Sunday, December 13, 2009

Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe Review

When I first heard about Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe, I can honestly say I wasn't expecting too much. This would be the first Halo novel that was made up of a collection of shorts instead of a continuing narrative, and I expected to find simple fair between the covers.

I have been suitably humbled.

Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe is overall the best Halo novel I have yet read, and while some of its stories are indeed short or even one-page poems, many others are the length of a short novel. Weighing in at 528 pages, you certainly get your bang for your buck.

The Halo universe is a vast and rich setting and for those of you who've only played the games, with the exception of Halo Wars, they all take place in the final 3 months of the Human-Covenant War, a war that spanned 27 years and of course, there's earlier Human and Covenant history to explore and the post-carnage of the war as well.

So how to review a book that contains a collection of shorts written by several different authors without turning this into a 300 page essay? The method I'll use here-on-out is to give a brief overview of each individual story, straight and to the point. Since Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe covers the entire war and beyond at various points with most of the stories happening more-or-less chronologically, there will be spoilers to the games and other works of fiction.

The collection opens off with a poem regarding the Forerunners written by Jonathan Goff entitled "Beyond," and like the three other poems he's written for this compilation, they are all preceded by a piece of artwork done by various artists. This poem is very straight forward, expressing what was left behind, and is a nice little piece to open to collection.

Next up we have the first short, "Pariah" written by B. K. Evenson, and it follows the exploits of a boy who becomes a Spartan, Soren. Like all the candidates for the Spartan-II program, Soren is special and Dr. Halsey has specifically chosen him for the potential he's shown, but the truth of the matter is that even Halsey and the rest of the Spartan-II recruits don't know what dark secret Soren holds in his past. I really enjoyed "Pariah" as it puts an interesting twist on the images we always perceive of the Spartans, it helps to show us what the Spartans really are that we just don't experience in the games, and in the end it draws both pity and sympathy.

"Stomping on the Heels of a Fuss" is written by Eric Raab, and it's the weakest of the all the literature in this collection. The story follows Connor Brien, an ONI anthropologist who is captured and taken prisoner by a pack of Brutes, and while I found it fascinating that we get a real interesting glimpse of what society is like within Brute culture, depicted better here than any other source I've come across, the story itself just isn't particularly strong and is rather at odds with the rest of the works in this book. It lacks both substance and specifics, as I don't know exactly when in the timeline this tale is set though I suspect it's just after the events of Halo 3, and there's a few other dumb comments, such as Brien's having observed Brutes first hand on High Charity, which makes no sense what-so-ever given the established canon of the Halo universe.

Thankfully, the next tale that follows is a strong one written by Frank O'Connor himself. Entitled "Midnight in the Heart of Midlothian," it follows a lone ODST, Baird (unrelated to the Gears of War character of the same last name) as he awakens on a UNSC Destroyer after having undergone surgery to find it occupied by Covenant Special Forces, his comrades all KIA. If that isn't a nightmare enough, Baird learns that the ship's navigational data is not only intact, but that the Covenant operatives are attempting to access it. If they succeed, they'd learn the location of humanity's greatest secret: The location of Earth itself. And so, weak and alone save for the ship's AI, Baird has to not only find a way to defeat an entire ship of highly trained Covenant operatives, but also deny them access to the ship's database. This short would have to be one of my favourites, as its pacing is strong, the characters are very well fleshed out, and O'Connor does a nice job of putting you in Baird's shoes.

"Dirt" is a longer tale written by Tobias S. Buckell, the final moments of an ODST as he recounts his tale of woe to the Rookie. Yes, that Rookie. But how did Gage end up by that crashed Pelican? Why are the Covenant swarming after him and him alone, and where's the rest of his back up? His tale, long in the telling, dates back to pre-war and the CMA, and Buckell does a very admirable job painting the picture of the Insurrection that took place, how the Covenant changed everything for our fractured species, and just what morality means in the face of overwhelming odds, and not the odds that you're thinking of right now. Sometimes, a man needs to make a choice, the right one, no matter what it'll cost him.

Closing out this section of the compilation is another poem, "Acheron-VII," once again written by Jonathan Goff dealing with the sole victor of a battle, a Spartan, and what the reality of the situation now means to him.

The next section of the collection opens with a full story by Goff entitled "Headhunters," featuring a pair of the lesser known Spartan-III's as they do what they've been chosen to do: To hunt. Headhunters are two Spartan-III's paired together, so secret that the other Spartans don't even know about them, who are sent on extremely hazardous, often one-way missions to practice the final art of asset denial. Jonah and Roland are two such Spartan-III's, and they're mission, in tandem with another group of Headhunters, is to deny the Covenant this holy dig site, and while their training is not as extensive as the Spartan-II's, they know their business. The catch? Is something else hunting them through this wild jungle world?

