WARNING: This review contains some spoilers.
For those unfamiliar with the term “expanded universe,” it is mostly associated with the Star Wars franchise, referring to licensed media content that is canon outside the six films such as television shows, novels, comic books, and video games. Dark Angel’s expanded universe goes beyond the two seasons aired on FOX and consist of three novels and a guide book called the Eyes Only Dossier. There is also a video game based off the series, but it is not considered canon due to a conflict in the timeline of the television series and is regarded an unofficial story in the Dark Angel universe despite having Jessica Alba and Michael Weatherly lending their voices for the game.
Before the Dawn is a prequel written by Max Allan Collins and takes place several months before the main events of Dark Angel’s Pilot episode. In early 2019, Max lives in Los Angeles among a group of other street kids and thieves known as the Chinese Clan. Led by the group’s leader, Moody, the clan is named after Hollywood’s iconic Chinese Theatre, where the clan resides as the theatre has been abandoned since the Pulse. Moody’s not only the leader of the Chinese Clan but Max’s mentor in crime, teaching her the tools of the trade in being a cat burglar. While she feels at home with the street gang, she still misses her Manticore siblings and longs for the day when she meets up with them again.
But she doesn’t have to wait for very long. After making a big score, Max sees a news story on TV about a cyberjournalist in Seattle known as Eyes Only. His recent actions have the Seattle PD frustrated, but their only link in attempting to arrest him is a young man captured on video. The man, fighting a group of Seattle police officers, displays abilities similar to Max’s. From the brief image of his face on the screen, Max recognizes the wanted individual as Seth, one of the X5 escapees from Manticore. Determined to find and reunite with her Manticore siblings, Max packs up and hops on her motorcycle towards Seattle. Along the way she meets Original Cindy, her eventual best friend, and the two make their way to the Emerald City. When they arrive in Seattle, they encounter Kendra, Max’s future roommate. After inviting Max and Original Cindy to crash at her apartment until they can get set up, she hooks them up with her next door neighbor, who sets them up with jobs at Jam Pony X-Press. Meanwhile, Seth is working as an Eyes Only agent alongside Logan Cale (whom he does not know is really Eyes Only) and is attempting to take down an art dealer from Los Angeles that is illegally selling Americana art. Max becomes tangled up with the same targets Eyes Only is looking for, setting up for an intense showdown and reuniting her with Seth in a climatic fight on top of the Space Needle that will shape the course of Max’s life forever.
Collins does an excellent job of filling in the early days of Max’s life prior to the series. The series depicted Max’s escape from Manticore and her being hidden from Manticore soldiers by a nurse named Hannah (which is depicted in the episode “Heat”) but never filled in what happened to her afterward. The most viewers got was an incident the night the Pulse detonated where Max was living with a foster family with an abusive foster father and the implied drunken sexual abuse of his biological daughter, Lucy (depicted in the episode “Flushed). The rest of that story was never fully revealed. How did Max end up with the Barrett family? What happened after the Pulse? When did she leave the Barrett family? How did she end up in Seattle? Collins manages to bridge that gap, recapping those specific moments depicted on the show;. we find out what happened after she left Hannah’s cabin to end up with the Barrett family, and we find out what happened after that brief scene with Max and Lucy. As a fan of the series, it was nice to be informed more of Max’s early years.
I also enjoyed reading about the events that lead Max to relocate to Seattle and how she encountered Original Cindy on the road to the Emerald City. However, the dominoes seem to conveniently fall into place for the rest of that particular chapter. For example, after agreeing to travel with Max to Seattle, the coffee shop they pick to have a break at just happens to be the place where Kendra works. Kendra offers for them to crash at her apartment for a few days before Max and Original Cindy get set up in Seattle, which was fine, but the sudden offer for both girls to room with Kendra and split the rent was a little too convenient. Original Cindy eventually declines Kendra’s offer but Max accepts, explaining how Max became Kendra’s roommate. Kendra also introduces Max and Original Cindy to her neighbors and the father of the family agrees to set them up with his boss at Jam Pony about getting jobs as bike couriers. Despite the series of events being bit of a stretch, I was fine with how it played out.
