Author: Jeff Rovin
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: June 2016 (re-read)
Yes, there was a novelization of the video game Mortal Kombat. Yes, I’ve read it… more than once. Let’s dive in.
To Bathe in Frequency
I’ve read a book or three in my day. I have favorites, but I don’t lean on them like a crutch the way I might with music. That’s mostly a practical thing: books take time, and I want to lean into the new. In a given year I might re-read a handful of titles, let’s say maybe four out of the 45+ I complete before December runs out. Even then, those instances usually mark only the second reading of a single book. I suppose there are some that have a larger count. I think I’ve read Lord of the Flies quite a bit, The Catcher in the Rye a few times way back when, stuff like that. Harry Potter for sure. LOTR at least four times and The Hobbit more than that. The list isn’t very long.
But then I was prompted to consider The Book I’ve Read More Than Any Other. And like the author of that post, I realized the answer was somewhat strange. A bit embarrassing even, though I’ve (mostly) outgrown the need to justify what I read or to waste time contemplating the low- and high-browness of anything. But the fact remains that the book I’ve read more than any other is Mortal Kombat by Jeff Rovin. I’ve read it eight times.
Eight times? Yep, and I know that because after the first time through, I wrote “6th grade (95)” on one of the inner pages and the list began. I kept track ever since, reading it throughout middle and high school, continuing inexplicably the first couple years of college, and then letting over a decade pass until realizing it deserved a post on my blog. Eight readings is not an enormous amount (Mr. Hanagarne of the linked post read the Terminator 2 novel a hundred times) but it still tops the list. Only Bilbo follows close behind.
Of Blood & Guts
This book was released in 1995 (I must have read it when it was brand new—I have no recollection of actually obtaining it), the same year that Mortal Kombat 3 came out. That means the original MK and MK II were fully established in the culture and in my life. What the hell was up with the Mortal Kombat phenomenon?
I remember the arcade version at Pizza Hut. I remember playing it at our daycare provider’s house, whose son owned it. I remember borrowing either the original or the sequel from him and biking home with the cartridge. I remember the finishing moves and the “Toasty!” and the raised eyebrows from my parents. We brushed off the violence as nothing.
It wasn’t nothing; it was interesting. I’m not going to attempt some grand statement about video game violence generally or MK’s influence specifically, though at the time this was considered a pretty intense piece of entertainment. There was a hint of realism to the games due to the graphics being based on in-studio actors, but the violence itself was highly cartoonish. Blood spurted in fountains, but the combatants’ powers were all magical. It was fantasy violence, if you take “fantasy” here to mean “of the fantastic; unreal,” not “I’m fantasizing about killing people.” One might argue that the latter is what first person shooters opened the door to. MK should probably bear only a partial burden as a stepping stone to more violent games. Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty this was not.
Still, the crunching of those digital bones had to have been offputting to a ton of parents at the time. It was a strange video game, Mom and Dad.
Art as Commodity as Art
Let’s get to the book! How does one write a book about a popular video game? Well, you choose to start with the skeleton (heh) mythology laid out in the games themselves. (A note on the cover explains this is “Based on characters created by Ed Boon & John Tobias for Midway Manufacturing Company.”) Then, you decide what kind of author you are. Are you churning out sheer product? Obviously this book, being officially sanctioned, was going to have the iconic dragon symbol on the cover (“the dragon of Shimura Island, with its horse-like head and sharp frills that curled up from its long neck, was a treasure dragon”). This puppy was meant to move units. But could it be artful? Is there a way to add quality to the whole scheme?
The first page is the Author’s Note, in which we are told that in addition to the specific characters from the video game, “most of the gods, dragons, heroes, alchemists, curs, and folk characters described or mentioned in this novel come from the rich mythology and history of China” and that readers can learn more by consulting two listed texts that were a big influence on this book.
Hold up. Was 1995 not yet entirely swallowed in marketing cynicism? You’re telling me that this thing kicks off by recommending two non-fiction books that the author turned to for guidance so he could write an actual novel?
