Set in the merciless near-future of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R video games, Balázs Pataki's novel S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Northern Passage sees daylight under unauspicious stars. After the impressive popularity and cult following (especially in Finland and eastern Europe) of the initial games, the developer GSC Game World has been giving out mixed signals indeed. There was long word of a sequel in development, but it's production has come to a halt at least twice now and it is unclear whether GSC as such still continues to exist and whether it controls the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. brand. It remains to be seen if Pataki's novel sets out to cater for those deprived of the sweet air of the Zone or to act as a milestone in a long wait for new 1st-person shooter-adventures.
In a nutshell, Northern Passage and it's prequel Southern Comfort (2011) are based on the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. videogames, which in turn are based on the novella Roadside Picnic (1971) of Russian science-fiction authors Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, and on master-director Andrei Tarkovsky's epic film version, Stalker (1979). Despite being vastly different in approach, all three share the central concept of the Zone. In the original novella and the movie, it's nature remains a mystery throughout, whereas in the games and the Palaki novel, two Zones have formed after devastating nuclear incidents – namely a second blast in Chernobyl and an accidental nuking of Afghanistan by Taliban forces in 2011.
The Zones are more than just radiated wastelands à la Fallout or Mad Max, they are places where the laws of nature bend and sometimes cease to function. Infested with anomalies, preternatural phenomena that can scorch, maim, teleport and even grant wishes; mutants, former animals and people warped beyond recognition and gaining mind-numbing powers; and artifacts, heavily radiated treasures with beneficial capabilities, the Zones are not places for field trips. And that's where the Stalkers come in.
Stalkers are individuals versed in the ways of the Zone and hunt for artifacts, the most precious of which are found in the most dangerous locales. Of course, no-one's supposed to be trekking the Zones, local governments do their best to keep outsiders out, adding to the hazards natively present within their confines. Still, the Zones have become battlefields for different Stalker factions struggling for survival and unimaginable riches.
The central plot in Northern Passage revolves around former Ukrainian Spetsnatz major Mikhailo Tarasov, now a famed Stalker, Nooria, his lover and mystical healer of the Tribe, a group of renegade US Marines set out to find a new promised land from the New Zone. They are accompanied by Top, the second-in-command of the Tribe on a mission to bring the son of their leader, Pete, ex-marine, current LA junkie, back to his father. Things get complicated when Tarasov receives the distress signal of an old Stalker friend from the Chernobyl Zone. All along, the Ukrainian secret services try to bring the deserter Tarasov to their version of justice, and Skinner, a half-mutant with delusions of grandeur, plots to destroy every human being within the New Zone to reserve the land for his grotesque brethren. What's nice, no knowledge of the first book in the series is necessary, even though it is clear some nods are made into its direction.
The introduction of several sub-plots and a myriad of characters might baffle at first and it took me a few chapters to get my bearings straight. That said, when the big wheels of the plot gain momentum, the reader is in for an entertaining roller coaster of action, suspense, humor, Zone-mysticism and rewarding plot twists. Palaki has a good sense of militaria and friends of moderate gun-porn will not be disappointed either. The protagonists are rather easy to relate to and Palaki seems to have understood that not everything has to work in terms of black-and-white – even heroes might be assholes and villains can have honor.
I especially liked the way the book does not find it necessary to tread in heavy exposition just to get facts about its world straight. Rather, the exact characteristics of mutants, factions and the Zone itself are left nicely vague, giving room for the imagination (or the reader's memories from the games) take over. Different nationalities are nicely portrayed and denoted with phrases in different languages, including but not limited to Ukrainian, Russian, Spanish, Hungarian and Australian (that's a joke, good folks). The background and the “big plot” work well and remain consistent and believable enough, even leaving things open for future sequels.
Another forte in Northern Passage is definitely its description of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. When the characters get there, the story is in full motion and Palaki unleashes his inner Tarkovsky. He manages to get a grip on the distinct eerie atmosphere present since the original Zone of the Strugatskys and maintained throughout the different takes on the idea. Palaki doesn't shun away from respectful pastiche either, swiping scenes from both Stalker the movie and games (there's a reason a guard near Bar 100 Rads says “Get out of here, Stalker” for seemingly no reason). There are some tongue-in-cheek elements in the book throughout (take, for example, the constant pieces of dialogue about the significance of vodka), but I found them fitting.
To get to the most praiseworthy bits of Northern Passage I first had to do a little muck-dwelling. The biggest single flaw in the book is the lack of proofreading and editing. As a philologist, and a nitpick I might add, the ton of spelling mistakes, occasionally awkward word choices and some shaky grammar almost made me put the book down before getting too deep into it. An editor might have made a helpful comment or two about the use of footnotes too. However, getting over my initial shock and realizing that maybe not everyone out there is as concerned with “proper language” as I am (just take a glimpse at the raving reviews on Amazon), I gave the book another shot and, I'll be damned, it delivered. The story, the action, the humor and, most importantly, the surprisingly interesting characters and the unique world swept me away. Northern Passage even made me want to play the games again! And that, Stalker, doesn't happen every day.
Better Than Sliced Bread
Don't forget to check out a link or two about the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. books:
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Southern Comfort YouTube-trailer
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fan community on Facebook
Northern Passage on Amazon