Thunderbolt logo

Mass Effect: Retribution by Drew Karpyshyn

BooksMass Effect

Mass Effect: Retribution is the third entry in Drew Karpyshyn’s series of Mass Effect novels, based on the critically acclaimed videogame franchise of the same name. The premise of the book, like the two that preceded it, is simply to provide a form of fan service in-between the release of BioWare’s Mass Effect games, providing ample opportunities for gamers and science fiction fans alike to delve deeper into the ever-expanding lore of the Mass Effect universe.


Karpyshyn, also the lead writer for the Mass Effect videogames, has provided further exposition for many of the characters and events of this expertly told story, shedding some light on some familiar characters, while also introducing us to a few new ones. In the Mass Effect timeline, Retribution’s plot unfolds just after the conclusion of Mass Effect 2 and picks up where Ascension left off, continuing the story lines of that novel’s two main characters: Kahlee Sanders and Paul Grayson.

A decent portion of Retribution is devoted to the development of the Illusive Man’s character. One of the leaders of the Cerberus organization, the Illusive Man is a good old boy that’s somehow made his way into space. His character is fleshed out through the little details such as his love for distilled whiskey and cigarettes, which he uses not for their comfort qualities or because he needs them, but because they’re some of the only earthly pleasures he’s got left, something that serves as a distraction to the harsh realities accompanying humanity’s transition into living amongst aliens in outer space.


The Illusive Man has gotten his hands on some advanced technology from a Reaper ship. Ever the opportunist, the descriptively-named man makes quick use of the technology by implanting it into former Cerberus operative turned traitor Paul Grayson, who returns from Ascension only to be used as a human guinea pig for Cerberus’s study of Reaper technology’s effects on humans. The storyline of synthetic technology expert Kahlee Sanders is also fleshed out, providing a direct continuation of both characters’ stories that allows Karpyshyn to avoid going into depth about Commander Shepard’s story, while still filling in some of the fiction’s looser, more curious topics, like the science of Asari sexuality and their mating habits.

As an extension on prior fiction, Retribution’s difficult to recommend as a standalone book. Like most fiction series, it should be approached in sequential order and be used to supplement the fiction established in the source material, rather than serving as a replacement for it. Karpyshyn delicately avoids intermingling the contents of Retribution with the events of Mass Effect 2 and the hotly anticipated Mass Effect 3, straying far enough from the games’ narratives that he’s able to cleverly avoid spoiling most of the major plot-points. At the same time, he’s still able to supplant his latest work with the kind of back story and detailed information that every Mass Effect fan should be able to enjoy.


Some of the best moments, however, are not in whatever new information Karpyshyn dispels, but in revisiting some of the Mass Effect universe’s most memorable locations, like the planet Omega. There’s also a wealth of information about the alien species and their relationships to one another that forges a much more cohesive understanding than the brief synopsises found in Shepard’s codex. Part of what makes Mass Effect one of the best science fiction stories around is the well-established precedent and admiration for the science that governs the canon’s universe. While there was such an overabundance of highly-detailed information about all of Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2’s planets, the best way to experience them is through Karpyshyn’s narrative, whichever medium you choose to experience it in, the important thing is that it’s consistent and worth experiencing in the first place.

Pretty good for fiction adapted from a popular videogame, Retribution could have taken the lazy way out and supplied some kind of retelling of the canonical storyline of Mass Effect 2, but Karpyshyn takes it in the complete opposite direction. This allows the two mediums to compliment one another by relaying his story slowly across both game and book, making it worthwhile for Mass Effect fans to check both of them out. If you’re looking for solid video game fiction – especially of the sci-fi variety – Retribution’s definitely worth a look, and ought to prove to be a quick, fun read with a distinctive balance of meaningful exposition and action.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @Calvin_Kemph.

Gentle persuasion

Like chit chat? Join the forum.