Let's cut right to the chase - if you have already seen The Force Awakens in theaters, you know what to expect from Alan Dean Foster's novelization. With the exception of a few minor tweaks and additional scenes, there's no extra depth beyond what is found in the film. For a novelization, it is fairly safe and somewhat bland. Ultimately, that makes this book a pretty disappointing read.
The choice of Alan Dean Foster to write the novelization was seemingly due to the synergy that The Force Awakens shares with A New Hope. Foster wrote the novelization for A New Hope, so it wasn't entirely surprising to learn that he would be back to write The Force Awakens. It's definitely a blow to those expecting a rendition like Matthew Stover's Revenge of the Sith, which elevated the film and is widely considered among readers to be one of the best Star Wars books currently in publication. Don't expect the same experience from The Force Awakens. This is a simple, cut-and-dry story that slavishly follows the plot of the film.
There are a lot of moments in The Force Awakens film where the viewers will wonder what is going on in the minds of the characters onscreen. What did Kylo Ren think as he spoke to Snoke? What did the characters think as an iconic character died? Any insight hoped to be gleaned through the novelization, however, is dashed after reading the book. There is no additional insight. The characters and their motives and thoughts are as elusive and mysterious as how things appeared in the film. Sure, it makes sense. Leave some mysteries to be solved in the later films, and all that. And yet, it doesn't make the translation well into prose. The book just feels empty.
The book is very short, and although length is certainly no indicator of quality, it is a blow to readers hoping for a larger book that would dive deeper into some of the mysteries and scenes brought to life in the film. Not that anyone expected the bigger mysteries of the film to be given away in the novelization, but even minor characters and relationships that could have used some fleshing out remain as unknown as they did in the film. The book flows along at a good pace (spoiler alert: it follows the film!), but Foster uses a lot of highfalutin, flowery prose that can pull readers out of the story. He also switches between the points of view of multiple characters in each scene, which is very off-putting. Whereas a lot of authors use chapter breaks to switch points of view, Foster simply using those breaks to move along to the next scene from the film.
It's very clear that Foster based most of his book off the script for the film. Most of the film's dialogue is in the book, as are its scenes. That also includes its humor, although it definitely doesn't translate well in the book. Remember how hilarious Finn was in the movie? How his hyperkinetic energy and fast pace brought the film to a higher level? Well, that energy isn't present in the book. Each joke falls flat - including the infamous BB-8 lighter thumbs-up moment. With every bit of dialogue that Foster adds to the novelization (mostly in the Kylo Ren scenes), the characters sound nothing like their film counterparts. Suddenly, they're using words that they would never use in the film. It makes the characters feel bipolar, and it adds to the disjointed feeling of the novel.
There are also some odd stylistic choices that the book makes, and they cheapen the feel of the physical hardcover book. The cover art, for example, is incredibly underwhelming. Every Star Wars novelization has had its own unique cover art, but the cover art for The Force Awakens is simply the poster of the film. Even worse, the artwork contains a border that makes it look like the artwork was simply pasted onto the cover. The book also, bafflingly, contains an eight page photo spread of scenes from the film. It makes the book feel like a junior novelization, which widely feature photos and captions from the movies they are based on. This is the first Star Wars book to contain any kind of photo spread, and it cheapens the reading experience.
If you have never experienced The Force Awakens, the novelization is the worst way to experience it first. Characters and settings are not very well-described, leaving a lot to imagination. For those who have seen the film, it's easy to match scenes to the film. But to those experiencing the book for the first time, the book will feel hollow. It lacks the excitement and fun of the film, and doesn't stand up well on its own. As a companion piece, to the Star Wars fan hungry for anything related to the film, it's at least worth a browse at the bookstore.