When I launched this website, I had to set a few rules regarding what I was willing to read and what I wasn't. This wasn't litcrit snobbery, it was triage. I simply cannot read every SF and fantasy novel in existence in my lifetime, and while that's a cosmic injustice, it is, like death, one I still had to accept. On the "Not" list were media tie-ins. For one thing, I'd just rather read original fiction. For another, as far as I'm concerned, media tie-in novels are marketed towards the core fan base of the franchise in question — none more so than Star Wars — and are therefore critic-proof. These books, in short, do not need my help, nor will even the harshest criticism I might make sway the converted. Plus, there are ten jillion fan sites and forums where these books will get reviewed. So, no need to bother.
My Star Wars fandom is by no means devout, or even all that effusive. (I played KOTOR but didn't finish it.) I was old enough in 1977 to have seen the original theatrical release, and oh yes, it was the life-changing experience for me that it was for so many other kids at the time. But I promptly set about broadening my SFnal horizons, discovering the many worlds in literary SF that had been waiting all along. Asimov, Heinlein, Niven & Pournelle, Burroughs, Clarke, Pohl all entered my radar very quickly. From Return of the Jedi on, I think the SW movies start to get lame, though they're nice as digital eye candy.
Media tie-ins are sent to me from time to time, making lovely surprise gifts to my local library or personal friends. Still I wasn't expecting this in the mail. Granted, I don't hang out at Star Wars fan sites and boards, where I suspect Death Troopers has been a hot topic for some time. But a Star Wars zombie horror novel? Okay, that I'll check out.
You are not hallucinating. I did, in fact, use the name Star Wars in tandem with zombie horror. Come on, if we're living in a postmodern age in which zombies are being slipped into Pride and Prejudice, why not Star Wars? The question is, would the book simply be gimmicky rubbish, or would it deliver the Grand Guignol goods? The answer is that it does, indeed, deliver, but is also gimmicky. Now, a lousy SW zombie novel would have read like a parody of the whole franchise. Death Troopers isn't lousy by a long shot. But it's not much more than a clever exercise in exploiting the novelty of its premise, before said novelty runs out.
I can't say how well hardcore SW fans will think Death Troopers does justice to the franchise's literary canon. I can say I had fun reading it, at least while there was zombie carnage in play. For what it is, which is basically a Star Wars/Left 4 Dead mashup, it's done about as well as it could have been. It's written in such a brisk, bestsellery way that a single evening ought to be enough for most readers to polish it off. This means it retains its entertainment value by not overstaying its welcome.
Set shortly before events in the first film (which I am reminded is forever to be called A New Hope), Death Troopers opens aboard the imperial prison barge Purge, on its way to some bleak penal colony. Schreiber promptly establishes this as a very grim place, and introduces us to most of our cast: teen inmates Kale and Trig Longo, whose father has not survived the usual two-fisted interrogation proffered by ruthless guard Jareth Sartoris; the ship's doctor, Zahara Cody, who does her thankless job dutifully, taking lots of heat for being more compassionate towards the prisoners than the imperial crew. The heroes are likable, the bad guys hissable.
Uh-oh, engine failure! Never mind, an imperial Star Destroyer is within hailing distance, so the Purge can obtain replacement parts. The thing is, there's something odd about this Star Destroyer, as in, it appears to be derelict and abandoned. Bioscans pick up only about ten lifeforms on a vessel designed for a crew of 10,000. Could something be amiss? Well, given that we all know going in that we're in for zombie horror, our anticipation is high for the "amiss" factor to be off the chain. Schreiber, who already has a handful of horror novels under his belt, treats us to some first-rate wandering-the-creepy-corridors-of-a-derelict-Star-Destroyer scenes, which he knows how to pace for maximal suspense, despite the fact we've seen our fair share of wandering-the-creepy-corridors before. I suspect a great deal of study of the first thirty minutes of Ridley Scott's Alien educated Schrieber in the slow building of dramatic tension before all hell breaks loose.
And fear not, Romero mavens: when it comes time for the blood to flow, the mighty Lucas monolith (which must have signed off on this, obviously) does not hold Schreiber back in the least. Gore is unabashedly at a hard-R level, and for the book's last hundred pages there is literally almost no letup in the carnage. Schreiber's undead, in addition to being ultraviolently ravenous, also retain some memories from life — like how to use blasters. An especially grisly moment pays homage to the trash compactor scene in A New Hope. I'll let your imaginations play with that.
But there are things that don't come off as well as I'm sure Schreiber hoped. There are some too-convenient rescues, anvilicious moments of redemption for bad guys, that kind of thing. Schreiber also has to contrive a reason why this zombie epidemic hasn't completely laid waste to the galaxy, and I'd suggest that readers with a background in virology or epidemiology don't give it too much close scrutiny. Schreiber sets up rules for his undead. But he's not exactly diligent about following them.
Right around 100 pages in, we get the surprise appearance of two of the most beloved fan-favorite characters from the original film trilogy. I will not spoil who they are, although it's not like you have to be the love child of Albert Einstein and Hercule Poirot to figure it out, and besides, I'm sure all the SW blogs and boards have revealed it long ago. But while it's nice to see these characters, they just don't really fit this story. Based on our awareness of them from the films, they do not seem fully in character. I tried hard to imagine the original actors playing the scenes Schreiber gives them, and it wasn't working. I think these actors would have sent a Death Troopers script back for rewrites. Given the situation they're faced with, the characters as I remember them in the films would have taken charge of things a bit more forcefully than they do here. Their dialogue would have crackled with much more personality and wit. Once introduced, Schreiber shoehorns them into minor supporting roles, which doesn't suit them. It's really as if they could have been anybody, and Schreiber made them these characters either at the request of Lucasfilm/Del Rey, or perhaps as simple fan-pandering.
Still, I don't regret relaxing my rules to read Death Troopers. While I can't really say that the equation here is "Star Wars + Zombies = Awesome," the splatterific bits were entertaining, which is all my modest expectations required. And I sure as hell would have rather seen a movie made from this, than any of those wretched prequels.