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Borderlands #2: Unconquered by John Shirley
Review by Ernest Lilley
Pocket Books Mass Market Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781439198483
Date: 25 September 2012 List Price $7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

When Obi-Wan tells Luke that there's no greater hive of scum and villany in the universe, he could be talking about the backwater waste of the planet that Borderlands 2 takes place on. Rich in valuable alien artifacts that have the unpleasant side effect of turning humans into Psychos, mutant monsters with an excess of bloodlust and craziness, and the few "normal" humans scouring the surface for alien treasure have to keep a sharp eye out for trouble. Fortunately, no one has ever been able to organize the Psychos into anything like an army, at least until now.

If you've been exposed to the wildly popular video game, Borderlands 2, you'll know better than to expect a subtly crafted piece of storytelling full of nuanced characters and stuff. You'll expect something that would work fine as a roughly illustrated manga, full of ironic and fatalistic anti-heroes without a lot of plot to complicate things. And you'd be right.

Borderlands: Unconquered is John Shirley's second attempt to bring the mayhem in Borderlands to the written page, but unlike his first book for the franchise, Borderlands: The Fallen, it doesn’t have a real hook for readers beyond watching the characters they already know from the game, Roland (the soldier), Mordecai (the sharpshooter), Brick (just think Hulk), and a newcomer, Daphne (former assassin, but we're supposed to be amused by the name), as they travel across the Borderlands to collect some alien stuff that Roland bought a map for in a bar.

Borderlands, the video game, is a sort of post-apocalyptic western shoot-em-up, that takes place on the planet Pandora (definitely not the one in Avatar) a lawless world populated by crazed mutant humans (Psychos), general desperados, vicious alien beasties, annoying little robots (claptraps), and a few heroic mercenary types (that would be where your character comes in). There are alien artifacts on Pandora, and though exposure to them can turn humans into sub-humans, which I think is why everyone wears a “vault mask", and pretty much everyone is willing to shoot anything that moves in attempt to get the booty. And it's all rendered in a sort of simple manga graphic style, which has the advantage of being easier for computers to render and easier for players to make out their opponents in. There is absolutely nothing subtle about Borderlands. Nothing. But that's the game.

Roland is your basic ex-military soldier of fortune, sort of a cross between Bruce Willis and Bruce Campbell, and he's got dreams of making a big score and retiring someplace where everything isn't trying to kill you 24/7. With a map to a load of riches big enough to accomplish that goal, he decides to recruit a team to keep him alive long enough to do it, and maybe even help carry it out. He picks up Mordecai to handle the shooting, and then seeks out Brick to handle the bashing and whatnot. Unfortunately, when he finds Brick, he's teamed with Daphne, about whom Roland has a bad feeling, so he and Mordecai take off on their own. Daphne's curiosity is peaked, so she and Brick spend a fair amount of the book dogging Roland's trail.

As if Psychos and alien carnivores didn't make the Borderlands deadly enough on their own, there's a new menace looming in the wasteland, a woman general who's found a way to get the Psychos to fall in line for her, thanks to a supply of drugs that leave them susceptible to her charms. Worship probably wouldn't be too strong a term. Personally, I think the author should be ashamed for coming up with the alliterative tag of "General Goddess Gynella", but at least it's descriptive.

The General stole the drugs from the Hyperion corporation, whose station floats over Pandora, and the local head would really like to keep anyone from finding out that he's lost it, and incidentally kill off Gynella and her pet researcher. Since it turns out that Gynella has taken an interest in Roland, and they're bound to meet up, he tries to sign our boy up for a contract hit, but Roland doesn't jump at the chance. He's out to get some alien ore, and nothing is going to distract him.

Gynella's army on his heels gets his attention though, and he and Mordecai seek shelter in Bloodrust Corners, a fortified mining town full of honest folk who happen to be surrounded by the General's army. Guess what hard-bitten hero can't bring himself to duck out the back way and leave the miners to be overrun?

On the one hand, Borderlands: Unconquered could be considered to be a tragic waste of paper, but it's all a matter of point of view. Is it any worse, really, than a story about a bunch of girls vying for the affections of a sequence of overly mannered suitors? With or without zombies.

It's unlikely that the book will bring newcomers to the game, or as in the case of the Halo franchise, attract readers for the value of the story itself. There's nothing here that hasn't been seen a thousand times before, with or without spaceships, and frankly, there's just not enough meat on this story's bones to make it more interesting than just playing the game, except that unlike gameplay, you'll never get stuck on some level where you can't figure out how to get past the last bad guy to move on, which is what always happens to me. You won't get any clues to help you out here, by the way.

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