Since finishing the Citadel DLC a few weeks ago, Drew Karpyshyn’s novel Mass Effect: Revelation has been the medicine for my Mass Effect withdrawals. It’s a book that feels a lot like a video game, jumping from one point-of-view to another as the chapters turn. It may not be absolutely stellar, but as a new way to explore the Mass Effect universe, it’s a riveting read that I recommend to fans of the games.
Showdown: Anderson vs. Saren
Revelation is almost an origin story for Alliance Lieutenant David Anderson. It’s a prequel to the first Mass Effect game, for which Karpyshyn was the lead writer.
The novel follows Anderson, in his late 20’s and in the midst of a distant divorce, as he tracks down Alliance scientist Kahlee Sanders. The top-secret research base at Sidon has been blown to pieces, and she’s the suspected traitor. Believing her innocent, Anderson wants to protect her, but the only way to do that is to find out what was going on behind the scenes at Sidon.
But someone else is also trying to unravel the true Sidon story: Saren, a turian Spectre with special privileges from the Citadel Council. Seeing him at work outside of the first Mass Effect game is a thrill, as he’s absolutely ruthless. (The scary thing is that he occasionally reminds me of my renegade Shepard, which makes me feel like I probably should have had her play nicer sometimes…) As you can imagine, when he and good-hearted Anderson are forced to work together, they clash.
Unfortunately, Saren is a very one-sided character throughout the book, with no real redeeming features. He spits out a lot of silly lines about how tough he is, such as: “Some Spectres arrest people,” Saren said, his tone casual. “I don’t.” (Bang bang — you’re dead.)
Though his racism against humans makes some sense given the recent First Contact War between turians and humans, his general cruelty is never really explained. Apparently his brother died in the war, but that’s not an excuse for his awful personality. It’s still interesting to finally get inside his head during his viewpoint chapters — it just leaves a bad taste when the ending hits without him being fully explored as a realistic character.
Lieutenant Anderson and Kahlee Sanders are much more well-rounded, and their relationship develops naturally over the course of the book. In fact, Sanders is probably my favorite character in the book: clever, careful, and capable of defending herself and making quick decisions, even if they’re dangerous. Revelation fills in a lot of the details hinted at in Mass Effect 3, particularly during the Grissom Academy mission — except that this book came before the third game. It’s very cool to see how the games play off the books (and not just the other way around), creating an elaborate history for the Mass Effect universe.
Chapters flit from one character to another, focusing on Anderson, Sanders, Saren, and several of the enemies in the book. One notable chapter even takes the POV of a character who is killed off by the end of the chapter — yet it’s a fantastic bit of characterization for Saren, who swoops into the room toward the end of the scene. It’s almost as if Karpyshyn thought out each scenario in detail, then decided which viewpoint would be most engaging for experiencing that scenario. This method allows readers to see each of the main characters in many different lights — both positive and negative — which adds depth.
Racism as Cultural Characterization
Aside from some awkward physical descriptions, the characterization of the different races and cultures is excellent. Karpyshyn seems to delight in pointing out the odd or off-putting details of alien races. And when you’re reading a scene from an alien’s perspective, you may find yourself in the midst of a disparaging description of humans. The racism can be insightful.
However, one slight surprise regarding racism, for me, is hearing about Anderson’s views on interspecies sex. In spite of his open-mindedness, “that kind of thing normally repulsed him. With the asari, however, he could understand the attraction.” Considering Anderson’s self-alleged open-mindedness and the interspecies romances that take place in the games, this revelation hits me wrong. However, it’s definitely in keeping with the first game, which only has three romanceable characters in total: two humans and one asari. I don’t know if Karpyshyn hadn’t thought that far ahead (considering future games have interspecies romances) or if this really is just how Anderson thinks.
For me, Revelation’s most successful scenes are tense conversations between characters with different, hidden agendas. Some of these conversations even show cultural details moving the story forward. For instance, in a conversation between a krogan and batarian, each tilts his head in certain directions to communicate according to batarian custom. At one point, the krogan tilts his head to the left as a sign of respect; in response, the batarian tilts his head to the right, which indicates that he’s accepting an apology and makes it seem that his honor has been insulted — and he’s being gracious to forgive. I love seeing these tense conversations play out not only in words, but also in culture-specific body language, as this wouldn’t quite work in the visual medium of a game without the explanations.
A Whole Lot of Codex Entries
Still, Revelation suffers from too much exposition at times, and it’s awkward. For instance, this paragraph also happens to be one single sentence:
Given that most species at the Citadel had ascended to interstellar flight through the discovery and adaptation of caches of Prothean technology on planets within the same solar system as their respective home worlds, many anthropologists believed the Protheans had played some role in evolution throughout the galaxy.
Was there really no better way to word that? Maybe Karpyshyn just felt the need to release those prepositions into the wild like little doves.
Of course, I appreciate the descriptions in some places — learning about the Citadel Conventions banning artificial intelligence is particularly insightful — but they’re usually cumbersome. Most likely, fans of the games already know most of the information. Reading these lengthy passages is akin to re-reading old codex entries when you really just want to get back into the combat.
Despite the clunky exposition, Mass Effect: Revelation moves along at breakneck speed overall. Scenes are mostly dialogue and action, and nearly every chapter ends on a cliffhanger. If you’re not familiar with the Mass Effect games, Karpyshyn sets up the universe well enough for you to jump in and follow the story, but this is really a book for the fans.
To be honest, Revelation’s prose may seem creaky or unpolished compared to prose in other science fiction novels. Its characterization is spotty in places. It’s unashamed to go for the badass one-liners that probably wouldn’t work any better in a video game. But it’s Mass Effect, and seeing the clash between Anderson and Saren play out, along with the underlying struggle of humanity finding its place in the greater galaxy, is truly absorbing.