Mass Effect: Annihilation by Catherynne M. Valente

Mass Effect Annihilation Cover.jpg

Publishers: Titan Books

                        Blackstone Audio

Publication Date – 6 November 2018

 

A new galaxy, a ship full of disparate alien species, what could possibly go wrong?  Veteran author Catherynne M. Valente brings to life a new adventure in the Mass Effect universe with Mass Effect: Annihilation, the third official tie-in novel to the 2017 video game, Mass Effect: Andromeda.

This was a really good piece of science fiction that expertly built on the intricate extended universe that has been created around the Mass Effect video game franchise.  I should preface this review by mentioning that I am a huge fan of this video game series, and one of the best things about it is the great universe and intriguing storylines that have been produced as a result.  While I know that many people had some valid criticisms about the latest game in the series, Andromeda, I actually really enjoyed the new addition to the series’ story and lore and had a lot of fun playing it and exploring all the additional plot that is hidden outside of the main missions.  One of the many mysteries that I hoped to get an answer about was the fate of Quarian ark, so I was very eager to read this book when I first heard about what it was going to focus on.

For those unfamiliar with the Mass Effect franchise, the first game was released in 2007 and is set in a universe where humanity has gained spaceflight and by 2183 has expanded throughout the Milky Way galaxy.  Once they were outside of our solar systems, humans met with several alien races which governed large portions of the galaxy.  The three main species, the Asari, the Salarians and the Turians, formed a ruling council on the ancient alien space station, the Citadel, which served as a capital city for these races and several other allied species.  The game series followed the human protagonist, Commander Shepard, as he (or she, depending on your settings), investigates the resurgence of the Reapers: ancient, sentient space ships who appear every 50,000 years to destroy all sentient organic life.  While Shepard is able to delay the appearance of the Reapers in the first two games, they launch a full-scale attack in Mass Effect 3, leading to significant, galaxy-changing events.

The game Mass Effect: Annihilation is based on, Mass Effect Andromeda, is the fourth Mass Effect game released and a loose sequel to the original series.  Andromeda is set over 600 years after the events of Mass Effect 3, and follows a group of explorers and colonists from the Milky Way galaxy as they travel to the Andromeda galaxy in an epic one-way trip to find new planets to settle on.  This was a result of the Andromeda Initiative, a joint exercise from a number of Citadel species in order to settle in the new galaxy.  The Initiative launched their ships to Andromeda in the period between Mass Effect 2 and 3.  Each of the main Citadel races, humans, Asari, Salarians and Turians sent an ark ship to Andromeda, each filled with 20,000 cryogenically frozen members of their respective species.  These four arks were launched at the same time, and the plan was for them to dock in the Nexus, a miniature version of the Milky Way Citadel sent in advance of the arks, which was to be used as a staging ground while the Pathfinders found and explored new planets for their races to settle on.  During the events of Mass Effect: Andromeda, mention was made of a fifth ark, built by the Quarians and filled with several other alien races, that was supposed to launch soon after the initial four arks.  However, this fifth ark made no appearance during Andromeda, and was one of the game’s unsolved mysteries, perhaps destined to never be solved, as there is currently no plans to continue the Mass Effect game franchise (although it is too big a franchise for them not to do something else with it in the future).

The Mass Effect games have inspired a number of additional media releases over the years.  Four Mass Effect books were written between 2007 and 2012 to correspond with the original game trilogy, as well as a number of comic book series.  Following the release of Mass Effect: Andromeda in 2017, a new trilogy of books was commissioned which further explored key events or characters mentioned in the fourth game.  Annihilation is the third and final book in the Mass Effect: Andromeda book trilogy.

As the Reaper fleet begins to appear in the Milky Way galaxy, a fifth ark is launched by the Andromeda Initiative to bring another 20,000 settlers to the Andromeda galaxy.  Built by the planetless Quarians, the ark Keelah Si’yah is the only ark to hold colonists from a number of different races, including Quarians, Drell, Elcor, Batarians, Volus and Hanar.  Despite having different outlooks, opinions, biological requirements and reasons to leave the Milky Way, these races are united in their decision to reach the new galaxy and find new planets to settle on.

