The 34th Century. A routine bit of piracy goes badly wrong, leaving the crew of the Song of Stone wanted by both the authorities and the most lethal criminal gang in inhabited space. When a bounty hunter famed for being relentless and efficient gets on their tail, events rapidly spiral out of control.
The Elite video game series has always had a good relationship with its tie-in fiction. The original game, released in 1984, had very simple graphics so relied on the manual and flavour text to fit in a lot of the background. Key to this was The Dark Wheel, a novella written by Robert Holdstock (who won the World Fantasy Award the same year for his seminal Mythago Wood) which brought the setting to life with memorable characters and a focused storyline about revenge and family.
For the release of Elite: Dangerous, the fourth game in the series, a whole line of new books are being released from several different publishers. First out of the gate is Wanted, a collaboration between Stephen Deas (best-known for the Memory of Flames fantasy sequence) and Gavin Smith (Veteran, War in Heaven, Age of Scorpio). This novel focuses on pirates, bounty-hunters and the dividing line between the law and lawlessness, key features of the Elite games which can also be used to generate good stories.
Wanted has a simple but extremely effective structure: chapters alternate between Captain Ravindra of the Song of Stone and Ziva, pilot of the Dragon Queen and one of the most renowned bounty hunters around. The characterisation of these two leading figures is strong, with the authors setting up each captain's motivations (Ravindra's wayward son and Ziva's relationship problems) and using them to drive the story forward. For a tie-in novel the risk is always that the iconic setting will overwhelm the story and characters, but there Deas and Smith avoid that, putting the central characters front-and-centre.
That said, they do handle the setting pretty well. There's always been a conflict between the Elite universe being set so far in the future and the relative low technology of it all, with no artificial gravity and ship-to-ship combat being carried out at close range rather than with drones from thousands of miles away. The two authors do a good job of staying true to the game setting whilst throwing their own innovations and extrapolations of technology into the mix.
On the weaker side of things, some of the secondary cast could do with being fleshed out more. The motivations of the villains is also under-developed, especially as the maguffin the plot revolves around is never really explained. On one meta-level it's irrelevant, as it's simply the excuse for the story to happen, but on another it means that the stakes are never properly defined.
Still, Smith and Deas deliver more than what was expected here: a punchy, rip-roaring space opera with some clever bits of science, some nicely-handled character relationships and a book that leaves the reader intrigued to try both the game and the other books in the setting. Elite: Wanted (****) is out now in the UK and USA.