Logan’s presence in the novel was minimal, which was a disappointment. While Max and Logan aren’t fated to meet until the Pilot episode, it would have been nice to see more of his presence in the story. The antagonist of Season 1, Colonel Donald Lydecker, had more of a presence in the book than Logan, and that felt like a missed opportunity. I would have liked to see more of Logan’s presence as Eyes Only for more than just his scenes involving Seth showing up in his apartment.
My big nitpick with the Before the Dawn was Seth’s presence. Logan knows Seth is an X5, which means he knows a decent amount about Manticore. Yet, when he meets Max in the Pilot episode, he acts as if he’s just learning about stuff with Manticore for the first time. Collins addresses this issue by pointing out at the end of the novel that Logan had the knowledge that he knew Seth before meeting Max, but he kept it hidden from her and would not reveal it until much later down the road (indicating it will be addressed in one either Skin Game or After the Dark). While I can be accepting of what I’m informed with, it doesn’t completely explain why Max would never bring Seth up with her other Manticore siblings during the show’s run.
A minor issue I had was the spelling of Max’s last name. Collins spells it as “Guevera” when it’s supposed to be “Guevara.” A double check of the DVD subtitles, in addition to the Dark Angel Wiki, prove that her last name is in fact spelled “Guevara.”
There are some fun cultural references brought up in the Before the Dawn, especially the “big score” item that Max steals prior to seeing the news report about Seth in Seattle. She breaks into the Hollywood Heritage Museum to steal a priceless object of significant value: the famous Heart of the Ocean necklace featured in a late 20th Century blockbuster film called Titanic. The novel depicts the necklace as being more than just a prop; the Heart of the Ocean is in fact a real diamond necklace and the necklace’s history depicted in the film was real. The director, clearly implied as James Cameron despite not mentioning him by name, donated the necklace to the Hollywood Heritage Museum after filming the movie. When visitors came through the exhibit, they assumed it was just a fancy looking prop rather than an actual $10,000 necklace. It was an amusing Easter Egg early on in the novel, but I didn’t realize that the Heart of the Ocean would actually play a bigger role in the novel’s plot, making the experience much more entertaining. Some fans didn’t care for the Titanic reference, but it’s fun since Dark Angel was his first big project since he filmed Titanic. There was also a reference to the coffee shop that Max and Original Cindy visited, known as “Bucks Coffee.” Max notes that at one point there were four letters before “Bucks,” and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which infamous coffee chain that is. Some may not care for the reference, but I thought it was a clever way of saying that even in a post-apocalyptic future, Starbucks still exists in some form.
Aside from some unnatural characteristics, such as Max being somewhat reckless with her enhanced strength early on in the book and some of the dialog from Original Cindy, this novel was a satisfying read. Clocking in at 271 pages and 13 Chapters (plus an epilogue), Before the Dawn had the same feeling I experienced when I watched the early Season 1 episodes of Dark Angel, and the book felt as if it could have been a full length TV movie or a two part flashback episode. Multiple threads are strung throughout the novel, and how each thread connected to each other made for a fascinating read.
While it’s not a perfect Dark Angel novel, Before the Dawn succeeds in filling in more of Max’s backstory. Many fans of Dark Angel are likely to skip Before the Dawn and jump right to the two books that take place after the episode “Freak Nation.” I initially wanted to do the same, but I started with the prequel just in case there would be some kind of references that would be made in the other two books. After somewhat of a slow start in reading the recapped material depicted in the show, the book’s pace started to pick up and the tone began to feel more in line with the tone established in Season 1.
If you wish to buy this book or any of the other Dark Angel novels, they are still in print. At the time of this writing, I bought my copy of Before the Dawn on Amazon.com, brand new, for about $8. I can understand wanting to jump into the books that take place after the series, but I highly suggest reading the prequel, especially with the hint at the end of the book implying that the events of Before the Dawn will be brought up again in one of the later novels. Reading the first novel in the trilogy will help bring the full understanding to the rest of the books. There’s a reason why the prequel novel was the first one published in the trilogy, so it only makes sense to read this first.
Grade: 4 out of 5.
Miss something? Click on the links below of other Dark Angel reviews.
TV Series Review:
Retro Review: “Dark Angel”
From Screen to Print: “Dark Angel: Skin Game” (Book 2 of the Dark Angel trilogy)
From Screen to Print: “Dark Angel: After the Dark” (Book 3 of the Dark Angel trilogy)