Monday, 24 September 2012

Mass Effect: Ascension by Drew Karpyshyn

Lowdown: The second novel set in the Mass Effect universe.
In practice, any book set in the Mass Effect universe would have limited appeal: those unfamiliar with the related video games would seem to have no reason to approach the books. In the case of Mass Effect: Ascension, or Ascension henceforth, that is a pity. The book is quite a fine tale of science fiction adventure packing some interesting thoughts.
Published in 2008, Ascension is the sequel to Mass Effect: Revelation. While the former tried to provide a backstory to the 2007 released Mass Effect video game, Ascension comes in between the release of the first Mass Effect game and 2010’s Mass Effect 2. It lives up to its part, pretty much setting the scene for Mass Effect 2.
We follow multiple characters, chief amongst which are Grayson, a drug addicted mercenary killer in the services of Cerberus, and Kahlee Sanders: heroine of the first book in the series and now a trainer at an academy for children with biotic powers (to the uninitiated: these are powers that utilize dark energy to move physical objects). The plot revolves around Gillian, Grayson’s autistic daughter and the bearer of record biotic powers for the species. This puts her under the sites of the pro human (and anti everything else) organization Cerberus, who do not hesitate to bend ethical principles down in their attempts to gain humanity advantage over alien species. As a result of this setting we follow a story woven between different characters across different world and races, with a lot of attention given to the Quarians and their Migrant Fleet.
The adventure story created in Ascension is not a page turner only affair. There is some significant sophistication about it: there are multiple well defined complex characters in roles of varying shades of gray. There is political incorrectness about, including sex scenes one would not normally associate with a book allegedly created at a marketing department so as to make further killing on the back of a successful video game. More surprisingly, there are clear messages concerning cutting edge social issues such as our ongoing war with terrorism or the social virtues of the Quarian society. Virtues that, if one stops to think about it, are in contrast to the free market all conquering capitalism of the USA. I do wonder whether this was possible because BioWare, creator of the Mass Effect universe, is a Canadian company.
Ascension is not without blemishes, chief amongst which are some cheap means of plot advancement. These are of a type I also pointed at in my review of Revelation. For example, we first learn that a certain character we deemed a goodie is a baddie when, for no particular reason, another character tells us it has a bad feeling about “this guy”. Then again, there is a bigger elephant in the room: as good as Ascension might be, it would still have limited appeal to those unfamiliar with Mass Effect; and given the limited introduction offered by the book there is no chance of it ever breaking free to stand by its own rights.
Overall: A fine science fiction adventure that’s tied a bit too tightly to its video game origins to truly stand out. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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