Whenever you have a huge, summer blockbuster film out like Transformers (released back in 2007), all kinds of tie-in merchandise is released to help promote the film as part of the marketing campaign, be it soundtracks, computer games and of course, books. Novelisation of films are both expected and commonplace. I understand its place in marketing, but it's not really something to be excited about. If you've watched the film, then reading the book isn't going to surprise you, story-wise. And you can't really read the book if you're going to see the film as it's filled with spoilers which will take the enjoyment away. Either way, it's a lose-lose situation, making the idea rather redundant.
Having said that though, Transformers: Ghosts of Yesterday hits upon an idea that is much more like it, in terms of sensibility, originality and fine marketing. And that is to be a prequel novel to the events of the film. The idea is brilliant on principle alone, as it either builds up interest and anticipation OR covers things that weren't in the film (depending on whether you've seen it or not).
Ghosts of Yesterday (written by Alan Dean Foster) actually takes place almost forty years before the start of the actual film. The year 1969, to be precise. While the major event of that year was obviously Neil Armstrong going to the moon in Apollo 11, another more important space mission was being conducted in the shadows.
The enigmatic, secretive Sector Seven organization have reverse-engineered their latest technological feat from the Decepticon Leader Megatron (dubbed `The Ice Man`). The result is Ghost One, the most advanced spaceship developed by mankind. The purpose is for a crew of Sector Seven operatives to pilot the craft to explore outer space for any signs of life similar to `The Ice Man', but the mission soon takes them far beyond their own solar system...and right into the thick of the Autobot-Decepticon war.
Already, Ghosts of Yesterday gets a good amount of merit for the story-premise alone. The early days of Sector Seven's experimentation with Megatron, coinciding it with the Apollo 11 mission (which is another inventive use of real history that makes this incarnation of Transformers so appealing), along with Foster's good, descriptive (some times deep-thought provoking) writing style, makes this novel a good read.
Unfortunately, the whole story isn't pulled off as well as it could and should've been. There are quite a few major faults that take points away. The first is obviously the glaring continuity error, where Megatron here is in the midst of being shipped to Hoover Dam from an artic base in 1969. This contradicts the events of the film, where it's decreed that Megatron was shipped to the Dam in 1934 and put in suspended animation in 1935. For me, that tarnishes my enjoyment of this book somewhat and upsets the continuity aspect for this universe. It makes one struggle to compare this to the film and devise a way how best to place it in film continuity...when it SHOULDN'T. Foster could've easily avoided this issue in my opinion if he'd studied more.
Another problem with Ghosts of Yesterday is the cast of humans. The crew of Ghost 1 and the various members of Sector Seven, have little (if any) personality to really make me care about them. Only the circumstances here give them any kind of value, which also means that Foster could've come up with any human characters to throw into the story, depending on PLOT alone to make this novel a success. There have been some excellent human characters in Transformers incarnations past, including the film, and the inclusion of that quality could've really helped this story. It's a real missed opportunity here.
On the other hand, though, Foster DOES get quite a lot right here. He has the character of Optimus Prime absolutely spot-on here, writing the Autobot Leader as we all know and love him; strong, wise, inspirational and compassionate to Autobot and human alike. Prime is the undisputed hero and main star of all Transformers history, and Foster's writing style solidifies that here.
The machinations of Sector Seven and overseeing of the Ghost One mission is also a terrific sub-plot. Having to deal with `The Ice Man' and opposition from the Russian KGB (during the Cold War crisis) is really entertaining stuff, as is the well-written action towards the end of the story, featuring the Autobot/Decepticon conflict, the Sector Seven/KGB conflict, the Megatron crisis, the Ghost One's arrival/involvement in the Transformers' civil war...it's very good indeed.
Foster also gives some of the Decepticons here some much-needed character development, which was somewhat lacking from the film. That's where Starscream comes in, once again a legendary villain/character. Here he's the current Decepticon Leader and wants to stay that way. Relying on deceit and treachery to maintain his position and take the AllSpark for himself. Opposition comes in the form of Blackout, whose fierce loyalty to Megatron and subsequent despising of Starscream's command make for a compelling rivalry. Throw in Barricade, who tolerates his leader only for the good of the Decepticon cause/mission, and you get a situation that is perhaps the highlight of the whole novel.
In closing, Transformers: Ghosts of Yesterday is a good bit of tie-in merchandise. But as I said earlier, the major continuity-error and lack of human-character depth stops this from being the outstanding read it deserved to be. Things like the Transformers themselves and Sector Seven save this from being a disappointment, and the ending leads into the film rather nicely.
Is it essential? No. And if you're looking for a REALLY good prequel to the film, then check out IDW's Beginnings comic series, which is MUCH more like it. Still, Ghosts of Yesterday (despite its faults) remains a nice little read. The surprises on hand here make this worth the money, but aren't anywhere near enough to make it a classic. Your choice.