Myst: The Book of Atrus, is the first novel in the Myst series of books, which expands on the universe used in UbiSoft’s Myst series. In this piece I will be giving a short synopsis of the book as well as do an overall review. (Warning: Some spoilers! If you don’t want to read the book, or have already read it, keep reading, otherwise skip down to the conclusion.)The games have made for one of the most successful game franchises of all time, but the question remains as to whether this novel can engage the reader in the same fashion.
Myst: The Book of Atrus begins with the story of Atrus, a young boy living with his grandmother, Anna, in “the cleft”, a fissure near a dormant volcano. Atrus was abandoned to Anna by his father, Ghen (Anna’s son), after Atrus’s mother dies giving birth to him. (Ghen abandons Atrus before Atrus is even named.) Through the years, Anna teaches Atrus a number of things about their D’Ni heritage, including how to speak and write the language, as well as how to observe the world around him. This is emphasized by Atrus’s notes and drawings, which are presented throughout the book, and should be familiar to anyone who has played the game.
When Atrus is about 13, Ghen comes back in order to take Atrus away to study with him. Ghen has been living in the D’Ni homeland, studying the remnants of their lost civilization. The civilization was apparently only recently lost, and according to Ghen it was all Anna’s fault. Nevertheless, Ghen is studying (and wants to teach Atrus) “The Art” of building Ages, in order to rebuild the D’Ni race and in the process make themselves gods.
Ages, as explained by Ghen, are special worlds built by the D’Ni. Maybe. This is where some of the major confusion starts within the book: while Ghen is insistent upon the idea that he has created the Ages, Atrus believes (or discovers) that instead the books are links to preexisting worlds. This point isn’t ever made clear, however, as every action taken by Ghen, Atrus (and Catherine) after that revelation pretty much indicates that Ghen was right.
After about 200 pages and three years, Ghen gets tired of Atrus questioning him all the time, and along with his Lurch-like servant (who, while a potentially cool character is left almost entirely as an enigma) traps Atrus in a hallway where the only way out is Ghen’s fifth age, Riven. (Ghen, by the way, isn’t all that imaginative about his Ages or their denizens, naming them such things as “Person One” and “Age Thirty-Seven”. The fact that some people and places have other names given them previous to Ghen’s arrival is what tips Atrus off that Ages are links, not worlds. Again, this point is rather confusing in the book.)
In Riven, Atrus meets Katran (Catherine), who ends up teaming up with Atrus’s grandmother in order to help him escape the wrath of Ghen and at the same time trap Ghen in Riven, which like all other worlds created by Ghen, are falling apart due to shoddy construction. (The fact that the worlds are falling apart tells me that the worlds are indeed created by Ghen, and that they’re just links. Again, this point is never really made clear during this book.)
Eventually, Atrus escapes to a world he thinks was created (linked to?) by Katran, Myst.
If you’ve ever played any of the Myst game, regardless of whether you loved them or hated them, you will likely concede that if nothing else the games were visually stunning. With worlds (called “Ages”) so realistically imaginative, it wouldn’t be all that difficult for someone with enough gumption (and funds) to create lands like those in real life. If you not only liked the visuals, but also the games, then you likely enjoyed the game for its puzzles as much as (if not more than) the landscapes presented. While the novel attempts to carry this tradition on by spending pages describing the scenery, it does so at the expense of the rest of the novel.
By far the weakest point of this book is the character development. The game really doesn’t have characters, since the player is supposed to be the main character. As such, not much character development is necessary in the games. Sadly, this is made painfully obvious in the book. As I read, I found it increasingly difficult to really care about any of the characters, save for Katran (Catherine) and Anna, both of whom have their big scenes near the very end of the book.
The book contains no more than about ten characters, three of which are explored, six of which can be considered minor, and one which can be considered in between. While this is well and good for most novels of average length (about 100,000 words, with about 30,000 words dedicated to each main character), it seems as if everything we learned about the main characters could have been said in a third of the space.
- Early on, we learn that Atrus is your basic Anakin Skywalker/gifted wonder child type, kind and extremely observant and intelligent. Sadly, that’s about all we learn, and the rest of the novel is spent hammering this point home while adding almost no more.
- Likewise, Ghen is your run-of-the-mill megalomaniac, power-hungry, over-zealous father/bad guy bent on the idea of godhood, who decides Atrus needs his learning and that everything out of his child’s mouth is pure idiocy unless it agrees with him. (He get’s pissed when he finds out Anna has taught Atrus a thing or two about D’Ni.) If nothing else, you learn through out the book — over and over again — that he’s a small minded asshole with apparently few redeming qualities (if any). Again, this point is made repeatedly, and the reader knows without question that this is one of those bad guys who you never really sympathize with. Oh, and he’s hot for Katran/Catherine, supposedly because of her ability with The Art, which only the D’Ni are supposed to know. (That she was able to use Writing was another confusing part of the story which was unsatisfactorily explained at the end, if at all.)
- Finally, there’s Anna, who’s the sweet, loving grandmother. Her character, while ignored for most of the book, is potentially the most interesting, since it is when secrets and elements are revealed regarding her background that the story moves and gets really interesting. She’s artistic, caring, intelligent, and as we learn later on, cunning. Too bad we learn all this in the span of about 10,000 words: I wouldn’t have minded spending some more time learning about her, although I guess I can do that in the prequel, Myst: The Book of Ti’Ana.
What the book lacks in character development, it partially makes up in story. The discoveries made by Atrus are very much in line with how the player would feel during one of the games, and for that the book gets points. The way Atrus observes those things around him, while simplistic, do color the story in such a way that you’re looking to explore more of the world. Of course, if I wanted to do that I would play the game or read National Geographic: I certainly wouldn’t pick up a novel for that.
Overall, the novel makes for a nice, light read if you have some time on your hards and enjoyed the games. Otherwise, I wouldn’t much bother with this novel, unless you’re willing to spend a lot of time immersing yourself in the worlds of Myst. As such, if you decide to pick up the book, get a copy of The Myst Reader (Books 1-3), since it has all of the novels for about half the price you’d pay for them individually. (This is what I did, mostly to save myself a little room in my already crowded bookshelves.)
Do I plan to read the next book in the series? Maybe. Just not now. The story was simple enough to ensure that I wouldn’t forget it, and lackluster enough to ensure that I don’t feel the need to read more.