Thursday, October 6, 2016

REVIEW: Halo: The Fall of Reach (book) by Eric Nylund

Halo: The Fall of Reach is military sci-fi based on a game franchise.

I opted not to include any read-alikes.


Like I said in my review of the movie based on this book, I've never played any of the Halo games. I got this because I'd heard that the franchise has some good AI-human interaction. Starting with the first Halo novel seemed like the best way to go.

This book covers the origins of the Master Chief, the series protagonist. Dr. Catherine Halsey selected John for the SPARTAN-II program when he was only 6 years old, arranging for him and many other children to be kidnapped from their homes and put through intense training and brutal modifications. It's all hugely unethical, but the end result is something humanity turns out to sorely need: a group of super soldiers known as the Spartans, of which John-117 is the best. Their first mission pits them against human rebels, but it's not long before they find themselves fighting a much deadlier enemy, mysterious aliens known as the Covenant.

I really wanted to love this book, but unfortunately it never really gelled for me. Nylund cared a lot about things I didn't, and didn't care much about things I did. As a result, there was a lot of jargon-heavy space and ground warfare, and not much focus on characters as people with relationships and feelings. Dr. Halsey felt some guilt about what she put the children through, but her focus was on her larger mission. John was upset when his fellow Spartans died, but his focus, too, was on his mission. Character emotions and deaths rarely had much impact. I barely felt a pang when characters I'd basically known for hundreds of pages died, because they were more like collections of combat skills than people.

I also would have liked more and meatier AI scenes. Cortana was the most interesting of the bunch and she, sadly, didn't show up until the last third of the book. I was a little peeved that the very first reasons Cortana gave Dr. Halsey for choosing John as her Spartan all had something to do with his looks and general attractiveness (it was also a bit weird because Cortana was essentially Dr. Halsey, and Dr. Halsey was sort of John's mother figure). However, I still liked her overall. I would have loved to see more of her and John learning to work together.

Which brings me to another issue I had: the pacing was kind of choppy. It felt like Nylund spent ages on John's first few years in the SPARTAN-II program. Then I was briefly confused as the Spartans were sent after rebels who were never mentioned again and who turned out to be little more than combat practice. The Covenant swooped in, and suddenly everything became periods of nothing much, with sprinkles of foreshadowing, followed by long, intense battles I wasn't always able to follow. I didn't mind the ground warfare scenes, but the space scenes were kind of boring, and I'm pretty sure there were more of them.

I was usually able to understand what was going on fairly well, despite not being very familiar with the franchise, but I still felt like there were areas where newbies were at a disadvantage. For example, Nylund's descriptions were terrible. Here's what he said about the Grunts: “They reminded the Chief of biped dogs, not only in appearance, but because their speech – even with the new translation software – was an odd combination of high-pitched squeaks, guttural barks, and growls.” (15) So I googled Grunts and got a bunch of pictures of things that looked like some kind of squat, bipedal cross between a turtle and maybe a shark. Even seeing them in action via YouTube videos didn't make me think “biped dog.”

Although this didn't work for me, I'm not writing off the books just yet. Partly because I have several of them sitting in my TBR, and partly because there's always a chance that a different author or different storyline will give me more of the stuff I'm really interested in. Like more and better AI scenes, for starters. Crossing my fingers.

  • 27 pages of related fictional documents - The documents: a transcript of an interrogation of one of the aliens; a Covenant document (the one time in the whole book that we get a peek at the Covenant's perspective); a human transmission relating to the Covenant document; a letter about a Spartan named Ralph who apparently survived the modifications but didn't ultimately cut it as a Spartan; a transmission from Captain Keyes to Vice Admiral N'Singile; communication between two regular soldiers, talking about the Spartans and other stuff; and the Winter Contingency declaration supplemental orders. I'll be honest, this section was confusing for me. The documents didn't seem to be arranged in chronological order, and some of them referred to things that I hadn't recalled being mentioned in the book. A bit of googling told me that Ralph comes up in other Halo-related stuff, but it was weird that a document mentioning him was included in a book in which he didn't have a single significant appearance (or any appearance at all?). As far as the stuff relating to Dr. Halsey went, a bit more googling told me that that would probably have had a lot more meaning for someone with greater familiarity with the games. Or maybe it'll have something to do with the next book, since this one ended with a great big "to be continued."
  • Various illustrations - Unfortunately, they were all black-and-white copies of what I'm guessing were originally full-color images. The contrast was terrible, and so the images were usually just giant blobs of darkness.

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