Sunday, November 20, 2011
Halo: Glasslands Review
The Halo franchise has been around for over 10 years now and its core fiction is pretty fleshed out. The dynamics of the cultures and factions are very well established and generally speaking, people know what to expect when two opposing parties cross one another. Apparently, someone forgot to tell Karen Traviss this important little fact.
Halo: Glasslands is the first full novel set directly after the events of Halo 3, and it predominantly follows a special team created by the Office of Naval Intelligence who's sole purpose is to sow dissension and civil strife between the Elites. While the Elites and humanity technically have an alliance of sorts, Admiral Parangosky, the director of ONI, doesn't believe it will last or that the Arbiter will be able to keep control of his people. Already dissident Elite factions are springing up and ONI wants to see Elites fighting Elites as opposed to starting a war with humanity once again.
Now this is all well and good and without question the core story concept of Halo: Glasslands is solid. Reading about a highly skilled black ops team doing its thing is rather interesting and something not seen too often in the Halo franchise, and the story also broadens by continuing the tale of Dr. Halsey and the last few Spartans now trapped in a Dyson's Sphere in the remains of Onyx, as read at the end of the 2006 novel Halo: Ghosts of Onyx. That story arc grows larger and larger as the novel goes on and eventually intersects with the main plot.
All of this is well and good and is a solid formula for a wonderful tale of Halo-themed military sci-fi, but the final product is, sadly, lackluster. Why? How could Traviss, the master of character building and deep, military plots have dropped the ball? Because she got the dynamics of the characters and cultures all wrong.
Let me ask you something: When you think of Elites and Brutes, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Assuming you've been paying attention to the overall Halo story since 2004, you know they hate one another and now that the Covenant has fallen they want to wipe each other out. After the Prophets betrayed the Elites and used the Brutes to try and exterminate them, the Elites themselves have been on a campaign to purge the Brutes from the galaxy. According to Kevin Grace's short, "The Return" (featured in Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe) this campaign has been on-going for about seven years after the events of Halo 3.
Well Halo: Glasslands is set during the end of 2552 and leads into early 2553, and apparently there are some packs of Brutes loyal to Elites. Does that make any sense to you? Nope, I didn't think so. In fact when I first read this, since Traviss uses the actual Covenant species names instead of their human given names, I thought they meant another Covenant species and this was a typo but no, there are some packs of Brutes loyal to Elites. Not only that, but since Elites are so important to this novel's core story we see Sanghelios in detail for the first time, and not only are there loyal Brutes on the planet but some of them are actually landscapers.
Yes, you read correctly: Brute gardeners. What's next? Brutes amicably living alongside humans on a human world? Oh wait, Traviss does that to. See what I mean about messed up dynamics, and this really, really hurts what would otherwise have been a solid story. If you go and change key cultural relations without any prior reason like this, the story looses credibility since it fails to keep true to the heart of the franchise; to what we, the fans expect. And while retcon is always inevitable with growing properties, it should at least have a solid purpose that benefits the whole of the franchise, and what Traviss does fails to meet that requirement.
Traviss even manages to bungle the different UNSC personalities. The new ONI black ops team formed consists of some ODSTs and a Spartan-II amongst others, but is there any tension between them as the franchise has always shown? No, there isn't. In fact, in very short order the ODSTs are all buddy-buddy with the Spartan and a budding romance actually begins to surface, which just feels all manner of wrong.
The Spartans themselves, well, Traviss doesn't seem to understand that they're not traditional soldiers. The hardcore discipline of the Spartan-II's shown time and time again in all manner of media is really relaxed here, and Fred, Kelly, and Linda act very out of character throughout. In any potentially hostile territory they do not relax their guard, they always religiously respect the chain of command, and they would not be taking off their helmets and joking around yet this continually happens here. Traviss' rendition of the Spartan-II's simply doesn't feel like Spartans at all.
The Spartan-III's also don't feel right, and I'm really curious to know if Traviss even read Halo: Ghosts of Onyx or not to work out how these existing charatcer's personalities should be, and I'm really guessing she didn't.
Heck, at one point a civilian is briefly introduced and he begins swearing Gears of War style, clearly showing Traviss' influence from that universe. While yes, there is cursing in Halo, it's more controlled and, well, mature. The Gears of War story might be more violent and gory but it is juvenile compared to Halo and this is another intricacy that Traviss just doesn't seem to understand.
All of her characters, new and established ones from past fiction, feel forced, hollow, and wrong, and it's quite the shame as Halo: Glasslands had a significant amount of potential. While not a bad story on it's own merits, it doesn't feel "Halo" much at all, and I'm truly hoping that Traviss shapes up for the second novel in this series or that this series is deemed non-canon in short order.
Of all the Halo novels released over the last decade, I'd need to rank this one as the second worst simply due to all the unforgiving tampering and poorly done character and cultural dynamics. I also truly hope that the fiction represented in these pages is not a fine example of what we can expect in the upcoming Halo 4, as if it is, I have a feeling we'll all be very, very disappointed.