Halo: The Cole Protocol by Tobias S. Buckell – Book Review [Bellarius]


Bellarius takes a look into the Halo universe with the The Cole Protocol by Tobias S. Buckell.

“Expanding upon the universe with every page” – The Founding Fields

The real problem with the Halo universe is that so little of it was ever explored in the games. With the emphasis upon the Covenant War few background details were ever given focus. Everything from humanity’s origins, the reaction of the colonies to the UNSC, the UNSC’s policies to reasons for the SPARTAN project; all were rarely explored. While fans might have learned about them through secondary sources, they were rarely ever gone into in full. Even the few times they did look into them such as the previous Halo novels, they emphasised upon very specific events. Master Chief’s past, the Fall of Reach or even just the Battle of Halo itself. While they fleshed out the protagonist’s story they made the universe feel small. The Cole Protocol was one of the novels which to corrected this.

Set during the early years of the war with the Covenant, the UNSC is already visibly losing. With the outer colonies being glassed and the military haemorrhaging under a high attrition rate, humanity is forced to begin scorched earth tactics to try and protect the inner colonies. However, out in territory taken by the aliens the impossible has happened. A human insurrectionist settlement has encountered the Covenant and not only survived the encounter but begun trade with them. With news of this treaty reaching both sides in the war agents are deployed to discover the truth behind the matter…

The first thing worth praising the highest about this story is how it manages to juggle almost every element present in the current timeline. Everything from the SPARTAN project to plausible methods for AIs to avoid rampancy are introduced and examined. Minor sections on every side are devoted to this with flashbacks and minor intercuts in the story; yet it never interrupts the narrative flow or even feels overly cluttered. Mostly by connections to the characters.

Details of how failures and troublemakers were dealt with in the SPARTAN Project were introduced with the character Jai-006 thinking back to his past. The scenes there covering his background  repeat often overlooked details about the project but also shed light upon the methods used to keep the children in line. A more prominent example is the UNSC’s constant clashes with smugglers, insurrectionists and the colonies which are being abandoned shown through the eyes of Jacob Keyes. Something which also adds a much needed shade of grey to the humans. Many events emphasise upon how the UNSC is far from being the clean cut “good guys” in this matter. It doesn’t bash you over the head with their actions, or scream that the UNSC is morally bankrupt and deserves destruction but does highlight its sins. They’re far less evil than the Covenant but aren’t without their own horror stories.

Speaking of the Covenant, the novel is also responsible for expanding upon the Sangheili (or Elites) mentality and society. For a race who consists entirely of one big a warrior caste and regard zealot as an honourable term, they’re as pious and bombastic as you can imagine. Coming across as some insane hybrid of the Ecclesiarchy and Doctor Who’s Sontarans, to who honour in battle and martial skill means almost everything. While this is taken to the extreme, it works for two specific reasons. The first is that they are written as a species who was shaped into an individual role by others. A race which was used as muscle by the San ‘Shyuum and never permitted to grow beyond feudalism, skipping stages of renaissance and technological development as a result of reliance upon others. Think what Mass Effect’s krogan became as a result of Salarian intervention but to the Nth degree. The second is that it helps make them feel distinctly alien. While not as effective as the first person perspectives of Greg Bear’s Forerunner Saga, the Sangheili think in such an extreme it’s almost impossible to justify on any human level. Rather than just being the usual warrior species tropes like with Klingons, it’s ramped up to such an unfamiliar degree it’s just about believable on some level.

Still, with the good comes the bad. While the story might work due to all the different facets of the universe it explores, it is also spread thinner because of it. It might not break the story but the times when it does deviate and shift focus feel like they would be better suited to a much longer tale. One which could better afford such moments without disrupting the concentration of the plot and making better use of the characters. Speaking of which, the characters themselves are unfortunately forgettable. While most are passable the only ones which feel like they have true meaning are those established in the games and new additions feel like they are there purely to explore aspects of the universe. They don’t individually stand out so much as they do enhance certain details and often characteristics feel overly common or generic;  made to better suit their role in the story.

Many characters and plots also end up being very quickly resolved part way through the book or are just dropped entirely. While these are admittedly secondary stories, largely character centric, and give the book some unpredictability their loss still feels pointless. As if some interesting ideas were introduced but then promptly discontinued before they could be fully explored in any significant way.

This also isn’t helped by Tobias Buckell’s writing style which is clearly better suited to ideas or more human touches than events or action scenes. While certain ones do work well as a result of energy and pace, such as one instance with Adriana and a Mongoose quad bike, others feel lacking in scope. Unable to fully convey desperation, continual action or the details and shape of the surroundings. The one major scene which truly worked with his style did because it was more focused upon escape and planning rather than violence or action.

Still, for all these problems The Cole Protocol is still an interesting look into the wider universe of Halo. If you’ve felt that the games were lacking in plot or the universe was simplistic, then definitely try looking at this one. It might surprise you.

Verdict: 6/10


Long time reader of novels, occasional writer of science fiction and critic of many things; Bellarius has seen some of the best and worst the genre has to offer.
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