Batman: Arkham Knight – The Riddler’s Gambit
Publisher: Titan Books
Cost: $7.99 (Physical)/$6.15 (Digital)
Page Count: 316
Release Date: 06/23/2015
Get it HereAmazon.com
The Riddler’s Gambit is a prequel to the recently released Arkham Knight video game. It fills in time between Arkham City and Arkham Knight and lets you see what a handful of characters from the Batman universe are up to. After all, over a year passes between the two video games, and the characters aren’t just sitting around twiddling their thumbs. The book isn’t necessary reading if you only care about the video games. It doesn’t provide spoilers to Arkham Knight in any way, or any insights into characters and their personalities. In many ways, this is fan fiction, pure and simple, so you can go about your playthrough of the Arkham series without worrying that you have missed something important. If you can’t get enough of Arkham Knight, however, and you want more of that universe, well, you have both this novel and the prequel comics. While the comics are more of a direct tie-in to the video game, you also have to wait a month between them, and they are pretty short. The Riddler’s Gambit is a full-length novel, and thus, you get everything in one fell swoop – and for the cost of only two comic books to boot. So if you are an Arkham Knight junkie, this is probably your best fix aside from the video game. Still, what matters is whether or not the book is any good, and that’s what this review should help you decide.
So two things straightaway. I love the Riddler. He’s my favorite Batman villain, and his taking center stage in this novel is why I agreed to review it. Ever since I first saw Frank Gorshin play the character in technicolor, I knew Riddler was the most intriguing of all Batman’s rogue’s gallery. So I’ll admit, I’m biased towards the character. At the same time, I generally don’t like comic book novels. I like comics, and I have a pull list of between 20-30 a month, but I don’t like the novels. The only one I’ve really felt was well written was Roger Stern’s novelization of The Death and Return of Superman. That was quite excellent and still holds up as a novel today. There are some really bad ones out there, generally X-Men related, so I was worried I’d be spending 300+ pages in literary hell. So the good news is that The Riddler’s Gambit isn’t bad. It’s far from great, or even good, but it is a serviceable Batman novel that will keep you busy (if not necessarily entertained) for a few days as you slog through. It’s not a book I enjoyed, but I didn’t hate it either. It’s a middle of the road affair that is probably best left in the hands of extreme Batman devotees.
I’ll get the negative parts of the novel out of the way first, so we can end the review on a happy note. First up – The Riddler didn’t really do riddles. It was more puzzle based deathtraps. Oh, there are some riddles spouted off in the book, but they are mostly by “Robin” during the climax of the book. Riddles are primarily verbal, and we didn’t get much of that in the book. Puzzles and deathtraps are fine, but the character in the book felt more like the Trickster or Cluemaster than Riddler. Riddler isn’t the only character for whom characterization is off. I know this is the Arkham universe, and not any of the other DC continuities out there, but some characters simply didn’t feel or sound right. Commissioner Gordon was chief amongst them. The book read like someone else was using his name and wearing his skin. Pretty much every character except for The Mad Hatter and Harley Quinn felt off, characterization-wise, and that made it hard for me to get into the novel. Like I said earlier, this read more like a really long piece of fan fiction than something that was professionally solicited (which I hate saying as I loved Hellstorm, which was written by this author). Perhaps what was my chief problem with the novel is that I feel it would have been better as a visual piece rather than purely words on a page. Many of the puzzles in the book lose a lot of their oomph because there isn’t something visual to go by. The descriptions of the puzzles (and their solutions) aren’t very well written (and are often rushed over) and I think the story would have been better served if it was done as a comic book or even DLC for one of the Arkham video games. The novel reads more like a script for a linear style video game than anything else and visuals, even the occasional picture inserted into the story, would have made the puzzles more interesting. It could have given readers a chance to solve them before the novel did, instead of having them spoofed. Some lost potential here, but then to achieve it, The Riddler’s Gambit would have to be something other than a novel. Kind of a lose-lose either way.
