The TV spin-off novel is an especially difficult beast to tame I should imagine. Normally, one of the theoretical attractions of novel writing, as opposed to writing or directing a film for instance, is the complete freedom it affords you to let your imagination roam wherever it feels like roaming, with no restrictions placed on your characters' movements or their development: it enables you literally to create any world you like, and have your protagonists move around it in any way you like.
But things aren't quite so simple and free when, not only are the characters and the world you're writing already the creation of somebody else's imagination, but that world is still part of an on-going process of creative development. In other words, when you're writing a novel based on characters from an on-going popular TV series, and that series is still very much continuing to form and reshape its mythology. This surely places the writer in something of an impossible situation: you have to acknowledge the back-story already built up by past series' lore, but you can't very well continue with your own development of it since that would surely contradict the 'official' screen version somewhere further down the line.
In fact, the more you think about it, even the most casual throwaway addition you make could end up having undreamt of repercussions, since you don't know exactly where the series will end up going. Also, you have to keep a fairy neutral narrative voice. You can hardly forge ahead with odd, stylised narrative techniques, developing your unique voice on the page, since what your readers want, presumably, is to imagine this could be another episode of their favourite TV series, rather than the untrammelled product of a unique, new literary imagination.
These sorts of problems must surely loom large for Keith R. Decandido and the other writers engaged in penning the on-the-page exploits of Sam and Dean Winchester for the "Supernatural" novel series. The show has developed a rich mythology across it's five seasons, but this particular volume hits the book stands just as the show is approaching the culmination of a five season story arc that involves the brothers in a Milton-esque war between the forces of Heaven and Lucifer himself, with the brothers apparently set to act as vessels for opposing sides! Decandido's story comes prefaced with the information that the tale takes place just after episode 8 of season 5. You can't get much more specific than that!
Actually, the author largely overcomes these problems by, for the most part, bypassing them. Taking advantage of previous episodes that utilised time travel in order to give viewers a glimpse of the Brothers' Demon-hunting Grandparents and their dead mother Mary as she was when she was a teenager -- Decandido contrives a plot that manages to reference the current Apocalypse-based story arc, but that also spans the decades in order to rope in all of the brothers' Demon-hunting relatives, before finally bringing the current generation of Winchesters centre stage in the final third of the novel. The result has its benefits but also a few minuses as well, and there is the definite feeling that this is a stop-gap in a series that is waiting for its TV denouement before it carries on in what may well be a very different vein for the mooted sixth season.
The story is set in motion with a scene that takes place in Japan in the year 1859. Yoshio Nakadai is a Ronin - a lordless Samurai, once dubbed Doragon Kokoro (the Heart of the Dragon) because of his ruthless skill with the swords. Now selling his services as a settler of village disputes and as a 'sword for hire', the former warrior is tricked by a demon and ends up being executed - burned at the stake for a crime he did not commit, his blackened soul now forever condemned to become a weapon in the demonic armoury being built up for the coming Apocalypse. Thinking ahead, the crafty demon knows that war will one day be waged between the Archangel Michael and Lucifer, and so he decides to use Doragon Kokoro as one more lethal weapon on the demonic side in the battles to come.
Back in the present day, the Winchester brothers' angelic confidant Castriel, informs them that 'the heart of the dragon has risen again' and that they must take a trip to San Francisco in order to lay to rest this spirit who could play a decisive role in the on-coming war if it is not disposed of quickly. Looking into matters, they discover that 'the Heart of the Dragon' has also played a large role in their family history, resurfacing every twenty years and leaving a trail of bodies in its wake, always charred to a crisp, even though there is never any sign of fire anywhere near the remains.
Decandido then takes us back in time to see just what transpired in those previous encounters between the Heart of the Dragon and past generations of Winchesters. The 1969 section shows us Samuel and Deanna Campbell (Sam and Dean's grandparents) in action, aided by their just-turned-sixteen daughter Mary (the boys' mother - one day doomed to die by demonic intervention). Here it is discovered that the spirit of Nakadai can be resurrected every twenty years by a blood relative of the warrior, as long as he/she possesses the proper incantation; and unfortunately that is exactly what has happened. Albert Chao is an angry young man of half-Japanese half-Chinese descent. Having learned about his unusual ancestry and the legend of the Heart of the Dragon, he resolves to use the spirit of his ancestor to avenge himself on all those who have previously wronged him, leaving behind a trail of charred bodies instigated by its actions. For when summoned by the spell, and appearing in a ball of ghostly flames with a sword raised, the Heart of the Dragon is ever-ready to strike down whomever he has been conjured to destroy.
This convenient twenty year rule means that even once dealt with by the Campbells, Chao can still raise the spirit again twenty years later, which means that this time it is the turn of John Winchester -- Sam and Dean's father -- to take on the challenge in 1989! Albert Chao, now basking in the power his control of the spirit has afforded him, has worked his way in with a Triad gang who're in control of a down-at-heel restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown. Then, another twenty tears later, it is the turn of Sam and Dean to attempt to finally lay the spirit to rest for good in the year 2009. With Chao having by now established himself as a powerful man in the underworld, he now has to deal with Demons who want back their Apocalyptic weapon, as well as the Winchester boys themselves!
By the time we reach this final battle, we're down to the last one hundred pages of a three hundred page novel, and although fans of the show will doubtless appreciate the chance to see the Campbells and John Winchester do their stuff in more detail, there is always the lingering sense of the ad hoc nature of such a plot contrivance that allows all these past elements to be woven together in the first place. All three generations seem to deal with this supposedly huge threat, and possibly decisive weapon in the up-coming Apocalypse, relatively easily when it comes down to it, and the plot deals in far too many convenient Deus ex Machina spells and magical artifacts (for instance: a hook sword, forged by Chao's grandmother, which can banish the spirit for good) to really develop any driving narrative momentum. This is one of the main drawback of the structure employed here -- where you're really getting the same story replayed three times with different protagonists and the same threat. The writing is simple, clear and transparent -- as you'd expect of a TV tie-in -- but is most effective in the early opening scene set in nineteenth century Japan, and in a scene-setting battle between the Campbell family and a nest of vampires, which establishes their monster-hunting family dynamic most effectively. This does a relatively good job of providing "Supernatural" fans with another fix of Winchester action though, although I suspect it isn't destined to become one of their favourites in the series.