If you're into the Covenant, you're going to love "Blunt Instruments" by Fred Van Lente featuring the newly created Spartan: Black team. One thing I loved about Halo 3: ODST was what Bungie did with Drones, and this tale is all about Drones. Of course there's the usual other Covenant sorts that Spartan: Black needs to deal with as they try to prevent them from continually gathering fuel from a conquered human world, but the background and politics we learn about regarding the Drones in this tale is not only fascinating, but also comes with quite a twist. Very entertaining.

One form of story telling we have not seen much of in the Halo universe is horror, the haunted house kind of tale, and "The Mona Lisa" written by Jeff VanderMeer and Tessa Kum sets this to rights. "The Mona Lisa" is one of the longest stories in the collection, and personally, I didn't like how it starts off; very slow, but it builds, it chills, and it gets very, very interesting. An ONI prowler is exploring the ruins of Installation 04 when it comes across a civilian escape pod, the occupant whom is barely alive and "chewed up." They track his origin to the prison ship Mona Lisa, but what is a human prison ship doing all the way out here, and once the boarding party of Marines docks with the vessel, where exactly is everyone? Any fan of the franchise will be able to predict what's coming in short order, but it doesn't make it any less enjoyable, and there are certainly some nice twists that I didn't see coming. While I did find the writing style of this piece a little cumbersome, and the Marines didn't always feel like Halo Marines, the content of the tale was of such strength that I simply could not put it down. Looks like Master Chief wasn't as through as he thought he was.

This section closes out and lightens the tone with another Poem entitled "Icon." "Icon" deals with not only the Spartan program, but with the Master Chief himself, who John is and what he represents, and this theme is continued first hand in the next tale, "Palace Hotel."

"Palace Hotel" is written by Robt McLees and takes place during the events of Halo 2. After the disastrous landing in Mombasa, the Chief is trying to make his way to Regret's carrier so he can board it and capture the High Profit, but of course getting there is no easy task, even for a Spartan-II. The Chief fights his way through some familiar settings that we recall from the 2004 Xbox classic shooter, but being novelized some things happen a little differently, particularly the Chief's interactions with other Marines. We all know how the rank-and-file see the Spartans, but how does the Chief see them? At what point would a superhuman like him cross the line and be something other than human? McLees writes us an interesting tale that gets into 117's head, that shows us not only what he's going through, but what the man, the solider, needs to never forget.

"Human Weakness" is my favourite tale in the whole book, and not just because it's written by Karen Traviss of whom I am a huge fan. Traviss' involvement simply elevates its awesomeness, and the reason this short is my fav is because it finally answers the question I've been asking for over two years now: What happened between the Gravemind and Cortana while she was on High Charity? Sure, people have speculated and reasoned, but until now, we've never known. Not for sure. During Halo 3, was Cortana really rampant? Did she betray humanity to the Flood, was it even her the Chief was seeing all throughout the game? Well, "Human Weakness" fills us in. The Gravemind is a fascinating character, one of incredible depth and complexity, and it's quite the treat to read about its perspective on the galaxy and the many conflicts it's been through, and to witness first hand his methods of interrogation.

This section, dedicated to the Chief and Cortana, closes off with "Connectivity," a poem also dedicated to them describing the strength of their bond and their relationship.

We then come to another fascinating tale entitled "The Impossible Life and Possible Death of Preston J. Cole," written by Eric Nylund, master of Halo fiction. We've all heard of the Cole Protocol and we all know that Cole was an admiral instrumental during the Human-Covenant War, but aside from that just who is the legendary Preston Cole? "The Impossible Life and Possible Death of Preston J. Cole" examines his life from a very unique perspective, that of a case study, a report about the man himself. From his childhood to his possible death, Cole's entire life, his successes, his ambitions, and his failures are laid bare, showing what they've meant to humanity and how they've shaped our species.

The last full tale in this collection is entitled "The Return" written by Kevin Grace, and it's set several years after the conclusion of the Human-Covenant War. The Elites are more-or-less our allies now, but still they continue to fight on against the scattered remnants of the Covenant. Yet now that even that fighting is dying down, what's left for a race that was built purely on religious zeal? One Shipmaster returns to the location of his greatest victory, now his greatest shame, from the war: his personal glassing of a human world. On this world, he once found his purpose to have it torn away during the Schism and the closing days of the war, and now will he be able to find it here again? "The Return" shows us a glimpse of what's happening in the Halo Universe post-carnage, so to speak, and we're offered a hint of what we _may_ be able to expect in sequels and additional works of fiction to come.

Finally, the book ends with a letter "From the Office of Dr. William Arthur Iqbal," continuing the glimpse-into-the-future theme. Now that the war is done, what does this mean for the shattered remnants of humanity? Where do we stand, weakened as we are, and what do we do with the massive Forerunner structure now unearthed in Africa?

I hope this review, more of a summary I suppose, has wet your appetite and demonstrated for you the scope and variety that you'll find in the pages within. Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe is simply a wonderful and very thorough collection of Halo fiction, and excellent military science fiction unto itself that no fan should miss. It contains a vast new wealth of information, motive, and character, and helps to expand the wonderful universe that Bungie has given us.

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