Turn the page, and there’s another readerly surprise. An epigraph:
The roots of a thing may be well balanced, but its branches may be deviant.
– The Nei P’ien of Ko Hung, A.D. 320
Is this a genuine attempt at story?
Rockin’ Rockin’ Prologue of the Gods
The prologue continues in the honorable vein of establishing a mythology. How can we get to a story about otherwordly fighters? It makes sense to start with deities. The first being was P’an Ku, whose birth and death marked “the beginning of all things physical, the start of growth and change and decay—the beginning of time.” Next came the multi-limbed god T’ien, whose heart radiated auras from four separate chambers: one that led to our world, one to T’ien, another to the world of the dead, and the final one to Outworld.
Outworld, of course, is where strange demons dwell.
Kung Lao & Co.
Oddly, the first MK-brand character we meet is Kung Lao, who wasn’t introduced in the games until Mortal Kombat II. There, he appeared a solemn character with little flair, his sole signature being his hat, the circular brim of which was ringed with a razor-sharp blade. (It was a lot of fun to fling that hat across the screen.) Here, he is a willful young Chinese man who, in the year A.D. 480, is arguing with his Aunt Chen about wanting more from life. His aunt wants him to be safe, but Kung Lao blasphemously wants to seek the truth about the god T’ien, whose very visage is not allowed to be rendered.
I’m not sure how much I dwelled on this in past readings, but the early theme of knowledge is refreshing, not to mention wonderfully stated. In convincing his aunt of his passion, Kung Lao supports the increasing skills of the local monks and states that “we grow by learning, and we learn by doing.” A few pages later, Aunt Chen reasonably asks why he can’t just “enjoy being human” and do things like court a woman, read, and tend plants. It’s not enough for him:
“I would prefer to know how and why the sun moves than to watch it set. As for the others, love fades and trees die. Paintings fade or become quaint relics. Knowledge is all we can truly pass on, all we can build on.”
So Kung Lao sets off in search of truth. Along the way, he notices the figure of a stranger tracking him… a stranger who is preceded by lightning, wears a conical straw hat, and has a blue sash around his waist. He speaks to Kung Lao of duality and mysteriously guides the youth forward, yet for now goes unnamed.
The next couple chapters swiftly introduce us to the opposition: Shang Tsung, holed up in a crumbling Shaolin temple and devoting his decades to study. Not unlike Kung Lao, he’s on his own search for the truth. Here the author again ties in references to actual philosophers and scribes to give scraps of mysterious writings that Shang is following so that he can tap into the world of gods. He’s trying to open a door to Outworld, the home of Shao Kahn, the big boss from MK II and Shang’s ruler. Shao Kahn can’t yet cross through to earth, he can only demand his slave demon, Ruthay, to act as messenger to Shang Tsung. The initial exchange between Ruthay and Shao Kahn always stuck with me (I have a vague memory of reading it in the backseat of the car on a summer day). Not a character from the games, Ruthay is a fearful, groveling creature meant to repulse: “beads of bloody sweat erupted on the demon’s parchment-thin yellow flesh.” Poor Ruthay.
Back to Kung’s journey. He finally realizes that his new friend is Rayden, the thunder god. Curiously, his description of Rayden’s fighting skills include one of the only times in the book in which moves from the game are explicitly mentioned: the Lightning Throw, the Torpedo Attack. Kung Lao does not use his hat as a weapon, but he does undergo martial arts training and Rayden bestows upon him a magical amulet. The fighter travels to Shang Tsung’s island once a year and competes in the mysterious tournament of Mortal Kombat. With the help of the amulet, Kung Lao becomes the returning champion, winning for thirteen straight years. But one year he senses a new evil, and hides the amulet so that in the case of a loss it won’t fall into the wrong hands. Four hands, actually.
Goro was probably the coolest character of the original Mortal Kombat game. The four-armed beast was the sub-boss, Shang Tsung’s lackey. Many will remember getting caught in his grip and pounded. He was immensely strong but seemed dumb. In this book, we are reminded he’s a Shokan Prince. He arrives at the tournament with confidence, and between snacking on reptiles, keeps up with regular conversation along with the rest. This is a very active Goro.
