Given that the Planet of the Apes saga originally came to life with the release of Pierre Boulle’s seminal 1963 sci-fi novel Monkey Planet, it always seems fitting when the franchise returns to the printed page. Over the years, ape fans have been treated to a variety of well done novelizations of the original films and their subsequent television incarnation, as well as a number of spin-off books and graphic novels. The latest of these works is Greg Keyes’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Firestorm. Taking place immediately after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the novel attempts to bridge some of the decade-long gap between that film and its impending sequel.
It mostly succeeds, almost despite itself.
You see, one glance at Dawn of the Planet of the Apes‘ credits page on IMDB reveals the names of the characters featured in the film…99% of whom aren’t included in this book. (The most notable exception being Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus, the chief antagonist of the film whose tragic backstory plays out here). So anyone reading this novel immediately enters into an informal contract with the author stating that they realize that most of the newly introduced characters herein will be dead before the end of the story. Bummer.
This is hardly a spoiler, though. The finale of Rise of the Planet of the Apes established that a “simian flu” had begun spreading amongst mankind. That growing pandemic and an attempt to cover up the ape revolution on the Golden Gate Bridge makes up the narrative backbone of Firestorm. This novel exists for two reasons, as an ancillary tie-in and as a chronicle of how Caesar and his troop of apes, orangutans, chimpanzees, and gorillas get from the Muir Woods where we last saw them to the locale where they’ll be come Dawn‘s theatrical debut on July 11th.
Keyes adroitly manages this with chess-like efficiency by introducing a variety of characters, including determined reporter David, world weary mercenary Malakai, optimistic primatologist Clancy, selfless ER doc Talia, and noble police veteran/aspiring politician Dreyfus (although mentioned plenty, James Franco’s Will Rodman is MIA here). On the non-human side of things, Caesar and his bonobo aide Koba learn about heroism and sacrifice on their shared journey to achieve true liberation from the oppression of humans. As you probably figured out by now, things don’t exactly go well for either faction.
Although the majority of these characters seem like archetypes upon first glance, it is to Keyes’ credit that he spends a good portion of the book giving them fully realized arcs. This tactic helps make their motives realistic and relatable as their world rapidly crumbles around them. Of course, the argument could be made that their actions are all futile given that most of them will never live long enough to see screentime.
But as its own, um, animal, Firestorm is a worthy addition to the Planet of the Apes mythos filled with figures you quickly develop an attachment to. This is especially true in the case of the relationship between Malakai and Clancy. Initially, the pair are just another variation on the tired “opposites who learn to overcome their differences” trope. However, Keyes offers up a slow burn with the duo that goes to unexpected places, decimating expectations. Early on you figure out that the harsh Malakai and naive Clancy will be irrevocably changed by the tale’s conclusion, but the manner in which their transformation occurs feels truly earned, and more than just a little heartbreaking.
Equally memorable are the flashbacks of the Koba character. Arguably developed in the novel’s pages more than Caesar himself, the deformed ape is given a vivid history that doubles as a subtle condemnation of animal experimentation. If Ingrid Newkirk is looking for a book club selection, this is it.
Like the original Planet of the Apes films, Keyes uses the fantastical happenings here as a hook to hang commentary on contemporary life upon, most noticably in his thinly veiled criticism of the religious right. While Koba slowly begins to understand his physical and mental scars and how they’ll shape his future, Caesar increasingly wants nothing to do with mankind. This proves problematic when Clancy, Malakai and some bloodthirsty mercs come after them in order to capture apes to research and possibly find a cure for the retrovirus that seems destined to destroy mankind.
Of course we know that this will come to pass. Such dramatic irony means that readers will realize that Caesar’s wish to be free of humans will come true. Still, Keyes shows him as a stoic figure who, while missing the people who cared for him, also realizes that primates must stay together if they have any hope of survival in their new strange free world.
Less successful are the resolution to the stories of journalist David and doctor Talia. Their complex sort of coupling is one of the novel’s most complicated relationships, so it’s somewhat disappointing when their final moments in the book feel like a rushed afterthought. This isn’t so much of a problem with Keyes’ writing ability as it is an inherent issue with expanded universe novels in general. The basic blueprint of the novel requires getting certain characters from point A to point B before the ultimate (and main) story unfolds cinematically. So it’s understandable when some of the players get lost in the shuffle, frustrating though that may be.
Ultimately though, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Firestorm is a well-written tie-in that is more dramatic and even funnier than it has any right to be (the latter is especially true in the opening chapter that chronicles the inner turmoil of a man who has dedicated his life to searching for Bigfoot). Without seeing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it’s hard to say what, if any, repercussions the events chronicled here will have on the greater story. Probably none, but that doesn’t really matter. Even if this novel proves to be little more than an insignificant footnote in the larger Apes mythos, it still succeeds as an enjoyable pop culture romp on its own terms. So yeah, you’ll probably go ape for it. Sorry.