Wednesday, 18 November 2009

‘Halo: The Cole Protocol’ – Tobias S. Buckell (Tor UK)

Long term readers of the blog will know that it doesn’t take a lot for me to get bored of a computer game and start trying to get it to do stupid things instead. I was playing ‘Grand Theft Auto’ the other day and didn’t even get as far as finding out what the missions were. Not after I’d found the petrol bombs... :o)
It was the same kind of deal after I gave ‘Halo’ a go for the first time. It was all good to start off but it didn’t take long before I was shooting my comrades and seeing how far ‘Master Chief’ could fall and still survive (if you haven’t tried it yet, he cannot survive the fall to Earth from a space station...) Things are about to change though. There’s no way that I can afford an Xbox right now so I might have to find someone who has one and play ‘Halo’ to death. Why? I’ve been reading Tobias Buckell’s ‘Halo’ tie-in, ‘The Cole Protocol’ and it’s really rather good...

As the alien Covenant continue their inexorable march across human space, the UNSC enacts the Cole Protocol to safeguard Earth and its inner colonies. All navigational data that could compromise Earth’s location is to be destroyed; Lieutenant Jacob Keyes is part of the effort and is about to find that enacting the protocol is a lot more than stopping freighters at random...
The planet Hesiod lies beyond the outer colonies and its asteroid belt (‘The Rubble’) is home to both human insurrectionists/refugees looking to make a new life away from UNSC rule. It’s also home to one of the Covenant member races and both of these groups co-exist in an uneasy harmony. This strange alliance is about to bring all of the warring parties down on Hesiod. Keyes’ ship is drafted into a secret mission around Hesiod and the elite Spartan Gray Team are also about to make their presence felt. The Covenant have their eye on Hesiod as well, especially an Elite whose quest for nobility and rank will lead him to do anything in order to fulfil his mission. The Hesiod system is about to explode...

If you’re a regular around these parts you’ll know that I have a lot of time for Tobias Buckell and his books. If you’re a fan of Space Opera then you really need to check out ‘Crystal Rain’, ‘Ragamuffin’ and ‘Sly Mongoose’ if you haven’t already; that’s all there is to it! Yes, I’m a fan so you might want to bear that in mind when you read the rest of this but any tie-in book that makes you want to go out and play the game it’s based on has to be doing something right!

‘The Cole Protocol’ is a good mixture of full on Space Opera and the more thoughtful air that Buckell has brought to his other work. When the sky lights up with plasma fire then that’s your notice that things are about to head into overdrive, and they do! Whether it’s ship based combat, flights through asteroid fields or combatants facing off in person it’s all very much in your face and written with an intensity that made me wince at times. Buckell knows that war is an ugly business and that no-one is safe when the bullets are flying; he’s not afraid to kill his characters off so try not to get too attached to anyone. This is a war fought over vast areas of space and a human life can appear fleeting in comparison... These descriptive pieces are also backed up with well thought out (and drawn) military structures on both sides, making sure that there is some sense of purpose behind the combat rather than characters just lined up shooting at each other.

It’s not all about the spectacular scenes of space combat though, ‘The Cole Protocol’ also goes behind the scenes and looks at the covert manoeuvres (on both sides) that can result in the big face offs. This is an altogether darker side to the book where lives are written off, by those in charge, so that military gains can be made. No-one can be entirely trusted and this lends an air of suspense to the book that drives things forward at a pace that definitely hooks the reader. I really wanted to know what happened next!
It’s at moments like these that Buckell gets a little bit thoughtful about what the Earth/Covenant war can mean for those who aren’t actually fighting in it. I’m talking about the outer colonies looking for independence but suppressed by a regime looking to clamp things down in order to safeguard humanity as a whole. Where do you draw the line with behaviour like this? Have the UNSC crossed that line? Is there a line to be drawn at all? It certainly made me think.

If Buckell goes wrong anywhere in ‘The Cole Protocol’ it’s perhaps in his attempts to make the book accessible for both seasoned ‘Halo’ gamers and people coming to the book for the first time. It’s a little top heavy on the background information and this not only slows the story down on occasion but also runs the risk of smothering it entirely. Personally, I’d be happier with less background detail if it meant that the pace could remain more constant...

This is only a small complaint though. ‘The Cole Protocol’ was a good introduction to the ‘Halo’ universe (for me) and a book that I think long term fans, as well as fans of military sci-fi, will get a lot out of.

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten

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