Author: Karen Traviss
Synopsis: Set in the Halo universe (as in, the series of Halo games by Bungie and 343 Industries), the tale follows an ONI team on a mission to foment Sanghelli insurrection in the aftermath of the events of Halo 3. Meanwhile, Dr Halsey, the creator of the Spartans – long thought killed in the fall of Reach – is trying to escape the Forerunner slipspace bubble at the heart of the destroyed artificial planet called Onyx.
Thoughts and Themes: I’ll put my hand up now and admit I wasn’t expecting much from this novel, but Karen Traviss has garnered a reputation of being able to breathe life into franchise-based novels with a good eye for characterisation so when I saw this on the shelves in my local library I thought I’d give it a go. I’m glad I did.
The story unfolds through three primary strands that eventually intersect in a way I didn’t find too contrived and is woven into the wider Halo universe by referencing cut-scenes and outcomes at the end of the game rather than through the publishing of a timeline. As a standalone story, I didn’t feel the need to have read any other novels or even to have played the game itself though I suspect from how easily I recognised elements from the game that if I had read any others they would be just as gently referenced. With the announcement last year of a new game being published in the series there were also enough vague hints dropped to suggest possible ways in which this story may inform the setting and themes of Halo 4 without being heavy handed or even committing the developers in such a way as to leave the book looking suddenly out of continuity if different editorial decisions are made down the line.
As a standalone book then, what were the themes that spoke to me? There was a lot of discussion and debate on facing the sins of the past that resonates strongly with the current ‘War on Terror’ in our world. It is revealed that the original Spartan supersoldiers were kidnapped as children by Dr Halsey, abused and mindwashed, and effectively treated as child soldiers as a response to colonial strife rather than having been miraculously created to fight on behalf of humanity against the threat of the Covenant. A lot more of the book is concerned with exploring the aftermath of a thirty-year long war: not just the physical damage but the social effects on both sides. For humanity, what does it mean when there is a whole generation who have never known what peace is? For the scattered fragments of the races that made up the Covenant, how do they adapt back to not having rigidly defined caste structures and what happens when the controlling forces that ruled them are suddenly not in place to quell violent disagreements between factions? There are shades here of the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq that make for interesting parallels, and I suspect that this is entirely intentional. I don’t think the story or setting suffers for it.
I found the book easy to read, and with only occasional moments of action at key points, I also found it a more thoughtful novel than I had been expecting from a franchise revolving around aliens, the fight for humanity’s survival, black ops missions and the aftermath of war. A lot of time is spent fleshing out the alien culture here. Not having read any other books connected to the franchise I found it interesting to find a light being cast onto areas that just don’t often occur during a first person shooter and I’d hope to see this quality of writing carried forward in anything else published around this franchise.