Mass Effect: Ascension by Drew Karpyshyn
In the Mass Effect series, the Cerberus organization exists in the shadows. The player is constantly kept in the dark as to their motives. Even as an unwilling operative for the organization in Mass Effect 2, players are given very little information on the organization other than its slogans and the hatred that many of the galaxy’s residents hold toward it. Even less is known about the group’s mysterious leader, the Illusive Man. His motives and true intentions are shrouded behind ideology and propaganda, and players of Mass Effect 2 quickly and painfully learn to never trust the information they receive from him.
Mass Effect: Ascension casts a light on Cerberus, albeit one that leaves you with just as many questions as it answers. The book is set before the events of Mass Effect 2, and Ascension demonstrates the invasiveness and secrecy of the organization and its leader. The book tells the story of a young biotic named Gillian being trained at an Alliance facility under the tutelage of Kahlee Sanders and other instructors. But Cerberus has operatives within the program, despite being deep within a military-controlled operation. And unbeknownst to the young girl, Gillian is just another pawn in the Illusive Man’s game.
We watch through the book as the Illusive Man twists and bends the will of those that surround him to his wishes. He uses his power to convince a misguided father, so pained by his actions that he falls into drug abuse, to allow the organization to experiment on his child. And in the book’s climax, the lengths and limits of the Illusive Man’s power are laid to bare in an intriguing conclusion that leaves open future exploration of the characters while still providing a solid resolution. Drew Karpyshyn has built a reputation for leaving openings for growth without leaving players unsatisfied and the same can be said for this book.
I wasn’t as initially thrilled with the book as I’d like to be, but it eventually all came together and I was quite hooked. Ascension is a light, breezy read, though the writing won’t win awards. Karpyshyn is a good story-teller and his love and curiosity for the universe that he’s helped build shine through on every page. But there are some writing issues, namely that the book is over-written. The book could have benefited from stronger editing, though there is nothing terribly offensive. It seems like on almost every other page he opens a sentence with “her training had taught her” followed by an explanation of a fairly mundane action the character took. If he’d just said “she peaked around a corner,” we the reader would assume the character was trained to do that and move on without question. These kind of inclusions don’t add very much to the book and keep the writing from being as clean and succinct as it should.
Perhaps this stems from Karpyshyn’s background as a video game writer, where he can rely on artists to set the scene Where the book shines best is establishing the relationships between the characters, which has always been the Mass Effect series’ biggest strength. By the end of the book, I felt a legitimate connection to the characters and support for their fight. Mass Effect: Ascension sheds new light on the organization that you don’t have a choice but to work for in Mass Effect 2 and is a recommended read for anyone interested in further exploring the motives of the series’ least understood character, the Illusive Man.