which I’d found to be quiet an exciting and engaging one. Going into Darksiders: The Abomination Vault with zero expectations in that regard, as I did with David Gaider’s Dragon Age: The Silent Grove Volume 1, kept me open to be truly wowed, and that is exactly what happened here.
In Darksiders: The Abomination Vault, one of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Death returns after half a century of self-imposed exile from the affairs of the universe and the Charred Council. And on his return, he finds himself involved from the get go in finding out which new enemy has sought to breach the defenses of Eden, and whether or not this attack was meant to break the fragile peace between the angels of Heaven and the demons of Hell. Set in an era that is several ages before the events of the Darksiders games, the novel also explores the core reasons why Death and his brother War, another Horseman of the Apocalypse, have a close bond in the game. With weapons of a bygone age that can destroy the universe itself, Death and War define their relationship against the troubles they face in ensuring that there is still a tomorrow.
Having read Ari’s Widdershins novels, I had a certain expectation of the narrative style that he would go for. Since I knew next to nothing about the games, I had no idea if his particular styles would work, or not. As I read the novel, one thing emerged, at first slowly, and then in leaps and bounds: this novel might very well be Ari’s best work to date. In the Widdershins novels, he went for a very heavy tongue-in-cheek style to suit the age of his protagonist and the sort of troubles she finds herself in as an accomplished thief. In my review for False Covenant, I noted that his constant use of sentences within brackets, sometimes even entire paragraphs, really pulled me out of the story and limited how much fun I was having on my read through. Compared to that, its as if Darksiders: The Abomination Vault is Ari perfecting his craft and getting closer to the peak of his career, in my experience. The differences between the Widdershins novel and this one is a difference between a snarky Young Adult novel and a mainstream heroic fantasy novel; the differences are just too stark, they stand out.
I can certainly say that I enjoyed Darksiders: The Abomination Vault far more than I did either Thief’s Covenant or False Covenant. With this novel, Ari explores the concepts of honour and brotherhood in a way that he doesn’t in those novels. Death was, to my great surprise, a rather snarky character himself, where I had been expecting this dour, gravely-voiced figure. He quips at all the right moments, he easily puts even the vaunted Charred Council on the back-foot, and he is so self-assured that he can give his “masters”, the Charred Council, the finger and they can’t do anything to him. They will threaten the most dire punishments and censure of course, but what separates Death’s arrogance from that of any other such character is that he is right and he knows exactly what he is doing. As the narrative unfolds, we learn that Death, being the oldest of the four Horsemen, is privy to a hell of a lot more knowledge about the Nephilim (the race the Horsemen belong to, its last survivors) than any other person living. And there are reasons for that too, as War eventually and inevitably, finds out.
For my money, Death is one of the coolest characters I’ve read of this year.
War, as his name suggests, is everything you can expect from him. He is one of those killers from heroic fantasy who will slit your throat and laugh while he’s at it. Gruesome and grotesque imagery? Well that’s right up this novel’s alley, and together with Death, War embodies that aspect of this “proto” Darksiders universe. Don’t just expect mindless butchery and fury from though. Yes, he’s capable of all that and more, but he is also a thinker. Some of his deductions and conclusions surprise, and even impress, Death. Could you really ask for more from a character like War? I certainly would not have, which is why I was surprised by Ari’s frank and open portrayal of him. There is a place for both mindless butchery and raw, calculated fury. War embodies both of those aspects, and he looks damn good when he does. One of his escapades even puts the entire Angel hierarchy, including their leader Abaddon, on the back-foot. What Death often accomplishes with words, War accomplishes with his actions.
The novel builds upon its narrative bit by bit. Revelations abound as the narrative progresses, and events become every more complicated as a result. The way Ari wrote the novel, it is easy to follow the progression of events and even anticipate some of the twists and turns that he’s worked in to the novel. The revelation about the Abomination Vault was totally unexpected for me, but not one of Death’s “magic tricks” towards the end of the novel. What matters is that the novel kept me on my toes. It showed me that it was a virtue to be suspicious of the direction where the narrative was going because at any time I could either be thrown a curve-ball (that does make sense) or just prove my suspicions right.
As such, the pace of the novel was fantastic. I kept turning the pages because I just had to know what was coming next. I couldn’t just wait for the narrative to move at its own pace. It was hard to resist but that perseverance paid off since the pay-off at the end was damn perfect, partly because I hadn’t expected something like that to happen. Darksiders: The Abomination Vault is a novel that is pure entertainment from start to finish.
Since I know nothing about the Darksiders universe other than what’s in this book, and this is a prequel to the events of the games, I cannot comment on how relevant it is to the established lore, how accurate it is in its portrayal of the characters and the factions and the setting. So even though I cannot judge the novel on those merits, what I will say is that if this is the quality of the tie-in novel, then the quality of the video games themselves has to be at least that good.
In hindsight, I think Ari’s proven to be the perfect choice of author to write this novel. From my previous experience of his work, I can say that this is a very mature, very confident Ari who wrote the novel. The Young Adult fantasy nature of the Widdershins novels is different to the much more adult tone of Darksiders: The Abomination Vault yes, but I do see a marked difference in Ari’s own writing. I see an improvement in how he describes his characters, his setting, his plot, his pacing, all of it. If there’s one thing I can fault this novel for, its that it just wasn’t that big.
At this point, all I’m hoping for is that this is the start of something new and cool for Ari and that he gets a chance to revisit these characters as part of a series of novels. I would definitely read them.