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“1700 years to build. 5500 miles long. What were they trying to keep out?”
Qin Shi Huang is widely regarded as the man responsible for bringing together the various states of China and unifying the region under one rule. As the first emperor of China, Huang fortified the dangerous northern border by connecting the various walls of all the states. The result was, well, a long wall that protected his northern border from invading armies. Or so historians thought…
As it turns out in The Great Wall, it was not armies of men they were trying to keep out with a wall you can see from earth’s orbit.
The Titan Books novelization by Mark Morris does a fantastic job of taking the reader directly to the only place a story like this can lead – the bowels of a Chinese war machine operated by elite soldiers housed in a giant wall. Morris wastes no time, with the first deaths coming by page nineteen after a harrowing horse chase through the desert. It’s wonderful stuff. He captures the action in a gratifying machine-gun style. Rarely does a screenplay and author’s style mesh so well in a novelization, and The Great Wall is akin to the meeting of Piers Anthony and Total Recall.
I’m very aware that the purpose of a novelization is to flesh out characters’ backstory and add narrative descriptions to enhance a fan’s experience, but let’s leave that for a moment. The strength of this book is in the violent action, which is plentiful, exciting, and makes you stay up late turning pages. Morris has a knack for the death knell.
I was just about to regale you with a few instances of character backstory development, focusing on a dynamic main character super soldier working through internal conflicts of greed versus belonging alongside his world-weary comrades and attractive female generals, but that’s only a moderately interesting aspect of this book, and not at all why I finished it in three sittings.
Instead, imagine a soldier, strapped to a harness attached to a crane, jumping from a wall with a harpoon in each hand towards the far away ground and almost certain death. The harpoons find the mark and enemies are smote, but all that comes back to the top of the wall is the mangled, bloody wreck of his jumping apparatus. The Great Wall is filled to the brim with the ebb and flow of victory and despair in the heat of battle. In a war of attrition like this, success is fleeting, and Morris does not dwell on the results of the action to his great benefit.
Morris works very hard to provide the reader with reasons to mistrust the main character due to past choices (that pesky backstory part), but we all know he eventually comes one-eighty and finds his moral compass. It’s on the cover. He hasn’t played a villain since The Talented Mr. Ripley. Again, to his benefit, Morris gives us just enough to know the characters, understand their motivations, and then gets back to monster killing. It’s a formula for success.
The story dabbles in historical fiction, skirts sci-fi, sidesteps fantasy, and lodges itself firmly into action adventure. The story feels like it tries on all of these different genres, but those cozy-comfy soldier fatigues of a good ol’ fashioned war action is where the strength lies. Yes, the Great Wall of China is real and historical. Yes, the weapon play and monster enemies fit nicely with a fantasy and sci-fi buff. One could argue those things. But then you’d be wasting your time arguing, instead of reading the awesome battle scenes where monsters bite guys in half, only to have their heads removed by Matt Damon. With a sword. So good.
I have to admit I was lukewarm on the idea of this movie after seeing the previews. After mowing through this book in three days and getting a feel for the story…I’m on Fandango getting my tickets. The size and scope of this epic ‘war to save humanity’ can only be enjoyed to the full potential by sitting in front of a giant screen with a five pound bucket of popcorn and a soda pop the size of a garbage can. Enjoy yourselves with this one.