Sunday, March 25, 2012

Deus Ex: The Icarus Effect review

    Deus Ex: The Icarus Effect is a novel set in the Deus Ex setting, roughly six months before the events in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The novel stars two original characters and expands on several enemies encountered by Adam Jensen in the game.

    The books title comes from the in-universe Icarus Effect. It's a fictional sociological theory about humans and animals turning against the truly exceptional. Also called "Tallest Poppy Syndrome" by TV and "Crab Bucket" by Terry Pratchett, it's when a bunch of people unsatisfied with their own lives get nasty to the people who succeed. I'm not sure it exists in nature but there's a certain level of truth to it in society.

    Truly, I'm not sure the Icarus Effect was the best idea to base a book around in the Deus Ex setting. Given what we later find out about augments, wouldn't a better name be the Perseus Effect? I.e. an  augment has the potential to be a great hero because of them but he's likely to end up with hubris as a result?

    The stars are Secret Service agent Anna Kelso and Belltower mercenary Ben Saxon. Both are augmented individuals who have exceptional abilities as well as highly important positions in their respective organizations. Both are individuals used to taking orders and being on the side of authority.

    Both make a nice contrast to Adam Jenson and JC Denton. Adam Jensen is a corporate mercenary and ex-SWAT team leader betrayed by his superiors. JC Denton, on the other hand, begins the original Deus Ex as a secret agent in the service of UNATACO. Anna Kelso and Ben Saxon, like Jensen and JC Denton, want to be able to trust their superiors and blindly follow orders. That's just not an option in a world run by the Illuminati.

    As you may have guessed, I found both protagonists very interesting and was eager to follow their journey through the surreal yet familiar world of Deus Ex 2020. Ben Saxon runs a little on the stereotypical side being a super-soldier with a conscience but I've used that character several times in my own writing so I'd be a hypocrite to begrudge Mister Swallow it. Amusingly, I kept thinking of Mister Saxon from Doctor Who and was tickled by the comparison. Likewise, Anna reminded me of Kate from NCIS.

    Also expanded in this book are the Tyrants, the quirky-miniboss squad of mercenaries from Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Mister Swallow really doesn't have much to work with here as their depiction mostly treats them as a bunch of gun-toting psychopaths. This doesn't change in the book, though the character of Namir is expanded to become a truly malevolent evil genius. The kind of banal monster which can believe himself to be a good man while simultaneously murdering thousands of people.

    I, likewise, enjoyed the author's handling of Yelena Fedorova. She remains as mysterious as ever but does something so strange it causes you to speculate about her motives. You'll know what scene I mean when it happens. A special guest star shows up towards the middle of the book, one who made me smile every time he opened his mouth. Fans of the original Deus Ex games will love his inclusion.

    I was especially pleased by the inclusion of a new faction, Juggernaut, which makes an appearance in the "Missing Link" DLC. Juggernaut a group of anarchist hackers roughly analogous to the Illuminati but exalting everything they hate. I'm a sucker for conspiracy stories and giving the Illuminati an archenemy pleases me to no end. I hope this isn't the last we see of the oddball group of cyberterrorists.

    Mister Swallow has an excellent gift for bridging the gap between 2012 and 2020. While Deus Ex's timeline split from our own probably as early as the 1980s, the world is somewhat familiar. It's the kind of place where people suffer Wallstreet anxieties and televangelists form an obnoxious power-bloc in politics. The only major difference is the role of augmentation and, really, I rather like that sort of world-building.

    Was the book perfect? No. It has the flaws expected of a side-story which has to dance around the events of the game while simultaneously is unable to effectively resolve the fates of its central villains. After all, the Tyrants have to live until Adam Jensen can face them in-game. Still, I enjoyed the work and recommend it to fans of the Deus Ex franchise. I wouldn't mind seeing the surviving characters again and will be paying attention to Mister Swallow's future writings.


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