Mass Effect: Revelation (Drew Karpyshyn)
Mass Effect: Revelation is the first in a series of tie in novels that showcase a new story arc for the popular video game universe. Set and released before the first game in the series, Revelation features two of the key characters from the game, including its antagonist Saren, and tons of background detail on the universe as a whole. While the contrast between Saren and David Anderson (your captain at the start of the game) is handled well, the book's actual antagonists fall well short of matching Saren's intimidating, ruthless persona. Additionally, constant exposition, much of which has little to do with the story, wrecks havoc on the pacing. Despite an interesting political sub plot, engaging action sequences, and thoughtful if simplistic characterizations, Revelation falls short of delivering a truly unique sci fi experience, but most people will manage to get something out of it.
Revelation is set fifteen years before the events of the first game. The plot concerns the rising star of the Alliance military, David Anderson, and his quest to solve a mystery involving a raid on a secret Alliance research installation. His quest takes him to various worlds in the universe of Mass Effect and eventually pairs him up with scientist Kahlee Sanders, one of the few survivors of the raid. Anderson learns more about the research, illegal forays into AI programming, and resolves to stop it, reporting to his superiors on the Citadel. An enjoyable sub plot concerning humanity's relationship with the powers that be on the Council ensues, and the eventual result is that Anderson is paired up with one of the Council's Spectres, Saren, in order to stop the potential AI threat. Saren's independent investigations to this point have brought him into contact with Anderson twice, and initially he feels more like an antagonist. After teaming up with Anderson however, Saren is a decidedly enjoyable anti hero that provides some much needed tension during the book's climax. Mass Effect players will have some familiarity with the climax of the novel, as Anderson relays the events to the player character in the game. The plot is a fairly straightforward affair that successfully captures the spirit of the Mass Effect universe while introducing and developing two of its most crucial characters.
Anderson isn't much of a character, but the author does a great job of contrasting him to two other characters: ruthless Spectre Saren and washed up, cynical Alliance hero Jon Grissom. Anderson's only real defining characteristics are a fanatical sense of duty to the Alliance, and a strong moral compass. By contrast, Saren operates by his own rules and frequently resorts to torture, manipulation, and cold blooded killing to achieve his goals. He is an absolutely chilling anti-hero in this book and it is very easy to see how he becomes the character we see in Mass Effect. Grissom plays a smaller role in the overall story, but he does serve to showcase Anderson's extraordinary sense of duty. Grissom is one of the first humans to use the mass relays that serve as the universe's manner of intergalactic travel. The successful endeavor earned him a hero's welcome back on Earth, but he grew increasingly cynical before eventually deciding to live the life of a hermit, staying out of Alliance affairs as much as possible. Dialogue between Grissom and Anderson is particularly interesting because the two have such radically different perceptions of the Alliance and military service. The author's use of foil characters and contrasting values makes Anderson a more interesting character than the one dimensional mess he would have been otherwise.
The rest of the characters are nothing special. Kahlee Sanders, the female lead, is nothing more than a generic damsel in distress, and her frequent attempts to mislead or hide crucial information from Anderson serve only to elongate the plot and make her character even less sympathetic. Our actual villains are a forgettable bunch of two-bit gangsters, bounty hunters, and crazed scientists with little substance. The side cast is incredibly mediocre, though we thankfully spend little time dealing with them.
One of the unfortunate elements of the book's writing is that it doesn't flow well at all. The book's secondary function as an early introduction to the Mass Effect universe, released before the game and its massive codex, results in extremely unpleasant, generally random expository passages. We get detailed paragraphs about Earth's history from roughly our present day to the 2160s, long winded passages about alien races and their history, descriptions of the history and cultural dynamics on nearly every world featured, and the universe's attitude toward AI. In concept, extensive unrelated/tertiary world building is a workable, challenging idea. In execution, the constant delays in the actual story, and the heavy handed, dry style of presentation cause it to be one of the worst elements of the writing style in this book.
Besides the terrible pace killing exposition, the writing style isn't too bad. Combat is fast paced and brutal, appropriately utilizing the rules of the Mass Effect universe while also presenting some enjoyable squad based action in the book's first action sequence. Dialogue isn't a highlight, but it is at least tolerable in most cases, and the imagery is simple but effective. In other words, the book is fundamentally sound but unspectacular, marred only by several pointless expository passages.
Revelation is a solid but unspectacular book. The characterizations of its two most important characters are good; Saren is actually more interesting here than in the game. The plot is a good excuse to introduce certain elements of Mass Effect lore, while spinning a decent action adventure yarn highlighting the perils of artificial intelligence and providing plenty of action sequences. Of course, the actual implementation of all that lore and back story is easily the novel's weakest aspect, slowing down an otherwise well paced book. Revelation is a run of the mill read for the average sci fi fan, but followers of Bioware's science fiction series will find more to enjoy.