As the ship reaches the end of its 600-year long journey, problems are soon identified aboard the ship.  One of the ark’s Sleepwalker teams, a small team of individuals tasked with checking on the status of the ark as it flies through space, is suddenly awoken years before the Keelah Si’yah is scheduled to dock with the Nexus.  The ship’s virtual intelligence has identified certain discrepancies in the readings of several Drell cryopods.  Investigating the pods, the Sleepwalker team find that their inhabitants have died from a disease, something that is supposed to be impossible while frozen.  Even worse, the ships systems are all reporting that everything is fine, and that the inhabitants of the pods are still alive.

The Sleepwalker team quickly discover that the dead colonists have all been infected by a virulent disease, one that seems capable of jumping across to the vastly different alien species.  The team are desperate to find out the cause of the disease, but their investigation is severely hampered by a number of system failures across the ark, while the ship’s computers continue to insist that everything is all right.  As the failing systems start to randomly unfreeze more and more colonists, the disease quickly spreads across the ark.  It soon becomes apparent that the disease has been artificially created, and that someone is launching a deliberate attack against the Keelah Si’yah and its crew.  As the various colonists turn on each other in fear and confusion, can the Sleepwalker team find a cure and uncover who is behind the attack, or will everyone on the ark die before reaching Andromeda?

The author of this book, Catherynne M. Valente is not an author I was very familiar with before listening to Annihilation, but she appears to have produced a wide range of different novels, some of which are quite quirky in content.  I do remember seeing and trying to get a copy of her 2018 release, Space Opera, earlier this year, mainly because it sounded like such a fun read, what with it essentially being Eurovision in space.  Luckily, I was able to obtain a copy of Annihilation a week ago and powered through its audiobook format, narrated by Tom Taylorson.

Mass Effect: Annihilation has an exciting and intriguing story that expands on the established lore of the Mass Effect universe while also providing the reader with a compelling science fiction mystery.  The story is broken up into three main parts: the characters attempting to identify and cure the disease, the attempts to fix the ship’s broken system and an investigation into who or what initiated the attack on the ark and its inhabitants.  As a result, there is a good combination of medical, technical and investigative scenes that come together into a rather intriguing overall narrative.  There is not a lot of action, but the focus on the various problems around the ship is very interesting.  The link between the various parts of the book and the final solution to who is behind them was also quite clever and the reasons behind it were quite interesting.  There are some certain dark moments, especially when it comes to the reveal of who was behind it.  Annihilation is obviously going to appeal a lot more to readers who are familiar with the games and who enjoy the backstory of this series, but this is a great story with plenty for other readers to enjoy, and I felt that Valente makes this story accessible for outside readers.

One of the most interesting parts about Annihilation is the fact that the book focuses on the less prominent alien races in the Mass Effect universe.  Aside from one prologue that follows a human, every single character is a member of six less common races in the lore and games, the Quarians, Drell, Volus, Batarians, Hana and Elcor.  This is unique, as the games and the previous novels tend to mostly focus on human characters, or feature a significant number of characters from the games more prominent races, such as the token sexy alien species, the Asari, or the gigantic and war loving Krogan.  The other main council races, the Turians and the Salarians, are also extremely prominent compared to the six races featured within this book, with great Turian and Salarian characters appearing frequently in the games or the books (I am the very model of a scientist Salarian).  In pretty much all of the games, the protagonist can choose members of the above aliens to be a part of the team.  However, Annihilation completely changes this around, as four of the six races that the book focuses on have never had usable characters in any of the games and are mostly minor side characters.  Of the other two races, the Quarians do get a good examination within the games, with one of their members quite a key character.  The Drell are explored to a much lesser degree, although badass Drell assassin Thane Krios as a useable teammate in the second game.

