BRIEF SYNOPSIS: With the end of the Covenant/Human war, both sides begin to pick up the pieces as a stranded Spartan team uncovers a secret that could radically change the balance of power, while figures within each side begin to plan their next moves.
PROS: Dark, mature and grown up; Glasslands surpasses the norm for tie-in novels, with Traviss spinning a fantastic story of warfare, politics and morality that continues the Halo story into new ground.
CONS: Lots of setup and transition; those expecting as much action in the prior novels will be let down.
BOTTOM LINE: One of the best Halo books published yet.
I’ve been a fan of the Halo franchise since its inception: a plucky first-person shooter that provided endless hours of fun while I worked as a summer camp counselor for several years. Simple and pretty straightforward on one level, it drops you in the middle of a fairly epic story, one that’s since blossomed into a much larger world with four additional games, numerous comic books and novels. Karen Traviss’ first novel-length effort, Halo: Glasslands, is not only the best novel that’s been written in the series, it brings a new level of depth and morality to the table.
Set right after the end of Eric Nylund’s Ghosts of Onyx and the events of Halo 3, Glasslands gives readers the first concrete glimpse into what happens when you end a thirty-year war that has dominated the focus of the franchise. Traviss is uniquely suited towards this work: formerly a defense correspondent in the UK, she’s moved into the world of military science fiction in most of her stories: from her Wess’har Wars series to her works in the Star Wars and Gears of War universes, she’s brought a depth and focus to the genre that’s left me wanting in other novels.
The feared Covenant has splintered, and humanity has begun to take stock of the damages and to figure out just where they’re going from there. In a lesser story, that would be the end: everything’s settled, people move on to resume their happy lives and the world is a better place. Rather, much like real life, the story’s more complicated. The Elites – the Sangheili – are trying to find their places in the world, some rallying behind the Arbiter, who’s trying to move on from the fight. Others are working against him, distrustful of humanity and everything that they’ve done. The Office of Naval Intelligence recruits Kilo-Five, a combined arms team of ODST (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers), a Spartan, and an AI, to take advantage of the chaos and to keep the Sangheili from becoming a force that can threaten humanity again. At the same time, Dr. Catherine Halsey and a group of Spartans, find themselves locked away with a treasure trove of Forerunner technologies that could potentially launch humanity forward.
Traviss has put together a complicated – but not convoluted – novel that speeds by quickly, with quite a lot going for it: there’s quite a few memorable, interesting and intelligent characters, often working against each other. It’s hard to root for any one team, because the balancing act is pulled off so nicely. This is the type of tie-in novel that should be written: smart, well written, and one that expands and adds to the universe in a meaningful way. With more entries such as this, I would bet quite a bit that the Halo franchise will be well on its way towards rivaling the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises someday.
The real strength to this novel is something that I’ve looked for in many a Traviss book: a real examination into the impact of war on the people who wage it, and Glasslands has quite a bit of that. There’s a lot to work with here: the very nature of the Spartan program, which began with conscripted six year olds, and the lengths that people will go to win a fight. It’s not an easy argument to make, and while it could be a purely theoretical of philosophical exercise (in that the characters could recognize that what they’d done was reprehensible), the consequences of what they’ve done go deeper, and Traviss makes those consequences sink in the knife and really cause more problems.
I also loved the treatment of the Sangheili and the overall look and feel that we get with this book: there’s a considerable amount of depth added in, and I appreciate the complexity that Glasslands delivers. It’s smart, interesting and well thought out. The Elites, enemy soldiers in the games, become figures and characters in their own right, adding an extra edge to the events in the novel.
This, I believe, is something that the Halo universe really needed: the other books that I’ve read are fun, but gun-heavy. (This is not a bad thing, mind) The actions in this book is a quite a bit less than I’d expected, with a quite bit more on the nature and moral fiber of warfare, but it presumably helps to establish a base for what comes next in the show. Considering that there’s more than enough action in the games, it’s nice to take a step back and to take a look at the bigger picture.
If there’s any complaint that I have about the book, it’s that it feels very much like a major transition and setup for things yet to come. The story steps in a major void in the Halo universe: following Halo 3, and before Halo 4, with whatever comes in for that game. Taking a break from a military science fiction shooter when the shooting stops is a difficult task that’s handled exceptionally well, but this novel feels like it’s a calm before the storm, and that the really cool stuff comes in the next two books of the trilogy. It’s a bit of a letdown, but I already can’t wait to see what Traviss has up her sleeves for the next book, due out sometime next year.
Halo: Glasslands is a fantastic addition to the Halo universe, and is a stand-out military science fiction novel in and of itself. Thoughtful, energetic, complex, it’s a book that takes the source material light years ahead of the game to ponder what came before, but also pushes the story forward to the next chapter of the franchise. As someone who’s played the games constantly in the ten years that they’ve been out, I’m happy to see what Traviss has done with the story, and already can’t wait for the next story.