Book Review: Mass Effect: Annihilation by Catherynne M. Valente
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction, Media Tie-In
Series: Book 3 of Mass Effect: Andromeda
Publisher: Titan Books (November 6, 2018)
Length: 336 pages
Although we’re here to talk about a book, no discussion about Mass Effect: Andromeda: Annihilation would be possible without at least acknowledging the fan response to the game it was based on, which many found unremarkable, if not disappointing. Speaking as someone who adores the Mass Effect franchise, even I have to admit that Andromeda—while arguably not as terrible as everyone says it is—was still probably the weakest in the series, failing to meet the high expectations set by the original trilogy in terms of both storytelling and character development. Furthermore, by the end of the game, there were many plot threads left hanging and questions unanswered, and sadly, it has been announced there will be no more downloadable content to follow up on any of this, at least for the foreseeable future.
Luckily, this is where the tie-in novels come in. Mass Effect: Annihilation finally addresses one of the game’s biggest mysteries, and not only that, they’ve tapped an incredible author to do the honors. And if Catherynne M. Valente’s name being attached to the project isn’t enough to get you excited, then surely the prospect of finding out the fate of Quarian ark will, for this story takes us aboard the Keelah Si’yah, a colony ship carrying twenty thousand souls, all cryogenically frozen, on their way to their new home in the Andromeda galaxy. Though the vessel is of Quarian origin, on board are colonists from many of the other non-council races, including the Drell, Elcor, Hanar, Volus and Batarians. With still a long way to go before they reach their destination, however, a Sleepwalker team is alerted by the ship’s AI to strange readings on many of the Drell cryopods. To their horror, they find the pods’ occupants dead, infected by some unknown virus.
Before long, it is determined the deaths are no accident. The pathogen begins to jump species, affecting colonists that are not Drell. Then, many of the ship’s systems start to fail. Someone aboard the Keelah Si’yah is sabotaging their mission on purpose, and what’s more, this killer seems to know their way around the ship. With the situation becoming more desperate, the Sleepwalker team must put their differences aside and work together before time runs out.
In general, tie-in novels are tough to review, but I will say this: those who enjoyed playing Andromeda and wanted to spend more time in the game’s world will likely be happy with Mass Effect: Annihilation. However, those who aren’t familiar with the Mass Effect universe will probably be left unsatisfied. While all the books in the series have been standalone so far, my feeling is that at least some background knowledge of the games is required, or else this one is going to be very confusing.
To her credit, Valente clearly knows her way around the Mass Effect universe, but she is also writing with the assumption that the reader has played Andromeda and is already aware of much of the game lore. For one thing, the characters in this novel are aliens. Mass Effect features some of the best aliens in any science fiction franchise, but the truth of the matter is, you can’t fully appreciate them unless you have played some of the games. Sure, each species has a unique charm and their own personality quirks, but admittedly none of these would be all that entertaining or helpful, if what you’re seeking is a deeper connection to the characters. A lot of books starring non-human protagonists will feature lots of character development to compensate, but this one relies on the reader having that prior knowledge.
Where Annihilation really excels though, is its mystery plot. As circumstances get increasingly more desperate for the Sleepwalker crew, we see each character step up and lend their particular skills and talents to the problem. Like any good investigative team, they’ve delegated their tasks to make the situation more manageable, so that they can attack the three most pressing issues all at once, which is find the killer, cure the disease, and repair the failing ship systems. The result is that the story ends up being one-part murder mystery, one-part medical suspense, and one-part tech thriller—in other words, not a bad combination at all. My only complaint is the lack of action. Previous novels in the franchise have done a better job capturing at the action-adventure and combat feel of the games, but that’s just my personal impression. We get some action short bursts here and there, but the bulk of the book is brainstorming and discussion, and lots of it. Some of this provided great build-up and intrigue for the mystery, but again, those new to Mass Effect might find the lengthy scenes of deliberation and dialogue tedious.
In spite of everything though, I really enjoyed this book. Annihilation is another great addition to the Mass Effect novel series, featuring quality writing and storytelling that proves once more how far the media tie-in, as a genre, has come. Unless you know the Mass Effect universe or are a mega-fan of Catherynne M. Valente, I don’t know how much you’re going to get out of it, but it’s definitely a must-read if you love the games.