Sunday, February 20, 2011

Halo: Cryptum Review

The Halo universe is vast and detailed, filled with both legend and conflict. The series of Xbox games that spawned the franchise has primarily focused on the exploits of the Spartan-II super soldier John-117 and the closing months of the Human-Covenant War in the year 2552, yet in the background of this conflict a far older legacy lingers.

100,000 years ago the Forerunners ruled the galaxy with peace and benevolence, and then in the blink of an eye, they were gone. Pushed to the brink in their war with the extra-galactic parasite, the Flood, the Forerunners activated their ultimate weapon, the Halo array for which the franchise is named, and vanished.

Much of their history has been hinted at throughout the games and even more concrete details were given through various novels and last year's anime compilation, Halo: Legends, but truly, the Forerunners are steeped in mystery. With the release of Halo: Cryptum, however, the story of the Forerunners is finally being told.

Written by Hugo and Nebula Award winning author Greg Bear, Halo: Cryptum is the first book in his trilogy, "The Forerunner Saga." Weighing in at 342 pages, I can honestly say that Bear has crafted the least Halo feeling novel of all, and I certainly don't mean that in a negative way as his story is unlike anything that has come from the Halo universe before.

Told from the perspective of a young Forerunner, Bornstellar Makes Eternal Lasting, or Born for short, the Forerunners are not the high moral guardians that Cortana inferred them to be. While they have certainly taken on the stewardship of the galaxy, the Mantle as they call it, and watch over the lesser races as was previously revealed, they deal with any opposition to their rule quickly and harshly.

As the Halo universe grows in scope and popularity, like many other large franchises, retroactive continuity is inevitable and there's a fair share of it to be found in Halo: Cryptum. For example, it was previously implied that the Forerunners discovered humanity on a backwater world towards the end of their loosing conflict against the Flood, and deeming us special, they granted us the right to one day claim all that they'd leave behind. Well, apparently things aren't so cut and dry.

The Forerunners tried to exterminate us. In one of the more shocking changes to the now previously established Halo canon, humanity, along with several other races, are far older than we thought. In fact, about 10,000 years prior to the novel, Humanity had a far reaching and very powerful intergalactic empire! However, for reasons that are revealed in the novel, we rejected Forerunner authority and thus the Human-Forerunner war broke out. While this war lasted for many years, humanity was ultimately crushed by the Didact (of Halo 3 Terminal fame) and his Warrior-Servants, and were it not for the counsel of the Librarian, our species would have been eradicated completely. Instead, a small number of survivors were de-evolved and exiled to our world of origin, Erde-Tyrene. Earth.

And it is on Earth that Bear's tale of galactic sorrow begins.

Born, being both young and impressionable, has no interest in the vast Forerunner politics that span the galaxy, or indeed any desire to take his place as part of the Builder cast, the most influential and privileged class of Forerunner society. Instead, Born has buried himself in the past and is looking for treasure. Mentioned only once before in the Halo 3 Limited and Legendary Edition's "Bestiarum," the Precursors are a long vanished race who predated even the Forerunners, leaving many relics and technology behind. The Forerunners used this technology to advance themselves to the standing they now enjoy, but much of the Precursors are a mystery, and it is their treasures that Born seeks.

What he discovers on Erde-Tyrene is far from Precursor legend, however, and he sets loose a chain of events that drags him and his two human guides, Chakas and Riser, into a galactic conflict and the beginnings of a civil war. The repercussions of this war are so drastic, the results so cataclysmic, that Born will be forced to embrace his people's culture and responsibility, to truly begin shouldering the weight of the Mantle, least he be unprepared for the greater threat to come. A threat he'll be forced to face head-on.

For those looking to read about epic battles between the Forerunners and the Flood, you'll have to wait a while longer. While I certainly expect such battles are coming, the Flood are more of a political agenda in Halo: Cryptum, a tale of bogeymen used to further other aims, but a threat that is no doubt real and present. In fact, a great deal is revealed about the Flood that we could never have guessed at before, and it's both shocking and surprising of what we learn about first contact with the greatest enemy the galaxy has ever known.

The focus of Halo: Cryptum is truly the Forerunners themselves; their culture, their politics, and their technology. In many respects, the novel is so politics-heavy that it loosely reminds me of the Star Wars prequels, but I truly mean loosely. It is fascinating how advanced the technology of the Forerunners truly is, far beyond what we've even witnessed firsthand in the games, yet their society is just as petty and greedy as our own. Humanity might not be Forerunners themselves as I first thought many years ago, but we do share a lot of personality traits, so much so that even Born wonders if, long ago, both species might have been shaped by the legendary Precursors.

