Deus Ex: Black Light (2016) by James Swallow

The strongest non-game transmedia offering the revived Deus Ex franchise has offered yet. What really makes this novel work so much better than all the other transmedia stories is that this is actually a story worth telling – it’s not just an opportunity to sell some tie-in comics, or drum up pre-ordering hype because of some “exclusive novellas”, no, there’s an actual worthy story and character arc here. This makes me a lot more prone to forgiving some of Swallow’s weaknesses as a writer.

The story also takes itself more seriously than, say, the spin-off comics. There’s no awkward title drops here (“black light” is mentioned a few times, but in a natural way, and the closest we get otherwise is “Mankind is at a critical societal juncture, it is divided”).

The action scenes aren’t very compelling, and there’s too many of them. I find this a common weakness in video game tie-in novels. Not sure why it happens – these are books, not games, they don’t need action sequences every fifteen minutes to retain audience interest. However the dialogue is, surprisingly, pretty good. I think the strong character work for Adam and Pritchard in the Human Revolution game really helped this novel, because their voices come across loud and clear here, and their character interactions are the highlight of the novel. I wish the ending had played more to this relationship.

The main weakness in the novel is the awkward way it skirts around Adam’s choices in Human Revolution, or rather, the choices the player of the game would have made. Rather than really commit to any one choice, various devices like random memory loss and clumsy mental workarounds are used to try and skirt and slide around discounting any player’s possible interpretation of Adam. I think this was a poor choice because, for one, it’s not consistent (Adam recalls meeting David Sarif at Panchea, which was completely optional in the game, and Adam here does both lethal and non-lethal encounters, which would be incongruous for many players) and because Mankind Divided committed to a certain ending not even attainable in Human Revolution (a mix of the destruction ending with the other three as bandied misinformation), so it was a moot endeavour from the get-go. When Swallow can’t even commit to an interpretation of the character, the character work obviously suffers. I think setting the novel even from different points of view (Pritchard’s, Stacks’, etc.) might have been a better way to accommodate for this, as it would have sidestepped the issue of being in Adam’s head.

The novel doesn’t overstay its welcome, and ticks along pretty well. It’s bizarre this was released the day Mankind Divided was released, because it’s set before most of the other spin-off media like the comics that were released earlier.

I give it three pills of nu-poz, and twenty-nine taskforces.

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