Review by C.J. Bunce
Usually a franchise tie-in novel or sequel will be able to serve as a standalone story to create a springboard into the story’s universe for new readers. That’s not the case for readers of the new Gears of War prequel to the Gears 5 video game, Gears of War: Ascendance. Author Jason M. Hough takes fans of the games on a journey back into field combat with a group of familiar characters battling close-quarters with the Swarm, with a backdrop focus on the political machinations of Coalition of Ordered Governments’ Minister Jinn and her reliance on Damon Baird and his robot army. Unfortunately the story reads like the down day at a Dungeon & Dragon session, all about a group of characters getting from Point A to Point B, with little happening in between.
The entire novel is a set-up to bring the franchise’s first heroine to the lead position of gameplay, Kait Diaz. The lack of development of the character is unfortunate, because it could have the potential for another alien bug fighter like Ellen Ripley, Rita Vrataski, Dizzy Flores, or Private Vasquez. We meet Diaz following the burial of her mother. She and her team are rescued from this planet only to return later so she can try to save a boy and a girl that she believed were dead when her group had abandoned their location. So readers will be drawn toward her mission. Backstory (available elsewhere) for the video games explains the significance of a special talisman she wears, yet each time it is discussed the reader is ready to learn more about it, but its purpose is ultimately skipped over in this book. And readers don’t get to learn much about what makes Kait Diaz tick. For that, readers will need to look to the game (which has been well-received by gamers).
So Gears of War: Ascendance is truly for fans already familiar with the game and its characters. What a “Gear” even is, and what the opposing factions are and why, what one weapon is versus another–none of these concepts are ever explained (a Gear is a soldier, but is it an elite soldier or any foot soldier?). The Swarm and other beasts are some kind of alien monster inspired by the Arachnid Bugs of Starship Troopers or that creature from Mimic, a kind of giant locust (it’s called the Locust Horde so I assume it looks like a locust) but all creepy like the Xenomorphs of Aliens, and telepathically connected like the hive mind of The Borg from Star Trek. Why are they bad? We don’t know, just as Heinlein treated his antagonists in Starship Troopers, although game players who dig in outside this novel will see they become more than that to Kait Diaz in the game. Opening paragraphs in each section providing some backstory and setting, along with descriptions of characters would have been a welcome addition for those not familiar with the game yet.
Hough’s dialogue is rough and descriptions are difficult in homing in on a visual style. He relies on characters firing snips of dialogue at each other, which, if used by one character, could have helped to establish a single voice, but instead many of the characters speak in a rather odd, indistinguishable version of English that doesn’t seem to be part of the game universe. As an example, the introductory sentence style dropping the first word of every sentence like “The hell’s the matter?” and “The hell’s that?” instead of “What in the hell’s the matter?” and “What in the hell’s that?” spoken by so many characters so often is jarring and grating after the first few times. And a hundred of the book’s 353 pages could have been trimmed by removing unneeded rambling banter at the beginning and end of each bit of dialogue–dialogue that does nothing to foster worldbuilding or drive the story forward. With no glossary, readers will need to look to the fan sites for explanations of capitalized words used for objects in the text.
Gears of War: Ascendance has some components in common with S.D. Perry’s Tomb Raider: Path of the Apocalypse (reviewed here), although Perry more clearly lays out heroine Lara Croft’s objectives and motives. This novel also has plenty of that action-for-action’s sake violence/mayhem/melee that is a hallmark of the first or third-person shooter games, merged with that seemingly endless journey or quest as found in R.A. Salvatore’s Boundless (review here) (also see Jason McClain’s essay on Video games–Skyrim revisited: Choices here).