Kung Lao loses Mortal Kombat without the amulet. Goro wins the tournament on behalf of Shang, and that’s that for Part I.
Choose Your Fighter
A good 1500 years later, in the present day, Shang and crew are still alive because the tournament’s victors do not age. He still needs to figure out how to get Shao Kahn through the portal, and can do so by collecting souls. But it’s slow going, so he hires someone to seek out the ancient amulet. Hello, Kano.
Here we meet the regular players in swift yet efficient introductions. Kano is contracting for Shang Tsung, leading a group of mercenaries through the Chinese foothills. He’s trailed by Sonya Blade in disguise, who is out for revenge. Sonya is a partner to Liu Kang, both of them super-skilled martial artists. These three take up a lot of page space. Kano becomes a bit too integral to the plot, but he does have the butterfly knives and the red eye (there’s a nice bit of detail where he is able to read a map at night).
Apart from the first third of the book, which does the most with the smallest number of characters, the Scorpion and Sub-Zero rivalry is the next-best thing. These two were always fan favorites in the game, dressed the same but in different colors, one fire and one ice. According to Rovin’s take, Scorpion is the good guy and Sub-Zero is the baddie.
Scorpion’s origin story is super cool. A poor fisherman is murdered by an assassin, and the assassin throws the body in the canals. The demigod of the canals is not okay with this dishonorable disposal. He lifts the spirit of the dead man out of the water and floats him to the bedroom of his son. The spirit of the father merges with the body of the son, and powered by supernatural revenge they become Scorpion. Even the name and weapons are explained: the new father-son will use the hooks and barbs of the fisherman’s trade, the sting of which will be like that of a scorpion.
The assassin, of course, was Sub-Zero, a ninja’s ninja who resides in a cliffside cave and whose his icy powers are drawn from his soulless center.
So Scorpion joins Liu and Sonya under the guidance of Rayden and these are the good guys. Oh, and there’s also a new Kung Lao, descendant of the first and a peaceful priest. Sub-Zero reluctantly works with Goro, Kano, Shang, and a cameo Reptile to be on the bad side of things. Yin and Yang were mentioned early on in the book (“the interaction of these qualities was what influenced the destinies of events and creatures”) and there’s a nice sense of closure to know who exactly is on which team in this interpretation. (Scorpion is a good guy!)
Of all the faces from the first MK game, only Johnny Cage is absent here. And thank the dragons that it’s so. Clearly the lamest character, there would have been no logical fit. Kano is annoying enough in his own right, and Liu Kang has a bit of American cockiness to at least partially fill the Johnny Cage gap. No one is weeping for this exclusion. There is a mention of Jackson Briggs being Sonya’s boss, though, which is nifty.
Also: Baraka. The fan favorite makes an appearance as a demon priest who cuts up bodies as sacrifices and then uses the blood to paint on a cave wall in reverence. It actually kind of works, and at least gives some reasoning behind the big blades.
A Queue By Any Other Name
With multiple readings come at least a few ingrained memories, one of which is the first time I came upon the word “queue.” There on page 10 I can see eraser marks from where I had once circled the word, and then at the end of the paragraph wrote “pronounced: kyu.” The definition here is the type of ponytail that Kung Lao wears. Until Netflix eventually made the word popular stateside, this was the only usage I came across.
(I remember marking words to look up while at my desk before class started in high school. Whoever sat in front of me noticed what I was doing and idly commented on it. He said he’d never do that voluntarily. Not in a mean way, but just that in observing me studying this book [even then, I knew it was a pretty corny one to be carrying around] it occurred to him that I was the type of person who would look up words I didn’t know, while he was not. I went to school with some pretty civil young people, all told.)
Other things that always stuck with me from the book: Liu Kang’s recollection of a game he played with his brother in which they would surprise each other and attempt to wrestle the other down, which went on for years while a tally was kept; the first Kung Lao’s pre-fight ritual of scraping thorns over himself so that he would be that much more hesitant to let his opponents land a blow on his tender skin; Sub-Zero being raised by the dreaded Lin Kuei, who snatched kids at a young age and put them through brutal trials in which only the best survived to become deadly ninjas.
