Mass Effect: Ascension
Like the previous Mass Effect novel, Ascension features a story and cast mostly removed from the events of the bestselling games. While the last novel had David Anderson and Saren to tie into the bigger picture, this book doesn’t have nearly as much starpower. The Illusive Man plays an important role, and the events of the games are name checked, but other than that, this is a cast entirely comprised of original characters (Kahlee Sanders returns from the first book, everyone else is new to Ascension.) With a plot completely separate from Shepard’s quest and a cast of characters readers have no attachment to, Ascension has quite the challenge ahead of it. Does it manage to carve out an entertaining niche and truly ‘expand’ the Mass Effect universe, or does the lack of any brand-recognition render it a boring sci-fi has-been?
Ascension’s story revolves around a new character, autistic biotic Gillian Grayson. Gillian, a young girl, possesses biotic powers unheard of among humanity, and as a result spends her time learning to refine her talents at the Ascension project. Of course, the researchers and fellow biotics at the facility aren’t the only ones interested in her, and her handlers soon find themselves warding off constant kidnapping attempts from none other than Cerberus as the Illusive Man angles to get the girl into his clutches.
Most of this happens in the second half of the book, however. For the first half of the book, we are treated to a look inside academy life that borders on the tedious. Information about the history of the biotic program, the nature of biotics, and so on is dumped on us in extremely tiresome fashion, and most of the conflict here centers on the fact that Gillian is treated as an outcast because of her socially-debilitating autism, and presents unique challenges for her handlers because of her eccentricities. It’s not particularly exciting, and it is an uncomfortably cliché take on the “disability superpower” trope because the character has absolutely no substance beyond having a disability (it is worth mentioning that her disability is actually fairly realistically portrayed) while also having an incredible power, which is bound to be tremendously disappointing to anyone expecting an autistic character who actually has some nuance.
There are a handful of flawed, intriguing characters here, but sadly they aren’t put to good use. Our protagonist, Kahlee Sanders, returns from the previous novel with quite a bit of baggage. She still has issues with her dad, famous Alliance hero Jon Grissom, and seems to be quite lonely at the onset of the novel. She also exhibits bad judgment numerous times in this book, but manages to be a fairly compelling character anyways. Meanwhile, Paul Grayson is a nightmare dad. He adopted his daughter not because he wanted to raise a child, but because he was under the employment of the Cerberus organization. He is also a drug addict, and something of a xenophobe. Despite his many flaws, he does seem to possess the presence of mind to know right from wrong, and seems to care about his daughter on some level. There are some other interesting characters that help flesh out this novel, like a gay man that is thankfully more than just some dumb stereotype, and it’s really a shame that this story doesn’t live up to the promise of most of these characters.
Ascension’s biggest issue is that, up until the final 50 pages or so, it really doesn’t feel like a Mass Effect book. Sure, it is very clearly set in the same universe as the games, but in terms of tone and pacing, it couldn’t be more different. The book crawls along at the beginning, taking us through minute elements of life at the academy and involving us in the day to day routines of the various principle characters, but it forgets the action and sweeping conflict that makes the series so great until the very last. That’s not to say that Mass Effect can’t successfully host a character drama, only that with this author and these characters, a more straightforward action story would have probably been a more enjoyable experience and certainly one that “ties in” to the games more appropriately.
The only notable element to the extremely tiresome and simplistic prose, a hallmark of most of author Drew Karphyshyn’s books dating back to the Bane trilogy in the Star Wars universe , is some pretty decent world building. The Mass Effect setting is ripe for fleshing out, and there is definitely an effort to do that here. We get a bit of an insight on business dealings, sex, and aging in the Mass Effect universe, and while it will probably seem pedantic to readers who aren’t engrossed in the setting, it’s something that fans will appreciate. There are also some insights into the Quarian race, as we spend quite a bit of time in their massive fleet, and while most of this info is stuff that we’ve seen elsewhere, it is nice to actually see it in action for once, instead of being a lore dump in the codex of one of the games.
Besides this, there isn’t much to celebrate. Karpyshyn does action relatively well, but there isn’t a lot of it here. The characters are somewhat interesting, but most of the dialogue is overwrought and the romantic scenes are outright laughable. The book doesn’t flow well at all and tends to read like you would, sadly, expect from a media tie-in novel.
It isn’t really relevant to the games at all, so fans can pretty safely skip it. It isn’t particularly entertaining, so new readers can give it a pass. There are some cool insights into life in the Mass Effect universe, but the plot is so dry and slow that all but the most devoted of fans can safely do without the second entry into the Mass Effect book series.