I think you folks who read this blog have already seen enough posts about me carping on over the Eric Nylund / William C. Dietz Halo novels, so I’m not going to flaunt my opinions on those novels again – in the end, they just weren’t my taste.
So when I found out Greg Bear was working on a Halo series, I got interested in reading Halo (instead of just playing it) again.
But my curiosity was really piqued when I found out that 343 Industries had also brought Karen Traviss on board for a novel trilogy.
I’ve liked Karen Traviss’ work since I read the first couple of books in her Star Wars: Republic Commando series (again, based on a video game). She wrote military fiction that was both entertained and explored the deeper ideas of what military conflict does to the soldiers through rounded, recognisable characters (not to mention bringing a fond visual of mine to life: clone troopers doing the haka).
She even managed to make the characters of the Gears of War universe interesting and compelling.
I bought Glasslands a few months ago, and a review is well overdue. Is it any good?
Glasslands is three intertwined stories in one book, but all the stories have the same focus: What does the end of an interstellar war of genocide that has raged for decades mean to those who fought in it?
The main story is that of Kilo-Five, a top-secret team of soldiers working for the United Nations Space Command’s Office of Naval Intelligence. If you’ve been watching Strike Back recently, think Section 20 in space (well, with less sex). They’re assigned the task of keeping the now-splintered nations of the Covenant – the villains of the Halo games, an alien race bent on exterminating humanity – from re-uniting enough to come after us again.
They’re a comradely mob of motleys, including hard core drop troopers, a linguist / xeno-anthropologist and an AI who thinks that trying to appear human is a waste of time, but there’s an undercurrent of unease from the fact that Humanity didn’t win – the other side stopped fighting because they realised their leaders were lying to them.
Making things yet more interesting, though, is the assignment of a Spartan-II – a genetically and cybernetically modified supersolider (like the Master Chief from the games) – to the team, which is led by an ONI captain who actually washed out of the programme.
On the topic of the Spartan-II programme, the second thread follows a group of Spartans trapped within a vast and ancient alien structure. With them is the very creator of the programme that abducted them as six-year-olds and turned them into warriors, Dr. Catherine Halsey, and the drill sergeant who forged their characters, Chief Mendez. Mendez went on to assist in the Spartan-III program, dedicated to creating a new generation of cheaper, more expendable supersoldiers (some of whom are also with them), and now that the action is over and he’s stuck with Halsey and their “children”, he can’t avoid his confusion and anger over the things he did (and helped do) to those children in the name of his government.
And finally, we get to see the aftermath of the war from the other side. Though the ceasefire ordered by the Coventant figurehead known as the Arbiter still stands, the Sangheili warrior Jul ‘Mdama knows in his gut that the honourless humans will go back to fighting his people at the earliest opportunity. But when he joins a Sangheili bishop who speaks of taking action, he begins to wonder whether he’s going too far…
If you haven’t got the idea yet, yes, Glasslands is definitely my taste.
The first thing I like about it is that it gives us an ensemble cast who mightn’t all be likeable, but are certainly sympathetic. Even Jul ‘Mdama, though hardened and opinionated, is certainly no less motivated by a desire to protect his people than Kilo-Five.
The second thing the chance to delve into what the Spartan programmes mean to our core characters, especially now the war is (technically) over.
Are there any downsides? Well, Glasslands is clearly first in a series, and while a lot of stuff happens, there doesn’t seem to be a traditional structure to it. Threads interweave, separate then tangle again, but no one seems to get a straight up buildup, climax and resolution. This is the “getting to know you” novel where we meet everyone and set up the troubles they’re going to have to deal with in future instalments.
Also, while I didn’t find the thousand-yard-stares and pontifications on war and soldiering in some earlier books to my taste, I can imagine some finding the amount of time characters spend being sullen around each other and dancing around issues just as tiring, especially as Dr. Halsey and Chief Mendez trade sullen barbs and occasionally actually argue about the things they did for the Spartan programmes.
But it’s still a good, quick-paced read. The multiple storylines mean there’s rarely a dull moment in the books; if things get quiet for one lot of characters, Traviss is able to jump to the next group right as they’re walking into more trouble.
There’s also one heck of a combat scene which we get to see from the perspective of Black Box, Kilo Five’s AI, while he’s riding in the armour of the Spartan Naomi. It’s a unique but in no way less exciting take on Halo’s action movie combat.
So at the moment, it’s a toss-up as to whether I’m going to buy Cryptum’s sequel, Primordium, or Traviss’ next book, The Thursday War, first. I think it’s going to be the latter…
(Added a few hours later:) I walked into a bookstore earlier on. They had Primordium, but not The Thursday War.
I walked out empty handed.
Are you satisfied?
What did you think of Glasslands, and / or any other of Karen Traviss’ novels?
- Gears of War: Aspho Fields
- Star Wars: Republic Commando:
Book cover images sourced from the Tor Forge website.