#476: Assassin’s Creed: Forsaken

An original idea for an adaptation, but Haytham deserves better

Initial release: 2012
Author: Oliver Bowden

The idea of a “tie-in” novel is, on its surface, a bit of a strange concept. Though essentially glorified fan-fiction, some franchises have embraced the tie-in and built entire extended universes on them: Star Wars, Aliens (many of which are themselves adaptations of Dark Horse comic book storylines) and of course Warhammer 40,000. Assassin’s Creed, being a multi-million-dollar video game franchise, is no stranger to the written word, many of the books being novelizations of the games, but a few are original pieces. And then there’s Assassin’s Creed: Forsaken, which sits in a bit of a weird spot as being partly an adaptation of Assassin’s Creed III, but also partly a prequel. But here’s the kicker: it’s entirely in the form of a journal written by Haytham Kenway, father of Assassin’s Creed III protagonist Ratonhnhaké:ton and protagonist of the early chapters of the game.

As an adaptation it only very loosely touches on the events of the game. Haytham’s memory sequences are covered, of course, though Haytham makes some interesting choices in where he actually goes into detail versus what he glosses over, plus there are moments not shown in the game, such as when he and Ratonhnhaké:ton’s mother split up. We also get to see his late-game appearances from his own perspective. All of this, however, is mixed in with a far darker and depressing plotline about Haytham’s origins as the son of pirate and Assassin Edward Kenway, being groomed to join the Brotherhood until his home is attacked and burned, his father murdered, and his sister kidnapped. With his sister’s fiance Reginald Birch taking him on as a ward, he’s soon groomed to become a Templar instead, but as he comes to discover, the world is a mountain of lies in a sea of blood.

Bowden keeps a relatively conservative style, albeit one a bit more modernist in structure and language than you would expect for an 18th century journal — and, indeed, not very journal-like at all, being heavy on the exposition and largely just reading like an ordinary first-person narrative, in an episodic style that has a nasty tendency to defuse narrative tension (to be fair, the games do this too.) If you can look past this, the book manages to be generally a decent read. While the parts that are original to the book are good, the adaptation stuff feels rushed and glossed over, and are actually pretty lacking in the charm and charisma that made Haytham such a compelling character in the very same scenes in the game (to say nothing of small continuity errors and minor differences.) It’s clear from Bowden’s other books that he doesn’t actually like writing adaptations and prefers to get through the game’s material as quickly as possible, because the original stuff is far more developed.

Haytham in the game is generally a villain, albeit one more complex than the average Templar (for example, Charles Lee.) His relationship with Ratonhnhaké:ton is antagonistic at best, treating his son as a wayward child who simply doesn’t understand how the world works. In the novel, however, he’s far more conflicted; like Ratonhnhaké:ton he’s caught between two worlds, with his Assassin training and Templar ideals coming into conflict, full of doubts and mistrust. Unfortunately this kind of results in Haytham being an inconsistent character, merciful or cruel as the plot demands. This is put into stark relief with how he changes his mind on the Precursors from thinking they’re a fairy tale to being a true believer simply because he read a book (said book was the goal of the attack on his family as a child.) While the book is later implied in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag to be the infamous Voynich Manuscript, it is never actually described in the novel in any detail, leaving it firmly in meaningless MacGuffin territory.

While I do appreciate the novel’s goal of expanding on Haytham as a character and digging into the things that make him such a complex figure, and I enjoy the ongoing mystery as to who attacked his family and finding his sister, ultimately, this is one of those tie-in novels that I don’t think would actually appeal to anyone outside of the fandom, and we already have a lot of those. While the idea of presenting another perspective on the events of Assassin’s Creed III and the American Revolution is an interesting one, the former is glossed over and the latter is barely even discussed except in the service of the former, and I can’t help but feel that maybe Ubisoft should have given the job of writing this to someone else.

-june❤

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june gloom

june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [they/she]