In my continuing quest to follow Beckett through White Wolf Publishing, I read the Year of the Scarab Trilogy. The Trilogy served as part of a year-long introduction to the Mummy: the Resurrection game line. In addition to Mummy, the story incorporates lore from Wraith: the Oblivion, Hunter: the Reckoning, Vampire: the Masquerade, and smidgen of Mage: the Awakening. I gotta be honest, folks: this trilogy was my second worst White Wolf reading experience ever.
In broadstroke, and cutting out a lot of filler, Year of the Scarab Trilogy chronicles a comedy of terrible errors performed by terrible people as they seek the Heart of Osiris, the book’s McGuffin. We have Thea Ghandour and the Chicago hunters, who represent the worst of America in their blind hatred and stockpile of guns. It’s fine to not know things—unlike me, the hunters can’t look things up on the White Wolf Wiki—but it was total disinterest in learning (even about their own powers!) that got me. Compassion for anyone besides themselves isn’t just rejected, but totally alien. One hunter, Jake Washington, pipes up that “hey, maybe we shouldn’t commit genocide?” but it’s a token protest.
Next, we have Maxwell Carpenter, a former leg-breaker for the Chicago mob, who is now a Wraith. His initial mission is to murder the entire Sforza bloodline. These plans are complicated when it turns out the last Sforza heir, Nicholas, is a Mummy. Nicholas, meanwhile, wants to repatriate the Heart of Osiris to Egypt to prove his Mummy-ness. This desire seems laudable until you remember he’s a pasty white man who basically wants to be brown. Beckett also appears, for marketing reasons I guess? His actions have little to no impact on the actual plot. His zero impact has the weird bonus of at least he’s not as involved in all the racism. His presence made the later two books halfway enjoyable, bumping up my review to 2 stars.
I’m not kidding when I say that Bates put in so much racism and sexism in the novels, both with and without intent. Incredibly tedious and boring to read. There’s an attempt to make Mummies not racist wet dream fodder, but the story, and Nicholas in particular, never quite overcome the feeling of white guys playing Egyptian dress-up.
But! Those aren't the only elements that made me want to pull my hair out! The plot’s a mess! There’s a rumor floating around online that the White Wolf novels are, in reality, novelizations of the original staff’s game chronicles. After reading Year of the Scarab, I believe it. These books have an incredible amount of just…logistics. A subplot about Beckett getting a cell phone. Two pages of intricate details about Carpenter’s digestive system and sexual biology. The hunters navigating bus/train schedules and schlepping their guns. These sections read like game notes, or perhaps an outline that Bates barely filled in.
Some genres—heist novels come to mind—thrive on logistics. Details of how something’s done are part of the fun. Here, however, logistics don’t reveal character, are irreverent to the work's themes, fail to evoke mood, atmosphere, or setting, and slow the novel down to a snail's pace. I read soooo many boring pages about people getting places. Bates must have had city maps and enjoyed tracing paths for the characters to travel. Some of his only details about the cities are bus schedules and driving directions. I don't feel like I know Cairo, Las Vegas, or Chicago any better after reading. The descriptions are generic, without sensory details. He doesn’t bring them to life. All that, AND the minutiae often leads nowhere in the grand scheme of the series. Entire arcs are closed loops: the character travels to a place and nothing with lasting consequences happens. Those chapters feel like busywork.
My final note is on the Beckett-ness. If my research is correct, Lay Down with Lions is his first long-form appearance. And my goodness, has this guy changed over the years. Year of the Scarab’s Beckett is a Low Humanity moron. He’s bumbling, arrogant, and scatter-brained. I guess I know where some of the “off beats” in the Diary come from now. Over the course of Lay Down with Lions and Land of the Dead, Beckett makes many of the same mistakes my friends and I made when we were first playing Vampire. He forgets to feed, what powers he has, how to avoid frenzy; what quest he’s on. To extend one iota of an olive branch to Bates, he had a tough gig. Not only was he introducing newly minted Mummy: the Resurrection lore, he juggled Wraith and Hunter characters. Lay Down with Lions adds Vampire: the Masquerade. But, goodness gracious, sometimes it’s painful how unfamiliar Bates is with Kindred, Gangrel, and Beckett in particular.
It left me wondering. Did Bates not read the Book of Nod's footnotes? Was Beckett's initial character concept to be an idiot and it later changed to be the One Sane Man, the Single Good Dude? There are some moments where I recognized Cuthbert amongst the mess. Should I be thankful that the VTMB writers drew more from his Victorian Trilogy self than this one? What happened here?
Mostly, I mourn what this trilogy could have been. We could have had a meditation on monstrosity and redemption. Who/what is a monster? Can the monster be redeemed? What does redemption look like? Who grants absolution? When is it ever enough? Unfortunately, this nice feast of questions had to go through the Andrew Bates’ digestive tract and it came out of his butt a pile of poop.
From plot to character, the Year of the Scarab Trilogy has a lot of problems. Reading it was the epitome of White Wolf Publishing for me. It stunk, yet something compelled me to go on. By the time I finished the second book, I wanted to read mediocre vampire fiction. I wanted to be blown away by how bad it was, to witness the depths it could sink; to believe there was some point to critiquing bad art. We could have had a horrific, thrilling adventure and mediation on the makings of a monster. Bates’ work is a car so determined to launch itself off the freeway and into the ocean.