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Fun video game tie-in that was a lot better than I was expecting
on 3 February 2014
I really love the Assassins' Creed games, but had very low hopes for this book. I couldn't help but assume that a spin off novel from a video game, even one as well plotted as AC, would be predictable and badly written with one-dimensional characters. I bought the book for my boyfriend, but one bored afternoon I couldn't resist picking it up myself, and I was pleasantly surprised.
For me, Haytham was by far the most intriguing character in Assassins' Creed 3. Until then, it had all seemed a bit black and white, with evil Templars and good Assassins, then suddenly, there's this mysterious and sympathetic Templar who frees slaves, allies with Native Americans and stops the worst excesses of his colleagues. Plus, he's posh, English. well-dressed and from the eighteenth century - four big ticks in my book.
So firstly, I think the author made an inspired choice in focussing on Haytham rather than Connor, the games official hero. He really fills out the character with an intriguing personality and inspired back story. The writing and characterisation is pretty good throughout, and much better than I was expecting. It's told through Haytham's diary, and it mimics the style of eighteenth century diary writing quite effectively. While I'm sure this will be read almost universally by fans of the games, it could almost stand on its own merits as a general historical fantasy.
The book is at its best when the author is given free rein to create his own plot within the AC universe. I particularly loved the scenes in which Haytham is a young child in London in the 1730s, living with his very rich and respectable father, who fans will recognise as Edward Kenway, the pirate hero of the fourth game. The family dynamics are touching, and eighteenth century London is surprisingly accurately portrayed. I also enjoyed the later scenes of Haytham training with the Templars, which give a whole new perspective on everyone's favourite evil organisation.
Conversely, I thought the book was at its weakest when it rehashed scenes from the game. Firstly, I already knew what was going to happen, and secondly, the need to stick to canon seemed to diminish the author's imagination. Also, in a video game, it's easy to kill twenty people in quick succession and think nothing of it. When a book depicts the same scene and describes how many people the hero has killed or how quickly he recovers from terrible injuries, it feels quite bizarre and unrealistic. On the other hand, the later chapters worked quite well where they filled in the blanks and/or gave Haytham's perspective on Connor's adventures.
Two things to bear in mind for fans of Assassins' Creed 3 who are debating whether this is worth their time. Firstly, as I've already alluded to, it's very much focussed on Haytham. If you're mainly here for Connor, don't bother. Haytham doesn't even meet his mother until nearly 300 pages in, and his son gets barely twenty pages in total. Fine by me, but it might annoy some people.
Similarly, the games always have three interwoven story lines: battles between Templars and Assassins in some historical period, present day conspiracy theories and people using the animus, and all the weird flashbacks to "those who came before." The plot here is much more straightforward - it's a clear cut eighteenth century adventure story, told in diary form, with just the merest hint of fantasy, and no present day plot or ancient flashbacks. Again, I think that was probably the best approach, as I'm mainly a fan for the historical elements (it helps that Renaissance Italy and eighteenth century England are my two favourite periods), but if it's Abstergo and the pieces of Eden that really capture your imagination, you're going to be disappointed.
In conclusion, if you're a fan of Assassin's Creed 3 and want to fill in the blanks, and especially if you're a fan of eighteenth century history, this is a lot of fun and well worth a look.