Regardless, Halo: Cryptum is a fascinating read, and it's to Bear's credit that he's written such a wonderfully engaging novel that anyone can simply pick it up and enjoy it; no previous knowledge of the franchise is required. Set 100,000 years earlier than the core material, the concepts and themes we know simply haven't occurred yet, and Bear takes the time to establish everything the reader needs to know.

In fact, the novel is so compelling and such a page turner that I broke tradition and read a few chapters last weekend. Traditionally I read only during my lengthy subway commute to and from the office, but I couldn't help myself and had to read more, to find out more, and to learn more about these great characters and circumstances.

Even more pleasing to me was the fact that even though Halo: Cryptum is a hardcover novel, it was actually small enough to comfortably fit in my satchel bag, something most hardcovers can not do and one of my primary reasons for waiting for paperbacks.

As a Halo fan who delights most in the universe and its story, the characters, the conflict, and the history, Halo: Cryptum is a fascinating and enlightening read, and I'm anxiously awaiting the second book in the Saga. If you're new to the Halo universe or have no past experience with it, don't be daunted as Bear will ease you into this wonderful time of legends past. Just be prepared for some rather surprising retcon, as this is Halo like you've never experienced before.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this book, start to finish. It really was a great way to start the series on the forerunners. I'm very interested in the next book, though I can not find any info on when the next book is due out or even a working title.

Juxtapose said...

Details about the next book in the series, such as title and release date, have not yet been revealed.

Once they are I'll be sure to post them up.

Anonymous said...

I really wasn't much of a fan of the book. I hate when authors don't stay true to the canon. In my mind, good authors ought to be good enough that they can tell a story within the constraints of the established storyline. Also, this may be a matter of personal taste, but I wasn't a fan of all the psychic stuff in the novel. It made it difficult sometimes to tease out what was really going on. Also, I never thought I'd read a Halo novel where a device was activated by singing (yes, singing). In my mind, Bear was writing with more of a fantasy, rather than a sci-fi slant, and what I've enjoyed about the Halo books up until now is that they've been pretty hardcore sci-fi.

Juxtapose said...

@2nd Anonymous Bear did deviate from some of the established Forerunner stuff, true, however everything he's done has been approved by 343 Industries, so this book is now the true canon.

I have mixed feelings about that myself, and this novel is indeed the least Halo novel of the Halo novels, but it certainly isn't horrible. I'm interested to see where he takes things from here and if he really builds things well or if it all collapses.

As for the fantasy aspect, yes, he did tangle more with that, and I believe that was intentional because the Forerunners are so steeped in mystery and they are so ancient.

Anonymous said...

I loved this book I can't wait for the second one and you had a nice review of it lol.

Anonymous said...

I have read very halo novel to date and I find this one to be by far the worst out of all of them. The thing that makes the halo lore so good is that it's consistent this book through it all out the window. I don't care that 343 approved of this, this should not be considered cannon and if they approved this in scared about what there doing with halo 4. I think bungie should still have last say for everything halo.

Juxtapose said...

Well the catch with this book is they're writing about a largely unexplored period that's 100,000 years prior to the games.

It's certainly different than traditional Halo-fiction, as I mention it's the most un-Halo novel yet, but I'll reserve final judgement for when the series is complete.

As for Halo 4, I'm concerned not so much about story, but about gameplay. 343 Studios is an unproven developer who's only product was a buggy Halo Wars patch.

Bungie can no longer be involved with the franchise per their exclusive publishing agreement with Activision for roughly 10 years, so there's no point hoping on that.

Juxtapose said...

Actually, come to think of it, Bungie wasn't perfect at maintaining continuity either.

Halo: Reach completely ruined nearly a decade of canon.

Sadly, franchise continuity screw-ups happen more and more the larger a franchise gets.

Lias said...

sincerely enjoying your reviews, i was also impressed with this novel, mostly for the interesting revelations, though i admit i found the main character's apparent transformation into the didact slightly jarring story-wise, looking forward the the 2nd book, cheers.

Juxtapose said...

@Lias Thank you! That was certainly an interesting twist indeed, and it'll be interesting to see how the character develops.

Born seems to like humans, but there's references that this may change or at least decline the more and more he takes on the Didact persona.