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promising, but flawed
on January 9, 2009
I looked forward to this book with great interest from the moment I found out that it would be handling a major Elite character's backstory. Sadly, I find myself underwhelmed with it. Writing-wise, it's about the level one would expect from a spinoff book of a video game. Essentially, it's not well written, not terribly well-characterized, and extremely poorly proofread ("cyrogenic" jumps out at you right on the first page-- not only should a proofreader have caught that, but a spellchecker should too). Needless to say, you need to be quite well-read in the Halo mythos for this book to make a whole lot of sense, as The Cole Protocol assumes an array of prior knowledge. What matters, then, is what it does for the canon as a whole.
I mainly read Halo novels for the worldbuilding, and the back history of characters we've come to know and love through the game. I don't expect each author to do equally well with all aspects of the Halo world, and this book is no exception. Captain (here, Lieutenant) Keyes gets a turn in the spotlight, and he's kept in-character, with a properly Keyesian, out-of-the-box maneuver at the end. There's a part played by Spartan Grey Team, and while I (only a mild fan of the Spartans) was satisfied with it, people who are focused on them will likely come away disappointed. Still, their interaction with other characters (ordinary humans and the Elites (Sangheili)) is interesting more for what it says about the other characters than what it illumines about the Spartans.
Where Cole Protocol shines is its depiction of ordinary humans. Nylund's books give a good military/UNSC perspective on the Human-Covenant war, but Buckell gives you a sense of what it's like to live there and be a civilian trying to make your way through a series of completely sensible, but still extremely onerous laws. You get a better sense of the Insurrectionist perspective here, and the Rubble (a ragtag civilization built by refugees, Innies, and miners behind enemy lines) is well depicted. Delgado, a civilian pilot caught in the middle, is an interesting character and a nice counterpoint to Keyes and the Helljumpers. Buckell also carries on the tradition of novels exploring AIs in the Haloverse-- Juliana, an AI on the verge of rampancy, has a small part that I wish were a bit larger, because it seems right on the edge of really exploring the ramifications of rampancy for people who depend on the AI (and for the AI herself), but skates away before dealing the subject much more than a glancing blow.
Which is the main flaw of the storytelling in this book, it tries to tell a few too many stories, and ends up giving short shrift to most of them. This is, sadly, especially apparent with what should be a selling point of the book, that it delves further into the culture of the Sangheili and tells the backstory of one of the most important Elites in the universe (Thel 'Vadamee-- who will be a bit more familiar to readers by story's end). The previous Halo novel, Contact Harvest, developed rather well the backstory of Halo's nefarious Prophet Hierarchs, and I had hoped for something similar for 'Vadamee and the Sangheili. Instead, Buckell bounces off every "warrior race" stereotype known to military SF and fantasy and settles nowhere in particular. 'Vadamee gets a lot of attention in the story, but is only thinly characterized-- though the one exception is that some good attention is paid to conflicting notions of "heresy" and showing the fault lines already present in the Covenant. Considerably better is the depiction of the Kig-Yar (Jackals). I'd even go so far as to say that a Kig-Yar leader named Reth somewhat steals the Covenant side of the story away from 'Vadamee, at least for being a bit more unexpected and interesting.
In sum, it's worth reading if you're a canon completist, but falls well short of its potential. I think the Haloverse is complex enough to support a much, much better book, and I continue to hope that one day we'll see that book. Until then, enjoy Cole Protocol for the things it manages to do well.