Book Review: Halo: Glasslands

HaloGlasslands

It’s the question every military-industrial complex, from the modern United States to the fictional United Nations Space Command, eventually struggles to answer: What do you do when the fighting finally stops?

Several possible answers serve as the murky backdrop to Halo: Glasslands, the latest book in the long-running series based on the world’s most ubiquitous videogame franchise–and the first to take place in the aftermath of the Covenant War. Basically, those answers all boil down to the same thing: “Find another way to keep it going.”

The Flood have been eradicated by the Halo array and the mysterious San Shy’uum have seemingly left the building, but the new era of peace doesn’t bode well for any corner of the Halo universe. On Sanghelios, the warlike hinge-heads—and in particular, one militant shipmaster–struggle to adapt to their betrayal by the Prophets, an Arbiter who’s opted for diplomacy with the hated humans and the realization that their society doesn’t know how to do anything other than wage war. Over in the UNSC’s Office of Naval Intelligence, Serin Osman, the one-time Spartan who’s set to succeed chief naval spook Margaret Parangosky, compiles a team of soldiers and operatives bent on supplying weapons to the Sangheili insurgence. Meanwhile, Catherine Halsey, the sneakily amoral scientist responsible for creating the Spartan program, has hijacked/saved a set of Spartan warriors from the remains of Reach and trapped them in a Forerunner-created Dyson sphere near the obliterated remains of the planet Onyx.

These three plot arcs eventually intersect, with damaging and deep-reaching results for everybody involved. The Halo videogames aren’t exactly known for their narrative depth and brilliance, so the Halo books take on an added appeal, effectively adding a ton of meat and backstory to some otherwise bare sci-fi bones. Author Karen Traviss, who also happens to be responsible for penning the dialogue in Gears of War 3, is great at character development and conversational banter—she has a natural ear for the easy/uneasy ways a group of soldiers thrust together in the face of danger will eventually become willing to sacrifice anything for their commanding officer and colleagues. It’s fascinating to see Mal and Vaz, a pair of war-weathered ODST soldiers, adapt to getting a look behind the ugly ONI intelligence curtain and having to deal with a flood of uncomfortable truths and revelations.

Traviss’s prose is graceful and clever, but she overreaches at a couple points, trying a couple of narrative tricks that fall flatter than a waterlogged energy grenade. The first has to do with how she handles the AI character Black Box, or “BB” as he’s dubbed by his wary comrades. The omniscient narrator approach works fine for the human and alien characters. It doesn’t ring nearly as true when it’s applied to a superior artificial intelligence, who is in many ways omniscient himself. During a hangar-based firefight to capture a Sangheili cruiser that’s carrying a precious captured Huragok engineer, BB inserts a sliver of his intelligence into a Spartan-III soldier, giving him his first real taste of adrenaline humanity. The scene’s way too brief, rings hollow, and doesn’t have the kind of lasting impact on the plot or the character interactions you’d expect.

I’m also iffy on the way Traviss deploys quotes at the beginning of her chapters. In some cases, it works well. In others, the quotes end up covering plot points that aren’t included in the narrative, like mini-scenes Traviss wasn’t given the word count to include.

Glasslands’ biggest impact lies in the revelations and horrific truths it drops about the origins of the Spartan program, and the families and children it devastated—many of whom still aren’t even aware of the extent of the devastation. If you thought UNSC command and ONI were knights in shiny white armor, it’s more than a little unsettling to find they have a lot more in common with some of the guys with the swastikas on their armbands. Traviss’s portrayal of the ways Halsey, Paragnosky and Chief Mendez, the gruff solider who trained the Spartans, struggle to come to terms with the choices they’ve made—and the lasting fallout–is flat-out riveting. Talk about winning the war but losing the battle.

The book’s title refers to the term UNSC operatives use to describe planets that have been obliterated and turned to glassy waste by Covenant plasma-bombing. In this case, it’s apparent that the planets aren’t the only thing that this war has glassed. The survivors are scarred by the choices they’ve been forced to make and the wounds, both real and psychological, they’ve received.

The novel’s final scenes make it clear this conflict’s merely shifted fronts and this saga/series is far from complete. With a Bungie-less Halo 4 on the console horizon, this is hardly a surprise. As they say, the war may be over, but the war most assuredly goes on.

Review disclosure: A paperback copy was provided by publisher for review purposes.

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.