Deus Ex: Icarus Effect by James Swallow – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the tie-in novelisation of the critically acclaimed prequel of the smash-hit Deus Ex video game series.
“Finally, a video game novelisation that gets things right!” ~The Founding Fields
My experience with video game novelisations is a rather poor one. C.S. Goto’s Dawn of War stands out as the most boring, sleep-inducing book I’ve ever read, in addition to failing so phenomenally at living up to the source material itself. Aaron Rosenberg’s WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness and WarCraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal are a close second, and while not as bad as the above, they are still fairly terrible and suffer from the same issues: uneven characterisation, inconsistent pacing, terrible dialogue and so on. Chris Roberson’s Dawn of War 2, while nowhere near that bad, is still not a good book because of all the apparent changes it makes to the in-game events and bears only superficial resemblance to the game from what I remember. I did read a Metal Gear Solid novel ages ago and I thought it was decent, not spectacular but good enough. Not much positivity to go around however, as you can see. To date, the only spectacular novelisation that I can recall is Graham McNeill’s I, Mengsk which tells the story of Arcturus Mengsk and his son with the backdrop of the war against the Zerg and Protoss from the first StarCraft game. Its not an actual novelisation, as it doesn’t follow Jim Raynor, Sarah Kerrigan, etc but looks at what turned Arcturus into what he became over the course of the game and beyond. Slim pickings indeed.
Thankfully, James Swallow matches the standard set by Graham and delivers a great novel in the form of Deus Ex: Icarus Effect, which is the tie-in novel to Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Now, just to be clear, Icarus Effect is a novelisation the same way that I, Mengsk is one, albeit it is a prequel to the events of the game and ends parallel to its beginning. And it makes me wonder if straight up novelisations are better or those that are set around the events of the games. An interesting conundrum to be sure. Given my experience, I’m leaning towards the former.
Anyways. Icarus Effect. I played the original Deus Ex game ages ago and I remember it with great fondness. The various missions, the focus on stealth, the story, the setting, everything about the game screamed awesomeness. Being a fan of the Terminator movies, getting to control a player character with cybernetic/bio-enhancements and go around killing the bad guys spoke to me on a very basic level. Add in some James Bond style game elements and I was in hook, line and sinker. Looking back, it was the time when I had just discovered Diablo, Diablo 2, Homeworld, Homeworld 2, Jedi Outcast, Jedi Academy, Mechwarrior and Ground Control so for me this truly was the age of awesome games for me. I never got into the sequel to Deus Ex, or Human Revolution for that matter, but Icarus Effect has been high on my list of books to read for a long while, ever since I heard about it. And considering that James Swallow is one of my favourite authors, I knew that I would have a great time with it.
Which I did.
The novel delves into the events that lead up to Human Revolution and it tells a cyberpunk tale of secret agents, special ops soldiers and ancient secret societies out to control the world. What makes Icarus Effect stand out from the crowd is that it is a really easy novel to get into right from the very first pages. We are quickly introduced to our principal characters, Anna Kelso of the Secret Service and former SAS officer turned mercenary Ben Saxon. From there on, it is a novel of a very brisk pace that is as thrilling and awesome as any great action movie.
One of the reasons that Icarus Effect works so much for me I think is that James Swallow also worked on the game itself as one of the two writers, alongside Mary DeMarle. It made him a natural fit to write the novel, especially considering his long career in tie-in fiction (Stargate, Star Trek, Judge Dredd, and Warhammer 40,000 among others). He already knew the characters and the events inside out and he could easily maintain that consistency across formats. Again, I haven’t had a chance to play the game myself, so I can’t comment on how well those two things match up between it and the novel, but I found the characterisation in the novel to be top-notch. Even for someone with a wide experience in SFF (often jaded I might add!), the novel has many open-ended revelations and secrets that come out as the story progresses. Some things I expected, some I didn’t. Regardless, I had fun reading it all because my interest in the narrative never dimmed once I started.
Icarus Effect mixes up Terminator with RED and throws in a healthy dose of Total Recall and The Bourne Identity for good measure. What’s not to love about it?
Jim captures Anna Kelso’s dedication to her job, her feelings of abandonment and betrayal, her need for revenge, and her sense of justice in a way that matters to the reader and the character alike. She isn’t some cardboard-cutout, trope-heavy female who always needs saving or has her badassery romped up to eleven just because. Female characters that are either too “strong” or “too weak” are boring for a reader, at least in my experience. You can’t have a realistic character sitting on one end of that spectrum, the character needs to be balanced somewhere around the middle. That’s what Anna is. Jim is no stranger to writing realistic, believable female characters as he has written two of my favourites, Miriya and Verity from his Sororitas duology for Black Library (Faith & Fire, Hammer & Anvil). Anna doesn’t wear power armour like Miriya, nor is she a healer like Verity. But all the same, she is still a character that is just an endearing as either of them. She is a character that I can get behind and support all the way through.
Ben Saxon is very reminiscent of JC Denton, the player character from the original game, in that he has a similar outlook on the world around him and similar sensibilities. The characters themselves are very different from each other but when I was reading the novel, I kept going back to the game and imagining Ben in JC’s place, playing out those early missions and the training. That was a good bit of nostalgia right there, probably unintentional on the author’s part, although I hope not. It brings together the two timelines for me in a somewhat Assassin’s Creed-ish way and I’m certainly not complaining. Ben is a straight-as-an-arrow type of guy and seeing him come to terms with the things he is asked to do and the things that he does was nice. Through him, you really learn to look at the world of Deus Ex in a different light. Where Anna is about the black and white, he is more of in the morally gray area although he is still the good guy here. Being a mercenary just gives him a different perspective to her, one that contrasts well with Anna’s.
I’m given to understand that there are a few characters in the novel from the original game, but given how long ago I played it, I really can’t comment on that as I don’t really remember anyone other than JC. I do have a hankering now to correct that oversight though!
The good guys aren’t the only good characters in the novel though. The bad guys like Jason Namir and the rest of the Tyrants, the shadowy special ops team that Ben joins early on in the novel, are also well done. They are all enhanced like him, with various cybernetic/bio-implants and they all have unique traits and personalities. My favourites would definitely be Jason, Gunther Hermann, and Yelena Federova. The dynamics of their cold, often impersonal, and “professional” relationship with Ben are explored quite a bit, although there were a few niggles here and there like a certain midnight tryst between Ben and Yelena, but they are thankfully just minor oddities that don’t impact my enjoyment of the novel. Small speedbumps and nothing more.
The pacing of the novel, particularly in the second half, is pretty brutal. The first half sets all the different plotlines up and introduces us to the world, but things gain significant momentum in the second half and then its all just a rollercoaster ride as the good guys get together to kick the living daylights out of the bad guys. The action scenes are all really memorable, making for a nice change of pace from all the sword-fighting I’ve been reading about of late, or two groups of characters shooting at each other with bolters and jazzed-up special handguns. They are up-close and personal, which once again reminds me of the gameplay from Deus Ex. A good approach to things.
Overall, Deus Ex: Icarus Effect sits at the top of the pile of video game novelisations (or parallel novels at any rate). After his recent Black Library novel, Horus Heresy: Fear To Tread, Jim has raised the bar once again for tie-in fiction and proven why he is such a good writer, no matter what universe he is writing in (I love his Judge Dredd audios by the way). The novel has made me want to go and get all three games and I’m certainly looking forward to getting around to them!