High-Stakes Space Opera: Mass Effect: Annihilation by Catherynne M. Valente

Mass Effect: Andromeda: Annihilation is the third of three planned tie-in novels to Bioware’s fourth Mass Effect game, Mass Effect: Andromeda—a game that was a new departure for the space opera RPG series, and one that received mixed reviews. Coming after N.K. Jemisin and Mac Walter’s excellent Initiation, Catherynne M. Valente’s Annihilation has a lot to live up to. But Valente definitely delivers.

It’s almost impossible to talk about tie-in novels without talking about their relationship to the original property. Their relationship, and the relationship of the person doing the talking. I’m a Mass Effect fan, though I found Andromeda the weakest of the series in terms of characterisation and narrative structure. Valente may be most famous for her Fairyland novels (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship of Her Own Making and its sequels), but it’s very clear that she’s also a fan of Mass Effect’s particular brand of character-driven, high-stakes space opera. And she’s written a novel that’s decidedly in keeping with the tone and themes of the original trilogy.

The quarian ark Keelah Si’yah is en route to the Andromeda galaxy, carrying twenty thousand cryogenically frozen future colonists—quarians, but also drell, hanar, elcor, and a scattering of batarians. Near the end of the ship’s 600-year journey, a Sleepwalker team is awakened to deal with a potential crisis: the ship has discovered a discrepancy in its readings of several drell colonists’ cryopods. Hundreds of drell have come down with a bad case of freezer burn. Instead of showing them as dead—which they are—the ship’s systems report that everything is fine.

Everything is not fine. There’s a deadly pathogen on board, one capable of jumping species. And the ship’s systems are compromised, horribly compromised: possibly fatally so. None of this is an accident. Worse, the perpetrator(s) may still be on board. It’s up to Senna’Nir vas Keelah Si’yah, the quarian Sleepwalker team leader, out of his depth and getting farther from his comfort zone with every hour; Anax Therion, a drell with a complicated past, a penchant for secrets, and solid investigative skills; and Yorrik, an elcor with a passion for Hamlet (elcor Hamlet) and drama whose limited medical skills will be pressed to their utmost in trying to combat a plague beyond everyone’s worst imaginings, to keep things going long enough to find a solution—any solution that contains the plague and fixes the ship and keeps enough people alive. They’re assisted—or at any rate, Anax is—by batarian matriarch Borbala Ferank, former head of a feared smuggler organisation, who might have meant to leave her past behind but who wasn’t quite able to leave the tricks or tools of her trade, or the comfort of what she knew; and by the volus Irit Non, a famous tailor; and hindered by a fanatically religious hanar who wants to bring about the “Day of Extinguishment.”

Annihilation is full of character and action. Valente has a deft touch with characterisation, giving us people who aren’t types, but who have interesting relationships to whole cultures that in the games are mostly glimpsed only in passing. Senna’s naiveté and Yorrik’s obsession with theatre contrasts with Anax’s pragmatism and her reserves of cynicism, and Anax’s deft constant self-invention—her ability to lie repeatedly, thoroughly, believably—makes an interesting foil for Borbala Ferank’s abrasive combination of dishonesty and frankness.

As the situation gets worse and worse, we see characters dig down and find reserves of determination and inventiveness amid their confusion and despair. Valente expertly manipulates pacing and tension, so that Annihilation‘s combination of buddy-cop dynamics, murder mystery, investigative thriller, and unfolding disaster story comes together into a smooth and riveting whole.

The conclusion to the plague problem feels a little rushed, but the character work is on point and full of feeling. I’d definitely read more of the problem-solving adventures of Senna and Anax and Borbala, and I feel that it would be an excellent treat if Valente wrote more in the Mass Effect universe.

This is a fast, tense, deeply enjoyable novel in a space opera setting. If you enjoy Mass Effect, I guarantee you’ll like it. I sure as hell did.

Mass Effect: Andromeda: Annihilation 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, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. 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, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.


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