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BOOK REVIEW: Halo: The Thursday War by Karen S. Traviss

REVIEW SUMMARY: Interesting premise, poor execution, vital to understanding Halo 4.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The black ops squad Kilo-Five has a staggering revelation but there is no time to consider the implications because one of their operatives goes silent on a hostile world. As civil war erupts on Sanghelios, the UNSC Infinity prepares to undergo a test run using live targets and live munitions. And ancient evil waits to be awakened.

Great ideas, essential to understanding what is going on in Halo 4.
Flat characters, repetitive character descriptions, not very engaging.
Recommended for Halo fans exclusively.

An hour into playing Halo 4 I found myself asking a lot of questions. Who is this Didact fellow? What is Requiem? Why are the Covenant suddenly attacking me – didn’t we have a truce at the end of Halo 3? How did the UNSC build a 6 kilometer long space ship? It’s a good thing that I play the Halo games for the shooting and not the actual storytelling. If I want to learn anything about the Halo universe I just turn to the tie-in fiction that has done such an amazing job of expanding the lore. Authors like Eric Nylund, William C. Dietz, Tobias S. Buckell, and Joseph Staten have written wonderful novels that support this monolithic franchise. Two new authors have been added to the roster, the much celebrated Greg Bear (whose Forerunner novels I have yet to dig into) and Karen S. Traviss, an author with much tie-in fiction experience. Halo: The Thursday War is the second entry in the Kilo-Five trilogy, which is itself an indirect sequel to Eric Nylund’s Halo: Ghosts of Onyx. Relating to the canon, Halo: The Thursday War takes place just prior to the events of Halo 4. So how does it stack up compared to the rest of the family?

Not well. And yes, I realize that every book should be judged by its own merit and not compared to the works of others (great in theory, less practical in reality), but this is especially difficult with multiple authors working within an established series. Halo: The Thursday War builds off of the work that comes before it, most noticeably Nylund’s Halo: Ghosts of Onyx. The Human-Covenant War is over. The Covenant is no more, with the separate alien races that composed it going their separate ways. The UNSC has begun work rebuilding the infrastructure that was so thoroughly dismantled by the alien menace. The UNSC fleet is being upgraded with Forerunner technology and the aid of the engineer-slave race called the Huragok. The UNSC Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) is hard at work in the shadows, fomenting a civil war on Sanghelios in order to remove the threat posed by the Elites. Doctor Catherine Halsey has been detained as a criminal. The anti-Earth terrorists are starting to come out of the woodwork again. Things are no longer as black and white as they were during the war. Now is a time of moral gray. Humanity has a manifest destiny in the stars and it is Admiral Margaret Parangosky’s job to eliminate any threat to said destiny, through any means necessary.

It’s an excellent setup! Officially the Human-Covenant conflict has come to an end. Unofficially it has just entered the Cold War phase. I love the epic scale of Nylund’s novels. Who doesn’t enjoy an intense space battle? But there’s something darkly appealing about a post-war Halo story. After all, the Spartan program was originally created to combat the anti-Earth, human terrorists. Cloak and dagger. Moral ambiguity. Plotting and assassination. It’s enough to get the blood pumping. I think that’s what makes Halo: The Thursday War so disappointing. I haven’t yet read Halo: Glasslands (the first book in the Kilo-Five trilogy) but I figured I could catch up on all the important stuff as I went along.

For the most part I was right. Halo: The Thursday War begins immediately where Halo: Glasslands left off, or so I would imagine. It took a couple pages to catch up since this was a direct continuation of the plot but it wasn’t rocket surgery. The Kilo-Five civilian contractor and Sangheili specialist, Evan Philips, has been stranded on Sanghelios with all communications cut. Kilo-Five’s Spartan II, Naomi, turns out to be the daughter of a notorious terrorist. These are the primary plot threads, though only one gets resolved by the end of the novel. Halo: The Thursday War is told from multiple perspectives, including the director of ONI, a failed Spartan, two ODST marines, a civilian contractor, two Sangheili, and Kilo-Five’s 4th generation AI. It’s a diverse cast to say the least, though perhaps that is part of the problem.

The characters are flat. Paper thin really. I’m willing to offer an extra half a star on the rating since I haven’t read Halo: Glasslands. Maybe Kilo-Five is drawn out really well there and this builds off that in some manner. The only characters with any measure of depth are the civilian contractor, Philips, and the captured Sangheili, Jul ‘Mdama. Philips isn’t quite the emotional robot that his teammates are and Jul’s hatred for humans is understandable. The only way to tell the difference between Mal and Vaz (Kilo-Five’s ODSTs) is when Mal gets all stereotypical Australian, mate. The Pelican pilot Devereaux has no discernible qualities or personality. I see untapped potential in both the leader of Kilo-Five, Osman, and Naomi, one of the few remaining Spartan-IIs. Raia, a female Sangheili is a broken record, repeating the same inner monologue each time her perspective pops up. I understand that Kilo-Five’s AI, Black-Box (or BB for short), is supposed to be a witty and sarcastic AI but only because that’s what I’m repetitively told.