I was pleasantly surprised to read a book where these six less commonly featured races were so prominent.  Valente has a great understanding of these races and spends a significant part of the book exploring each race’s various quirks, important parts of their biology, culture, society or lifestyle, as well as certain parts of their history.  The author does a fantastic job expressing all these racial traits throughout the book, and even new readers to the franchise can quickly gain an understanding of what these species are and what is key to all of them.  For example, Valente is able to expertly capture the various speech characteristics of each of the races featured in Annihilation.  This includes the heavy breathing of the Volus, the lack of personal pronouns in the Hanar’s dialogue, the rolling stream of Drell memories that they say aloud when flashing back to important memories, and even the Elcor habit of prefacing their sentences with their emotional state.  These are all done incredibly consistently throughout the book and really add a lot of authenticity to the story.  These vocal patterns can also be particularly entertaining, especially when it comes to the Elcors, as nothing is more amusing than having an angry Elcor calmly telling everyone how enraged he is.  The various alien species did have the potential to make the investigation into the virus hard to understand, but the author cleverly got around this by having the characters compare the disease, cures and other relevant aspects to common and recognisable human disease.  Overall, these alien inclusions are fantastic, and it was great to see these more obscure fictional species finally get the limelight in a Mass Effect story.

While the alien races as a whole are great inclusions in Annihilation, Valente has also created some amazing characters to make up the Sleepwalker team investigating the issues plaguing the ark.  These characters include the team’s leader, Quarian Senna’Nir vas Keelah Si’yah, Drell detective Anax Therion, Elcor doctor Yorrik, former Batarian crime lord Borbala Ferank, Volus tailor Irit Non and a religiously fanatic Hanar apothecary.  Each of these characters is pretty fun, and all of them have demons in their past that are explored throughout the book.  For example, Senna’Nir is obsessed by computer intelligences, something that is forbidden by the other Quarians following a terrible event in their history.  As a result, Senna’Nir spends large portions of the book coming to terms with his secret obsession, and it is quite an interesting subplot which also allows the introduction of one of the best side characters, a sassy Quarian grandmother virtual intelligence.  Each of the characters’ backstories is fairly compelling and each add a lot to the story.  Borbal Ferank’s crime lord persona is also a lot of fun throughout the book, as she casually mentions her previous crimes and familiar betrayals that are quite common for Batarians.  There are also the mysteries around Anax, as the ultimate infiltrator gives several versions of her past throughout the book to various characters to get the answers and stories she requires.

Easily the best character in Annihilation is Yorrik, the Shakespeare-obsessed Elcor doctor who spends the entire book trying to cure the virus infecting the ark.  He was extremely amusing throughout the entire book, as he spend significant parts of the book dropping jokes in his emotionless tone, or attempting to engage his companions in discussion about his extremely long Elcor adaptions of Hamlet or Macbeth.  Yorrik is a fantastic character throughout the entire book, and he is definitely the person the reader gets the most attached to.  Never have Shakespearian quotes been more appropriate for the fate of an alien.  I also really loved the unique partnership between Anax and Borbala.  The detective and criminal make a great team, and the two have a lot of fun investigating the attack on the ship, and it was great seeing the two of them get closer to each other through the course of the book.  Valente has done an incredible job with the characters in this book, and their histories, relationships and unique viewpoints really make this novel awesome.

I listened to the audiobook version of Annihilation, which I found to be an amazing way to enjoy this book.  At just under nine hours long, this is an easy audiobook to get through, but it is one I had a lot of fun with.  One of the best things about the audiobook version was the fact that they got Tom Taylorson, the voice of the male protagonist in Mass Effect: Andromeda, to narrate this audiobook, which is just awesome for those people who have played the game.  Taylorson does an excellent job portraying each of the characters in this book and I loved all the voices he came up with.  He also managed to get all of the unique voice patterns and vocal particularities of the various alien species down perfectly, and each alien species sounded exactly as they did in the games.  This is an outstanding piece of audiobook narration, which really added a lot to how much I enjoyed this book.

Overall, I am going to give Mass Effect: Annihilation a rating of four and a half stars.  I will admit that one of the main reasons I am giving it such a high rating is because of my love of all things Mass Effect and because of how much I love the franchises lore and expanded fictional history.  I am aware that people who are not as familiar with Mass Effect may not enjoy it as much, but I hope that most readers will appreciate the great characters, interesting story and excellent audiobook adaption.  This is great piece of science fiction and an excellent tie-in novel that is a perfect read for fans of the Mass Effect franchise.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

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