Please note that this is the first book review I’ve written for this site, so I apologise if it’s not particularly good.
Set before the events of the hugely successful videogame Batman: Arkham Knight (which we reviewed here), The Riddler’s Gambit is a prequel novel that tells the story of the Riddler’s initial attempts to fill the gap in the market for megalomaniacal supervillain after the Joker’s untimely death in Batman: Arkham City. It follows Batman, and interestingly his sidekick Robin too, as they try to decipher the Riddler’s plan by solving a series of increasingly complex and challenging puzzles.
The plot of The Riddler’s Gambit is one of the book’s best attributes, but also one of the elements that lets it down the most. Like the Arkham games it takes its lore from, lots of Batman’s most interesting villains are sprinkled throughout, but unlike those games, aren’t as well-utilised. The best example of this is Batman’s encounter with Mr. Freeze. In his brief but terrific appearance in Arkham City, he was painted as a man driven to crime for the one he loves, and although this is touched upon here, his actual plan and motives have little to no correlation with what we were told previously. Freeze in general is very similar to his videogame counterpart in most ways, but small factors like this drag the book down slightly.
The book’s main thrust is that Robin and Batman are separated and have to work in tandem, involving Robin trapped in the Riddler’s death rooms. While some are very interesting, giving the reader food for thought and delivering them a logical conclusion, some seem far too daunting. There is one room in particular involving the atomic layout of chemical compounds, which is given lot of time. For those who are gifted at chemistry or study it regularly, it will be quite easy to digest, but for those less acquainted with lithium ions and the like, it may feel very daunting to read and at times patronising, as if you were in a chemistry lesson. Parts like this feel far too inaccessible, and unfortunately these elements pop up at some of the book’s crucial moments.
The ending is unfortunately also a bit hit-or-miss. I’m not going to spoil the specifics of the situation, but Batman is battling something with a puzzle on its back that he has to solve if he wants to stop it. The puzzle itself is very complex – as a character like the Riddler would want it to be – but unfortunately Alex Irvine’s writing is perhaps a bit too vague, and I personally found it hard to grasp, which although didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this action sequence – it is one of the book’s highlights – it certainly made it a bit more difficult to comprehend.
But in a way, these more daunting segments of the book are also the most immersive. Like the fantastic Arkham games, you do truly feel like you are Batman or Robin, being put directly in their boots to figure something out. These moments – although at times a little jarring due to the complexity of their nature – are some of the most rewarding, especially when you figure something out before our caped heroes. Perhaps it’s down to my own ineptitude that I found these moments a bit overwhelming, but if they are anything, they are immersive.
Irvine’s writing in The Riddler’s Gambit is one of the reasons why the book soars. He has the characters of Batman, Robin and the majority of the Rogue’s gallery down to a tee, incredibly faithful not only to the games but to the comics. The beauty of the book is that characters that are normally sidelined in the games – specifically the Riddler, who generally becomes an annoyance that needlessly breaks up gameplay – truly get a chance to shine. I’m willing to say that the Riddler’s story here: his plan, his personality traits and his portrayal, is one of the best incarnations of Edward Nigma I’ve ever witnessed, and with such a rich history spanning several media, that’s saying something. The Riddler here is conniving, scheming, but most crucially, a true intellectual adversary to Batman. Nigma’s plan is layered, interesting and unexpected, taking turns that I never anticipated. However, due to the nature of the book – as it is a prequel novel after all – we are left with little to no resolution, which although may seem annoying on the surface, provides even more depth to Arkham Knight’s Riddler sections.
This book also touches upon a lot of factors in the Arkham universe that were rarely mentioned in the games, something I adored. One of the most interesting parts of the book are the news-report style interludes after most chapters, which are used to summarise the events of the previous passage or provide some context. They show Irvine’s versatility as a writer: easily able to capture what makes characters such as Vicki Vale and Jack Ryder so great and apply that superbly. It’s also great to read some brilliant references to events in past games, such as Deadshot’s attempt on Ryder’s life, and seeing how momentous events such as Hugo Strange’s Protocol 10 and the death of the Joker have shaped the world the book is set in. If anything, this book is immersed in the lore of the games, and adds layers to past characters and events in a respectable and very credible way.
Aside from a few plot contrivances and a story which is at times a bit too inaccessible, The Riddler’s Gambit is a superb prequel novel that tells an interesting, character-driven and action-packed story that helps add depth to the Arkham-verse. Irvine’s writing brings legendary characters to life and allows B-characters to shine. If all licensed novels were as good as this, I’d never have my head out of their pages.