Deus Ex Black Light | Author: James Swallow | Publisher: Titan Books | Genre: Science Fiction | Year: 2016
Deus Ex: Black Light acts as a prequel to the newly-released Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and as such it finds its genesis in the wake of the previous game’s rather weak finale. Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a smartly written adventure on the whole, but there’s no denying that its ending – that tried to distil Adam Jensen’s moral journey into four preachy live-action clip shows – proved disappointing for most.
However, instead of acknowledging every multiple ending that its prequel put forward (à la Invisible War), Black Light opts to establish its own canon immediately. We’re informed that the Panchaea platform was in fact destroyed and that baddie Hugh Darrow was killed in the process, whilst protagonist Adam Jensen and his boss David Sariff survived the disaster.
The explanation for Sariff’s escape is thin (especially since he is AWOL for the events of this book), but the visage of a barely functional Adam Jensen, as he’s unceremoniously fished out of the Arctic Ocean by the authorities, provides a much better stepping stone for author James Swallow to build upon.
Jensen awakens in a weak body with a fragmented memory and a year of lost time. He encounters a world now firmly gripped by anti-aug sentiment and a tightly-monitored populace of desperate people who depend on those same augmentations for their very survival.
After regaining his strength, Jensen returns to Detroit with the intention of piecing his former life back together. Instead he gets wrapped up in a fresh conspiracy involving a ring of smugglers who intend on using stolen Sariff technology for nefarious means. With the aid of his old hacker comrade Frank Pritchard, Jensen sets out to bring the smuggling ring down, save a few lives, and to generally give any Illuminati members the proverbial middle finger.
Black Light doesn’t have the strong start enjoyed by Swallow’s previous novel (Deus Ex: Icarus Effect) as there’s quite a lot of exposition cluttering the first couple of chapters. Whereas Adam Jensen’s character in Human Revolution was derived from dialogue choices made by the player, here we’re treated to a more straightforward version of the man; an altruistic soul who genuinely wants to help people in spite of his own deepening well of personal and physical problems.
This isn’t too much of a bad thing mind, as what Jensen may lose in terms of mystique he regains in relatability. There are a few nice instances in the book where Jensen can be seen really looking out for those around him and even with his powerful augmentations and immense combat experience, you’re never given the feeling that he’s invincible.
Fairly early on we see Adam forming a bond with another augmented outcast nicknamed “Stacks”. It’s not adequately explained why this man chooses to accompany Jensen on his dangerous mission, but it does provides a decent setup to explore more of Adam’s inner workings.
Stacks is an augmented mound of muscle just like Jensen, but he doesn’t have the stomach for killing in the same way Adam does. It’s a minor plot device to be sure, but this comparison is what firmly establishes Adam as the living weapon he’d rather not be if he had been given the choice. This is a more human Adam Jensen than we’ve seen previously and hopefully Mankind Divided has picked up on some of that nuance in between all the gruff quips and stoic expressions.
Speaking of which, Black Light absolutely nails Jensen’s voice. This may not come as a surprise considering author James Swallow also helped write the recent Deus Ex video games, but it’s a perk that deserves to be celebrated nonetheless. The whole book is faithful in this regard actually, whether its through the description of familiar augmentations like the CASIE, or of hacking, or even Jensen’s attempts at stealth. It all sounds and feels very Deus Ex.
Connections with Mankind Divided’s wider plot of an anti-aug crackdown are teased, but mostly kept at arm’s length. Black Light explores a few related themes including those of past trauma and medication withdrawal, but it’s only mildly insightful stuff at best.
Seeing the mass hysteria from Human Revolution referred to as the “Incident” is also tiring, not just because of how many times it gets mentioned, but also because of how unrealistic it seems for everyone to just accept such a corporate-sounding moniker for what was essentially a traumatic worldwide massacre. Respectful allusions are made to Nine-Eleven and the like, but it rarely sounds all that believable.
Black Light’s strength as a novel doesn’t lie in philosophical ramblings anyway; it lies in its action. Whereas the narrative comes across as a bit ploddy in the early going, the tempo accelerates midway through and the book becomes tense and exciting from then on.
The new characters, new personalities, and new intrigues are a big help to the story’s forward momentum and all of these elements come out in force at the midway point of the book. Much like Icarus Effect before it, Black Light’s combat sequences make for excellent reading. There are plenty of brutal showdowns featured here and each one is good at framing Jensen as the ‘fly in the ointment’ wildcard that we know him to be.
The action comes thick and fast, but that’s not to downplay the author’s skill at writing thoughtful science fiction. The descriptions of futuristic technology are superb; you can really envision the angular nature of Swallow’s advanced robotics and the almost septic quality to his machine-controlled industrial districts.
Such effusive detail extends to the character descriptions too:
“Vande was like that a lot of the time, most of her under the surface, like the shape of a shark with only the blade of a fin cutting the water to remind you she was around.”
It’s just a shame that Jensen’s quest essentially boils down to him stopping a few arms dealers. There are deeper implications in Black Light, not least of which involving the book’s very title, so hopefully these threads will be picked up again in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.
Ultimately you need to have an appreciation of action fiction in order to get the most out of this book. It can be tough to get a bead on the wider plot with so many cool fights and explosions and the typical focus on fringe conspiracies may sometimes obfuscate the bigger picture.
But what action it is! The multiple viewpoints and quick-fire pronouns keep the prose focused on what’s important at all times and it’s a quality that offers Deus Ex: Black Light the momentum to propel itself towards a rip-roaring finale.
Deus Ex fans can expect plenty of smart references and welcome cameos from Black Light too, but even for the uninitiated, this is a fun cyberpunk thriller that is guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat.