Book Review: Rapture (BioShock)


Rapture is undeniably a marvellously mysterious setting; this factor alone is a reason for BioShock’s critical success. The colossal city, built under the confines of the North Atlantic, is truly astounding; not just in game terms, but it’s one of the most interesting settings across all forms of media too. So it makes sense that a book was deemed necessary to explain it all – a prequel to BioShock, aptly named Rapture shows the growth of the city, from Andrew Ryan’s mind to Bill McDonagh’s construction work and eventually the population’s desire for more.

[boxout]We needed to find out the story of Rapture at some point; it’s human nature to desire the unknown, rather than be left in the dark. That’s why we explore, that’s why Ryan built a city at the bottom of the sea – it’s just what we do. So, I chose Rapture, I chose to read the book and learn exactly how this city under the sea formed.

The book focuses on many characters: the aforementioned Mr. Ryan with his strange ideals, big plans and even bigger funds; Frank Gorland – you might know him as Fontaine; many of Ryan’s followers, such as his head of security, Sullivan, and also those who oppose him, namely Sofia Lamb; the scientist Brigid Tenenbaum also shares a major role and a sub-plot throughout the book. These characters are all portrayed brilliantly, mimicking their personalities in the game completely, the transition from screen to paper is absolutely flawless.

Bill McDonagh, however, gets the most attention out of all the people in the game; a man with a true rags-to-riches story. After meeting Ryan whilst fixing his toilet, he goes on to become his close comrade and plays an important role in the construction of Rapture itself. We follow him from the beginning – we’re introduced to Rapture as he is; McDonagh is undoubtedly the character we’re meant to connect with throughout the book. And we do, we’re rooting for him all the way through, even when the focus leans away from him in the final third, he’s still there, and you’ll be glad of it.

Bill is still not the main focus, though. No, the book’s focus is undeniably on the titular character, if you will: Rapture itself.

For it is Rapture that we see born from the mind of Ryan, it is Rapture that we see going from a glorious utopia focused on saving its citizens from the outside world to a hellhole filled with drug abuse, poverty at its worst. Rapture, the setting, becomes Rapture, the character with all of the supporting cast contributing to the story.

The author of Rapture, John Shirley, has done something magnificent – it’s no mean feat to capture the atmosphere and tone of BioShock in the form of a book. The characters are true to those in the game – Ryan is portrayed as an eccentric man with a dream and Fontaine is a con man with many identities. The research that Shirley has put into this is crystal clear: there’s not one detail out of place and the continuity and foreshadowing is spot-on.

Don’t go into Rapture expecting a plot arc from under the sea, as you would with the games, however. Instead, it’s a chronicle of a city built under the sea – spanning over fifteen years and often skipping ahead at points. It’s all the best and worst parts of Rapture in four hundred and seventy page, including some genuinely shocking moments. Apart from a slow start and a loss of pace in the middle, Rapture is a gripping novel.

It’s not just a tale of building the city in the ocean, however; there are sub-plots, most importantly the tale of addiction, power getting out of hand, powers getting out of hand, and the decaying population of Rapture. It’s genuinely horrible, at points, showing the lowest of low-points of drugs and addiction. Fontaine’s own plans also come into it, as does Sofia Lamb’s own twisted desire for power, and the rise of Atlas towards the end.

There are a couple of big problems with the book though, aside from the awkward pacing and skipping of years. It misses out the opportunity to give more backstory to one of BioShock’s main symbols: the Big Daddy. We learn of the fusion of metal and flesh, and their relationship with the Little Sisters, but the opportunity to show the cruel transformation of a human into an Alpha Series Protector was completely missed.

After a tale that was all about Rapture, with a sub-plot showing the rising of factions, the ending was extremely disappointing. No spoilers here, but the ending just completely misses the mark, especially after deviating away from Bill towards the end. We all know that a large war took place shortly before the start of BioShock, and whilst we see rumblings and a battle, there’s no great civil war epilogue at the end, something the book needed to address since it’s a chronicle of Rapture. It’s so disappointing that I just can’t put it into words, and neither could the author, evidently.

In other words, Rapture is a book that’s simply about Rapture. Picking up on the most important events that led to the start of BioShock – we discover more about Little Sisters, undoubtedly one of Rapture’s most intriguing creations, and ADAM. Basically, everything you’d expect is in there, even nods to Jack – the main character of BioShock – and Delta, the main character of the sequel.

John Shirley is in no way a bad writer; he’s not even an average writer… he’s a great writer. The book is fabulously crafted and some of the wording is absolutely brilliant, it feels like BioShock should and I applaud him for that. Apart from the lack of closure for Rapture, leading into the beginning of a new tale: BioShock, the book is superb and a must-buy for fans of the series. Just don’t expect a self-contained plot arc as you would with a game; it’s a long tale.

I wouldn’t recommend this if you haven’t played the games, however, as it seems to reference quite a lot of their material and require you know of the characters to really be enjoyed at its fullest. Some fans will love it, some may not like the way it’s told (it’s a completely different pace to the games), whilst non-fans will most likely not get along with it – it’s really up to how you like your books and I’m sure it will divide many opinions. As a fan of the games with a desire to discover the history of the city at the bottom of the ocean, I was absolutely enraptured by Rapture.


  1. Pity about the ending, but I think i’ll still pick this up.

  2. Great book review, ive only played Bioshock 2 which i thought was great just for the idea of the setting alone. I have always wondered how rapture became what it was in the game so i may have to start reading again or at least give the first game a go ;)

    • BioShock 2 multiplayer is ace. ;)

    • Definitely play the first game, you can get it for cheaper than a big mac nowadays and it’s arguably one of the best stories in a game I’ve seen. Then read this, it does spoil the *magic* of first game majorly if you haven’t played it.

    • Yeah, you really should play the first game – It is better than the sequel (although i did still enjoy the sequel very much), it will give you a better understanding of the Bioshock universe & it is just a excellent game.

      The pacing, atmosphere & story are all superb.

      Do it – Buy it now!!!!

      • Yep, it was the atmosphere, story and superb pacing that made it one of my favourite games. The second had major gameplay improvements and was a solid game but didn’t match the original with any of those elements.

    • Deffinately give the first a go, its far superior. i wish i was a better reader though as i would love to give it a go. But im stuck unless they bring out an Audio book

      • haha, only books i have finfished are Harry Potter ones

    • @deathbrin, wasnt really a big fan of the multiplayer :/ maybe because i was no good at it

      @blair and forrest, i know the first is dirt cheap these days and i have played some of it and thought it was fantastic, however, it sucks being 17 (meaning i cant get it in store) and i have no money even for a <£10 game :(

  3. I really should make time to read books. Life is too tiring at the moment!

  4. Think I may have to pick this up once I get round to finishing Bioshock 2. On a minor point could the war in Rapture be considered to be covered by Bioshock 2’s multiplayer? Pretty sure it was set before Jacks arrival in the first game.

    • Yeah, technically the multiplayer in Bioshock 2 does indeed depict the war & is before Jack’s arrival – However, John Shirley seems to have covered everything else in the book, so the omission of some more detail on the war (& Big Daddies) is a little baffling to me.

    • That was just plasmid testing from Sinclair, though it was set around that time.

  5. I’ve got this book sitting on my shelf. Can’t wait to start it!

  6. now this is the kind of tie in novel i like to see.
    one that explores the parts of the game world we didn’t see and events we missed, instead of just retelling what happens in the game.

    and rapture was such a great setting.
    i’ll have to keep a look out for this one and pick it up when i’ve got the spare cash.

  7. Sounds good.
    I’ll pick it up.
    Regarding the civil war, do you think that it might become a future book in itself, or did it give it attention but nowhere near enough?

    • The apparent movie could deal with it, perhaps. Still not enough attention and it cut it just too short.

  8. I feel pressured into reading this, as I run a Bioshock fanblog. This fairly glowing review is tempting me highly.

  9. I may get this to read while listening to the TSA podcasts and the NuTSAck podcasts. I really should stop trying to cause your mind to explode but tis too much fun.:D I have played both games, so i would understand it all.:) It had better not have an online pass to activate if you buy it new or have to pay £10 for one if brought preowned.:p

  10. I disagree with the comment about not recommending it to those who haven’t played the game, I haven’t played either and really enjoyed the book. It’s one of those stories that can grab you even if you’re not aware of the universe.

    Other than that, the review’s spot on IMO.

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