Friday, July 09, 2010

Review: Transformers Exodus by Alex Irvine

I’m a pretty big transformers fan. I collected all 80 issues of the original Marvel comics run of the four issue limited series, as well as their follow up Generation 2. I collected many of the toys in my youth, and even some of the resurgence of the comics under Dreamwave (the best of which was Transformers: Armada). I was aware of the Beast Wars through my nephew, who was really into that show, and my own sons love Transformers Animated. So, the only shows I really missed were Robots in Disguise (really more of an Anime take on the property anyway) and Energon. Oh and it should be noted that I actually enjoy both live action films. And books, oh I’ve read plenty. From the Alan Dean Foster books tied into last summer’s Revenge of the Fallen, to an earlier attempt at original fiction by Scott Ciencen called Hardwired (which was such a miserable failure of a book that I had no desire to read the next two books in that trilogy, despite the change in author). But no prose book has ever come as close to being a perfect Transformers book as Alex Irvine’s Exodus. I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about the same part of the book most reviews seem to be focusing in on. Yes, this book gives the reader the origin of the war between the Decepticons and the Autobots, and shows how it is intricately linked to the rise of both Megatron and Optimus Prime. And that part of the plot is well thought out, revealing both characters to be much more than the marketing of a toy; but well realized personalities, capable of being betrayed and of going to extreme and desperate measures to do what in their own minds must be done for the sake of their “movement”. But that’s really only just the early part of the novel, the set up for the other 2/3 of the book, in which the war itself is fought – in the trenches, slowly, painfully over the course of centuries (megacycles) as each side tries to gain an upper hand, and more and more of the energon resources of the planet are used up to fuel their neverending war. What starts as two political movements, both looking to create a more equal society, eventually coalesces into two diametrically opposed viewpoints (like Magneto and Xavier) that splits Cybertronian society and forces each member to choose a side. And the lore that Irvine includes, and uses to an excellent degree – I would imagine that the uninitiated might not catch every reference, and it shouldn’t defer from their enjoyment of the story – but for those who have some passing interest in Transformers, this book reads like a love letter to all of the series. Ratbat as the council representative from the Minicons, makes connections between Ratbat’s use as a Decepticon leader in the Marvel comic as well as the use of Minicons in Armada (and the existence in general of these smaller toys). The Allspark having been sent away from Cybertron to protect it, the Thirteen Primes (including The Fallen), the Matrix of Leadership, mentions of the Quintessons, space-bridges, Teletran-1, and just the right amount of use of characters from a number of different series (like Jetfire, Omega Supreme, Trypticon, Lugnut, Sentinel Prime, Ultra Magnus & The Wreckers) all added not just a whiff of nostalgia to the book, but a critical part of showing how much bigger the story really is. There’s a lot of history here, making for a well rounded world, a deep world with its own mythology - and its own iconic characters. The main stars of course are the usual suspects, aside from the obvious two above, you’ve also got the devious Starscream, loyal Soundwave and Bumblebee (loyal to their own side, that is), the mad-scientist Shockwave, medic Ratchet, weaponmaster Ironhide, security guru Prowl, and Jazz, the only Autobot who can get away with calling Prime out on his decisions. There are a few moments of silliness – I wasn’t fond of the use of Six Lasers over Cybertron (an obvious analog to Six Flags) and there were times that I wished for a little more interaction between certain characters (like Jetfire being a part of the Seekers – the same group as Starscream – and him choosing to betray them and join the Autobots – it’s a fairly important moment in Transformers lore, but glazed over in this book). And yet I find I can’t really nit-pick those small things that I wished were in the book when there was so much that I loved about it. Optimus leads not only by example, but by taking charge of the most dangerous missions – this is a leader who shares the same dangers as those who fight at his side. And his mission here seems insurmountable – fighting Decepticons who have learned to tap into Dark Energon, making them even more powerful; trying to save Sentinel Prime; finding the Matrix of Leadership; stopping the threat of Trypticon; and all while facing dwindling resources and a losing battle which sees the Autobots yielding ground every day to the Decepticons – until the only option left open to them is the Generation One project, building an Ark, and leaving Cybertron until they can one day return… I find I have no other ways to say it, Transformers: Exodus is a fantastic Transformers novel, and a great book in its own right. It works as a novel for a fan of any series, it could be the origin for all versions of the Transformers mythos. It’s also one of my favorite reads so far this year, and I highly recommend it.


Stewart Sternberg said...

I must be honest, I am not a Transformer fan. However, I am fascinated by how it has become part of American pop culture. Is it our love of cars and technology that it has tapped into, or is it simply that so many Transformer fans grew up in front of the TV watching the cartoon with rapt attention. Are these the same folk who still utter the words Johnny Socko with reverence.

Interesting post. Thanks

BStearns said...

I remember Transformers growing up, or more accurately Beast Wars. That was one of my favourite shows, and I collected so many of the toys. I too enjoyed the live action films quite a bit, but I've never read the comics or novels. I'm not much of a comic book reader, and don't generally read tie-in novels (like the Star Wars, Star Trek, etc, novels). So I don't think I'll pick this novel up, but I'm glad you enjoyed it!


SQT said...

I never watched the Transformer cartoons as a kid. I think I put it in the shows-for-boys category when I was younger (though I love Voltron-- so, go figure) but I thought the first movie was entertaining. I think it was Stu who felt the movie really missed the opportunity to go for something great-- and I think he's right. I'd have never thought to pick up a book based on the series given the shallow nature of the movies, but now I'd consider it.

Jim Haley said...

@Stewart - I actually don't know the Johnny Socko reference at all. I wasn't one to be sitting in front of the TV often - I was actually first introduced to the Transformers via the comic book, and then sought out the cartoon (which wasn't as good, but not the half-hour commercial it was accused of being). I've been a fan of anime (before I knew what it was) in the form of G-Force and Star Blazers, and Transformers spoke to my interest in much the same way (I'd later go on to love Robotech as well). Big robots that transform into cool vehicles made for both good passive entertainment, but active entertainment when I could use the toys and make my own adventures.

@SQT - I know I'm way in the minority on this, but I actually enjoy the second film more than the first. Shia is a little less annoying in the second, and they introduced more Transformers history. The first film did a good job of introducing the main Transformers, though it had some missed opportunities (a crashing Transformers ship for insance, and the soldier not being Sam's older brother when he had one in the show/comic). But, I'm an unabashed tie-in novel guy - been reading them a long long time, and it's always nice when one really rises above what they often are and show what they could be. Transformers Exodus isn't going to change anyones life, but if anyone is looking for a tie-in to that show/movie, this is the one to read.