These backstories made the book worthwhile, and were more memorable than the fighting because the fighting, although plentiful, is rather tame and mostly bloodless. Instead, there are some brief reflections on the experience of injury:
Nothing kept one from dying like intense pain. On the contrary, it brought one to life—from the burning agony of the wound itself, to the raw insides of one’s screaming throat, to the hate in one’s heart for the one who was doing the killing.
This balancing act of telling the story of deadly fighters while not detailing too much of the gore is similar to the strategy that moviemakers took when they explored Mortal Kombat in yet another medium.
At the Movies
I’m pretty sure I saw this movie in the theater. It was a big deal, at the height of MK mania, released in (you guessed it) 1995. Comparable perhaps to Batman Forever in the same year, this was a surprisingly serviceable live action video game adaptation.
For those on a nostalgia wave, I’d recommend reading this oral history of the film. Sounds like they had a blast making it. Hewing to its own take on the mythology, the movie centered on Liu Kang coming to terms with the death of his brother and being drawn to the mysterious tournament. It’s about as logical and loony as can be, and not all that different in tone from the book. Quick comparisons here:
- Liu Kang was solid, played by a good actor, and fit the part well. Book Liu is alright but kind of forgettable. Both of them summon exactly one fireball in a dire situation.
- Sonya is decent, driven by her one-dimensional motive of hunting down Kano. Same as in the book. No bicycle kicks or pink energy balls in either though.
- Kano is great in the movie, though he appears only briefly. This is the exact type of Kano I picture in the book.
- Rayden is lame in the movie. I know, he’s probably the biggest name they wrangled, but he’s way too genial and not believable as a commanding demigod. Book Rayden, described as inhumanly tall and depicted in the single graphic in the book as having the glowing eyes, is way better. Why is he kind of old in the movie?
- Opposite goes for Shang Tsung. In the movie, why is he so young? Old Shang, also depicted accurately in the painting at the beginning of the book, is the way to go.
- Goro was kind of neat in the movie (he was obviously a guy in a suit or some big animatronic creation, but they did what they could and it beats CGI). He’s a lot dumber than book Goro.
- Scorpion and Sub-Zero are mindless foes in the movie. Their main fight scenes against the protagonists are actually kind of cool, but they have no backstory.
- The movie has Johnny Cage and a painfully unforgettable line about his sunglasses. It’s like a cinematic punch to the nuts.
- Kitana was also in here for some reason.
I saw this movie a lot (probably at least eight times, heh) and the sequels were crap. But it’s still cool they pulled it off. And let’s not forget the song that quickly came to define not just the movie but the games themselves.
Wherefore Art Thou, Jeff Rovin?
Our implicit question here is the same we might propose for all books, but perhaps jumps to fore quicker for this odd cross-medium attempt: “Is the book any good?” A quick yes or no can never suffice (otherwise the posts on this blog would be very brief indeed), so then we lean on the related question: “Is the book any good given what it set out to do?” That is, is this a worthy novelization of a goofy video game?
I lean toward yes. The issue of whether this should ever have become a book at all is totally valid, but the finished product is not from the bottom of the barrel. There is real writing here, as seen in the original Kung Lao’s journey to the tournament (“he had managed to capture and cook a pheasant… a molting, ancient thing that seemed to welcome the broken neck he gave it”) or a brief description of a ghostly yet tangible being (“his voice unheard yet heard, like the sound of reading”). There are a few philosophical nuggets scattered throughout, which were effective when I was in the target audience: “Behind every myth there is some truth, and behind every truth there is more myth.” Not just fluff, that. Jeff Rovin seems to have done the artist’s baseline duty of at least taking the project seriously.
And where are you now, sir? I can’t even try to weight this question with mystery. You are alive and well, for our Goodreads tells us so. I still have a paperback with your name on it, cracked and worn and an odd sight amongst the other books in my collection. I honestly don’t know what to do with the copy now. But I can say that I read it. Did I ever.