So what’s good about the novel? Well, the basic core plot is a good one. The Joker is dead, so who steps up to rule Gotham City’s underworld in his stead? Riddler decides it will be him, and so sets out to not only prove he’s the reigning big bad in Gotham, but to put Batman and Robin through the wringer. Sure this works, because nature abhors a vacuum, and with the Joker dead, something has to fill it. Why not his opposite? Joker was chaos and nihilism, whereas Riddler is order and structure in murderous fashion. It makes sense. How he goes about it though? Well, essentially the Riddler mimicks a lot of what the Joker did in Arkham City. The book gives a somewhat plausible reason for this, but really, imitation is not a riddle, nor is it the Riddler’s style. The Riddler in this book is not only different from the Riddler in the Arkham video games, but any version that exists before. The actions and way the character goes about his deeds in Riddler’s Gambit is so outside how the character usually acts and behaves, it really disrupted my suspension of disbelief.
Essentially, The Riddler’s Gambit is two stories in one. Half the book is devoted to Batman and the other to Robin (Tim Drake version) as they try and solve what the Riddler is up to. Each chapter switches from one character to the other, and in-between some chapters is an annoying recap done by various reporters, from Vicki Vale to Jack Ryder. The media outlet bits are an attempt to make the story feel more alive, but it doesn’t work simply because we’re getting a recap of the chapters we just read, and it makes the book feel as if it is talking down to the readers or that the author thinks the readers have such short term memories that they need a reminder of what was in the previous chapter(s). Again, this is an idea that would have worked better in a video game than in a novel. Three Dog from Fallout 3 is a perfect example of what the author was going for. It just simply didn’t work in a novel format. These recaps really took away from the flow of the book to me, and were more disrupting than organic.
Robin’s part of the novel is solving puzzles and going through a series of deathtraps with a single super villain encounter. Batman’s part of the book is to run around Arkham/Gotham City finding clues to help Robin while also dealing with super villains put in place to block his progress. So Robin is the cerebral side of the book, while Batman is the most fisticuffs. I actually found Robin’s half to be the most interesting, but that’s because I spent a lot of time trying to picture the puzzles in my head. I know I’ve said this already, but I’d have loved visuals, and the verbal description alone was neither enough nor very good. Batman’s part was pretty cyclical. Each section had him going to a different location while reminiscing about the Joker, encountering a villain, doing some combat and then talking to them in order to move onto the next part of the puzzle. It was very paint by numbers and got old quickly. There’s formulaic and there’s phoning it in.
The villains you will encounter in The Riddler’s Gambit are varied, but most only have small cameos. Besides Edward Nigma there are: Killer Croc, Mr. Freeze, Harley Quinn, Mad Hatter and Deadshot. For obvious Arkham City reasons, The Joker does not appear in this book. Out of all the characters, Harley Quinn and Killer Croc are the best written. I liked the author’s take on Deadshot and Mad Hatter though. I could see him doing a very good Secret Six novel because of how good their short appearances were. I also liked Batman and Robin’s relationships with the characters. There was more than just the “KILL THE BAT!” two-dimensional motif you tend to see. Instead, each villain had a complex and multi-layered relationship with the protagonists. They were enemies on some level, but also willing to talk. You could feel the respect the characters had, even though they were on opposing sides. Some characters, like Croc and Mr. Freeze, were very similar to the comics where they aren’t bad/evil people, just unfortunate souls who are on the wrong side of the law because they don’t have any other choice. Honestly, the different villains and their characterizations were the best part of the novel. I would have loved more of these moments, or even longer, richer scenes with the ones we had. I guess it’s true what they say – a hero is only as good as his villains.
Overall, I found The Riddler’s Gambit to be a mediocre affair. It wasn’t bad as a lot of licensed fiction I’ve had to read/review, but it was far from being a good piece of gaming fiction either. It was mostly a forgettable affair that felt like a tie-in for money’s sake for than anything else. There was a lot that could have been done to improve the novel, but honestly, what’s here isn’t bad. You won’t be angry for having spent six-seven dollars on this. Just… kind of glad it’s done and you can move on to a different book. I can’t recommend The Riddler’s Gambit unless you are a diehard Batman fanboy because there’s nothing special or memorable about the book. It’s simply yet another Batman product in a world saturated with them. It’s a middle of the road piece that won’t offend, but it also won’t delight either.