Space Espionage — Mass Effect: Initiation by N.K. Jemisin and Mac Walters

Mass Effect is one of my fandoms. I’ve played the first three games through at least twice apiece, and only recently finished working my way through the giant—if somewhat disappointing—playground that’s been Mass Effect: Andromeda. Among Mass Effect’s gifts, over its first three game incarnations, was the ability to deliver well-paced space opera military adventure with excellent dialogue.

Its novel tie-ins have singularly failed to live up to that standard. At least, until now.

Hugo Award-winning author N.K. Jemisin and graphic novelist Mac Walters team up to give us a story about corporate espionage with violence and Cora Harper—a character who’ll be familiar to those of you who’ve played Andromeda. Harper, a former lieutenant in the Systems Alliance military and an unusually strong biotic* who spent four years with an asari commando team, has just joined the Andromeda Initiative. Her first welcome back to human space after years among the long-lived asari is an ambush by an aggressive reporter, and her new boss is the difficult, demanding Alec Ryder, ex-special-forces-turned-scientist and leader of the Andromeda “Pathfinder” team.

The Initiative’s recently been the target of some corporate espionage. Some code Ryder’s been working on—he’s cagey about the specifics—has been stolen. He wants Harper to recover it and destroy any copies. Harper, feeling off-balance and out-of-place in a context mostly full of humans after her time among the asari, is relieved to have what looks like a fairly straightforward bit of corporate counter-espionage to take care of.

It’s not that straightforward.

Ryder hooks Harper up with a virtual intelligence (he says it’s a virtual intelligence) called SAM-E, so that she can field-test it and use it for assistance at the same time. But SAM-E’s more than it seems: that’s part of the reason Ryder’s being so cagey about his corporate espionage problem. Matters only get more complicated for Harper when the mercenary group she’s contracted with on behalf of the Initiative—led by Ygara Menoris, an old comrade from Harper’s asari commando days—betrays her and leaves her for dead. Harper was always going to do her best to get that code back. Now it’s personal.

Jemisin and Walters have written a really fun book. Fast-paced and full of action, it maintains its tension throughout. Harper is a recognisable version of the character we meet in Mass Effect: Andromeda, but one who’s more fully-fleshed-out (and shows, I think, more of a sense of humour) than the character we see there. Harper’s competence shines through: there’s something really pleasing about a character who knows what she’s good at, but one who also has any number of blindspots. Particularly when it comes to people, it seems. Her willingness to trust people on the basis of shared military background sometimes comes back around to bite her…

While Harper comes to terms with the fact her boss has been playing with (outlawed) artificial intelligence and decides that she does, in fact, want to commit her future to the Andromeda Initiative, there’s a background thread in the book that’s never quite resolved. It’s the same thread that shows up in Mass Effect: Andromeda without ever really reaching resolution either, a mysterious hinting-at of the Andromeda Initiative’s secret backer (or backers) who has unexplained reasons of their own for supporting the Initiative’s research into AI and their leap towards another galaxy. This unsubtle brandishing of Shadowy Agendas left me unsatisfied, since I fear that background mystery will never be adequately resolved.

That said, Mass Effect: Initiation is a hell of a lot of fun. It’s far from deep, and it definitely more light-hearted than Jemisin’s original solo work: a brisk, bracing romp involving artificial intelligence, unethical scientific research, espionage, and violent shenanigans. It has the feel of the original Mass Effect trilogy—and it makes me hope that Jemisin will add space opera to her original repertoire, because that was an absolute blast.

* Science-magic power that lets people use “dark energy” as a weapon.

Mass Effect: Initiation is available from Titan Books.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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