The Origins of a Human Huntress or, a Review of Mass Effect: Initiation

This year, I resolved to read the works of N.K. Jemisin. No rules, no exceptions, the entire works. And because I really meant no exceptions, the first book I picked up was her most recent release, the Mass Effect: Andromeda tie-in novel released in November, when I have previously steered clear of any tie-in novel ever. But! Needs must when one makes a resolution, eh?

mass effect andromedaMass Effect: Initiation (2017)
Written by: N.K. Jemisin and Mac Walters
Genre: Science Fiction/Video Game tie-in
Pages: 336 pages (Kindle)
Publisher: Titan Books

Premise:

Lieutenant Cora Harper joined the Systems Alliance to develop and enhance her powerful biotic talents. She was assigned to the asari commando unit Talein’s Daughters, where she honed her abilities to become a skilled and deadly huntress.

Returning to Earth, Cora finds herself a stranger among other humans, and joins the Andromeda Initiative as Alec Ryder’s second-in-command. The mission will send 100,000 colonists on a one-way, 600-year-long journey into the unknown. When essential — and dangerous — tech is stolen, Cora is assigned to recover it before it can be used against the Initiative, and end the mission before it can begin.

No spoilers below for the book, but possible spoilers if you’ve never played Mass Effect.


Discussion: Well first of all, the only way anyone was ever going to get me to read a video game tie-in novel was having N.K. Jemisin write it. Yes, this was my first full length novel by her, but I know enough to know that she’s an exceptional author. So when I heard that she was writing a full length novel about Cora Harper prior to the Andromeda Initiative leaving Earth . . . well I can’t say that I was truly excited, but intrigued is probably a proper description.

And, friends, I will have you know that I actually paid full price for this book, that’s how intrigued I was.

So I started reading it over Christmas/New Year’s vacation, and I knew on the first page that I was going to adore it, and I’ll show you the exact moment. In editor’s notes on a recruitment video for the Andromeda Initiative:

EDIT TEAM 1: Can we use Vaenia’s music?

EDIT TEAM 2: No, are you high? We want “inspired,” not “let’s go fuck an alien.”

EDIT TEAM 1: Hey, inspiration’s what you make of it! (Location 55, Kindle Edition)

So, like, right off the bat I was howling over this joke. I’ve never read any of the other Mass Effect novels so I have no idea how self-referential they might be, but the fact that this Andromeda tie-in harkened back to Mass Effect 2 won me over right at the start.

From here, this story introduces us to a Cora Harper fresh off the ship from Thessia and her asari huntress team, just recruited by Alec Ryder to fly off into the unknown and start colonies in the Andromeda Galaxy. Cora in the game was the squad member it took me the longest to warm up to, but I remember mentioning in the recap I co-authored with Whitney that I was crying by the end of her loyalty storyline.

Maybe those warm fuzzy feelings transferred over, or maybe it’s just that Jemisin does a much better job at giving characters motivations and backstory than the game’s story writers. Probably a lot of both. But I basically loved Cora from the start here and was completely engaged in her story the whole way through. It was really lovely seeing her character arc from not really having a good reason to jump on the ship to Andromeda to where she is by the beginning of Mass Effect: Andromeda. The backstory here just adds so much depth to her character arc in the game.

And it was actually a really interesting story! If you’ve played the game, you’re familiar with SAM, the artificial intelligence that Alec Ryder developed to help humanity evolve into their next stages. SAM is the dangerous tech stolen that Cora must recover. Through her, we see the early days of SAM’s integration with the Pathfinder team, and find out some things that make the beginning of the game a little more interesting.

I think where this book really shines though is what the original Mass Effect trilogy did so well, which is giving these alien races history and personality. In one example, Jemisin describes Cora walking onto a ship built by quarians and references the difference in quarian-designed versus human-designed ships.

As Cora gazed through one of the station’s viewports, she could not help noticing that the clear carbon-fiber “glass” was slightly convex, with an off-center focal point that subtly drew the gaze back to the station rather than out toward the spray of suns and galaxies. Humans would want to look at the stars. The ancient quarians had wanted to remind themselves that life amid the stars depended on sound hardware and competent people. (Location 271, Kindle Edition)

It’s clear in reading this book that Jemisin has played and enjoyed the games, and given a lot of thought to these races and how they work together. She fleshed out a character that I hadn’t really been amazingly fond of at the beginning of the game and made me like her even more, and she answered a few questions for me about some plot holes in Mass Effect 3 and Mass Effect: Andromeda, which is honestly pretty impressive for a shorter novel.

There are downsides, and the biggest one is that if you’ve never played the Mass Effect games, I can’t recommend reading this book. Context would be completely lost on you. This is number two in a series of Mass Effect: Andromeda books, but I haven’t read the first and don’t plan to and had zero problems following along with the story.

In conclusion: If you have passing knowledge of the Mass Effect universe and like reading well written science fiction/space capers, this is a really good one to pick up. And as my first full-length N. K. Jemisin novel, it’s nice to know it only goes up from here.

5 Comments

  • Weasel of Doom January 9, 2018 at 8:57 am

    Hmmmm, I wonder if I can convince the co-parent to play Mass Effect while I watch… I mean, we are still going to be living together for a year and a half… *evil grin*

    Reply
    • Shara White January 9, 2018 at 10:29 am

      Might as well do something with that time, right? 🙂

      Reply
    • Merrin January 9, 2018 at 12:57 pm

      Original trilogy is great and backwards compatible. If they just want to start off with Andromeda they can do that too, as it reboots in another galaxy, but it’s not as good as the original games.

      Reply
  • Nancy O'Toole Meservier January 15, 2018 at 8:49 pm

    I think I’m going to try to read this, despite having not played the games. Given the amount of hours my husband has spent playing and replaying them (esp, Mass Effect 2), I suspect I can pelt him with questions when I get confused. I’m just really curious to see Jemisin handle a sci-fi setting

    Reply
    • Merrin January 17, 2018 at 8:38 am

      I think you should! Also if you’ve been in the same room with someone playing the game, that’s basically the background information you need, if you were paying attention to the story at all.

      Reply

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