There is a heavy dose of repetition in general. I’m pretty sure that Kilo-Five has the same exact conversation relating to what to do about Naomi’s terrorist father at least half a dozen times, without ever finding a solution. Naomi’s personality is described in the same way, multiple times. The same can be said of BB. There is, of course, Raia. I kept my fingers crossed hoping that Raia would bite the bullet so that I wouldn’t have to read her perspective again.

And how could I go without mentioning the continual abuse of Doctor Catherine Halsey. I understand from what I’ve read about Halo: Glasslands that the novel contains no shortage of Halsey-hate. This doesn’t offend me the way it might some fans – it seems logical that Halsey would get thrown under the bus. She’s a scapegoat, plain and simple. And it’s not like Halsey is a saint anyway. What does bother me is how unbelievable it is. Morally correct or not, Halsey’s work saved humanity from extinction. It was also work condoned by ONI. But here we have the Admiral Margaret Parangosky, who fashions herself to be the ultimate Ice Queen, and yet she is appalled by Halsey’s actions. This is the woman that is fostering a civil war on a planet that Humanity has a treaty with. This is a woman playing both sides and working without any oversight. And she thinks that Halsey is a monster? Were it just one character I could write it off as a personality defect. People are hypocrites right? It happens. But it’s not just Parangosky. It’s every character in Halo: The Thursday War, including the ODSTs. ODSTs, mind you, that are all in favor of a complete and total Sangheili genocide. It’s all very heavy handed.

Halo: The Thursday War suffers from being unbelievable. Obviously to read a Halo book you’re going to have to suspend realism. That doesn’t mean that the book shouldn’t be believable. You should be able to swallow the logic as it relates to the world it relates to. I often found myself unable to accept the things presented in this book. I am not convinced that Kilo-Five is a legit black ops unit, they certainly don’t act the part. I am not convinced that Serin Osman would even be considered to command a project of such importance. I am not convinced that Jul ‘Mdama would be taken as a prisoner rather than killed for knowing highly damning evidence of UNSC involvement regarding the civil war on Sanghelios. I am not convinced that Jul’s containment would be so lax given the nature of what he knows. A lot of it exists to move the plot forward but that can’t be a valid excuse.

So if we set aside the characters if Halo: The Thursday War any more enjoyable? Barely. There are a lot of cool things going on at one time. There’s a Sangheili civil war on for Chief’s sake! It’s the inaugural voyage of the UNSC Infinity, a true baptism by fire! There’s a black ops group infiltrating an enemy world on a rescue mission. A black ops group with a freaking Spartan in it! And not one of those lesser, later model Spartans either. A true blue, Spartan-II. Halo: The Thursday War should be rife with excitement. It should bleed from the pages. I should fear opening the front cover for fear of being smacked by an Elite with an energy sword. It’s just…not. Most of the action is in the periphery. There’s a fight scene or two. I think? They weren’t all that memorable. Which is fine. This doesn’t have to be an action packed war novel – so long as the espionage and subterfuge are interesting. Instead we get a lot of exploring Forerunner architecture. Yawn.

And despite all of these criticisms I still have to recommend Halo: The Thursday War to Halo fans. It did answer a lot of the questions that popped up while playing Halo 4. This should probably even be considered mandatory if you expect to understand what the hell is going on in that game. Plus there is some exploration of Sangeheili culture and Lasky from Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn makes an appearance. If you are not a Halo fan but looking to get into the books avoid this. Instead go pick up Eric Nylund’s Halo: The Fall of Reach.

About Nick Sharps (85 Articles)
Nick is the Social Media Coordinator and Commissioning Editor for Ragnarok Publications and its imprint, Angelic Knight Press. He is a book critic and aspiring author. He is the co-editor of Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters from Ragnarok Publications. He studies Advertising and Public Relations at Point Park University.

5 Comments on BOOK REVIEW: Halo: The Thursday War by Karen S. Traviss

  1. I reviewed Glasslands last year for SF Signal. I really enjoyed the story (I’m generally a fan of Traviss’s work, tie-in or otherwise), and I’ve since picked this up and started reading it. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read thus far, but honestly haven’t gotten that far into it.

  2. TheAdlerian // December 11, 2012 at 11:16 pm //

    How are the Halo novels in general?

    I loved Eric Nylund’s A Game of Universe and know he wrote some. Are they (by any author) adult, complex, and entertaining?

    • Nick Sharps // December 12, 2012 at 8:57 am //

      I like most of the Halo novels. I’m not sure if I would necessarily call them adult, though they do delve deeper into the themes behind the Halo franchise. Child soldiers and religious warfare and terrorism. I’m not sure I’d call them complex, though they do have a lot more complexity than the games themselves. They add a lot to the lore. And as for entertaining? They are definitely entertaining. I read Nylund’s Halo books at least twice each.

  3. TheAdlerian // December 12, 2012 at 9:45 pm //

    Thanks Nick!

    I like the general idea of the games and think they would make great stories, but I’ve been reluctant to buy.

    • Nick Sharps // December 13, 2012 at 7:55 am //

      Start with Nylund’s Fall of Reach if you do go ahead and pull the trigger. That seems to be the most well-liked of them all.

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