The Icarus Effect (James Swallow)
Deus Ex: Icarus Effect is a tie in novel to the 2011 video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The novel is a prequel to the events of the game, and serves to introduce the world and themes of the Deus Ex universe while also attempting to flesh out some of the villains from the game. The story is told exclusively through the eyes of two new characters, Secret Service Agent Anna Kelso and former-SAS operative Ben Saxon. The protagonist from the game, Adam Jensen, is never seen and referenced only once, in connection to the first level from the video game.
The new main characters work fairly well and it was nice to see a novel based on a video game that wasn’t just a retelling of the game’s story. Their individual quests for the truth eventually bring them together for an exciting finale, but ultimately the story feels a bit pointless. The book is a solid tie in effort, with a few critical flaws but several bright spots to balance them out.
One of the most crucial flaws is that we never really establish any connection to the side characters. Ben and Anna are adequate in their roles, but the bit players that accompany them do not come to life. Ben, now an operative in the shadowy mercenary group The Tyrants, fights alongside several of the game’s villains in increasingly violent and disturbing missions. He eventually begins to question these missions and forcefully defects from the team. Though more is learned about each of these characters in comparison to their game appearances, where they were basically random throwaway characters to pad the game’s length, they are still uninspiring and underdeveloped characters. Yelena Federova, a Russian woman capable of using her augmentations to mask her presence from others, is the most interesting, but only because she is given a mystique that the others lack. Ben’s other team mates are a bland mix of people who believe they are serving the greater good, arrogant muscle heads, and lifeless cutouts.
Kelso’s supporting cast is even weaker. Her initial group of Secret Service agents is completely faceless, as one might expect them to be, but we are told that Anna cares deeply about one of them, shot and killed in the book’s opening scenes. We are later told why, but it is extremely unsatisfying to be expected to care about this person who is introduced, then killed off fewer than ten pages afterwards. The fact that his death serves as Anna’s primary motivation for nearly every action she takes in the story is even more disappointing as it makes her character a bit hollow. She then buddies up with a gang of hackers that will help her track down the truth- for the right price. Characters in this faction aren’t particularly well handled either, but they do serveto illustrate one important, successful element of the book- the world building.
The Deus Ex universe is centered around the idea of how humanity would handle technological augmentations that allow one to replace, upgrade, or repair their damaged body parts. The crux of the struggle lies in the question of what it means to be human, and whether or not accepting and embracing these technological advancements will impede on your ability to be human. Here we see a world torn asunder by this conflict, in addition to others, like a civil war in Australia over oil, and a hacker collective that threatens the security of the entire world. These elements are introduced and woven into the story nicely, and the world projects a sense of decay, not the hopeful optimism that such technological breakthroughs would be expected to bring. Interestingly though, every character given a major role in the story has at least minor augmentations, and most are significantly enhanced. We don’t hear much from the “pro-human” faction, though we are told that they are there, and they play an implied role in some of the book’s events.
The central force of the conflict behind this story is the Illuminati, a global group of power brokers seeking to keep the fate of humanity in their hands. To this end, they manipulate events to support the cause of the pro-human faction, in an effort to remove cybernetics from mainstream use. It was kind of disappointing to see the Illuminati show up, though of course they play a major role in the book too. The Illuminati are classic conspiracy fodder, of course, and almost a farce in the minds of many. Despite the notorious name, the Illuminati are handled well here, manipulating events from the shadows and never coming into direct contact with our protagonists, though of course some of the lore the novel associates with them is unrealistic to say the least.
Anna and Ben eventually meet in the final third of the book, after taking markedly different paths to the same conclusion. The duo lack real chemistry and do not play off each other at all, but their partnership allows for an extremely well written sequence during a UN conference in Geneva, Switzerland. The author does a great job of writing several tense chase sequences, and employing the augmentations of each character in an impressive yet subdued manner. The final standoff, on a yacht known as Icarus, is a great climax, though the resolution ultimately leaves the events of the book feeling a little pointless in the grander scheme of things.
Deus Ex: Icarus Effect is a fairly good novel. The lack of strong supporting characters is a major impediment, but the main characters are quite good. The author also puts in a good effort and manages credible world building to expand the Deus Ex universe, and frequent, excellent action scenes to make up for the generic, conspiracy driven plot. A recommended read for any fans of Deus Ex, and those looking for an action packed conspiracy yarn should give this a chance too.