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It’s time once again for the Halo book club, and it seems that Contact Harvest wasn’t a fluke as this is another Halo book set in the universe but far away from ANY of the games! Still, Contact Harvest was one of the better books we’ve read so far (and that’s including the comic books they’ve tried to do), so perhaps this one will also prove to be a solid sci-fi adventure despite not having the Master Chief or Cortana’s marketable faces on the cover. Let’s find out!!
The Cole Protocol – Novel (2008)
The Cole Protocol is written by Tobias Buckell
So it seems that Contact Harvest being a prequel wasn’t a one off for the book series and that we’ll be spending more time AROUND the Halo games than telling stories between. Continuity wise it’s SOMEWHERE in that nebulous space between Contact Harvest and The Fall of Reach, though leans much close to the latter since the Spartans are around and doing their thing for the war effort. This time though things are a lot less IN YOUR FACE BOMBAST as the story feels much closer to a spy thriller with various factions trying to out maneuver everyone else over a colony that shouldn’t even be there. Frankly it’d be more accurate to call this The Rubble instead of The Cole Protocol, but I guess protocol sounds cooler so they went with that. In any case, the story takes place in the secret separatist colony known as The Rubble; one big town hidden amongst a whole bunch of asteroids that are held in place by an AI named Juliana who is VERY invested in keeping this hunk of junk livable. Some of them are Insurrectionists, some are there for the great trading opportunities, and all of them want nothing to do with the UNSC; so much so that they’ve more or less made a peace agreement with the Kig-Yar; the Jackals of The Covenant who are MUCH more interested in finding and trading loot than spreading the world of The Forerunners and blowing up heretics. Sadly, this state of affairs cannot last forever as there appear to groups within The Rubble trying desperately to get their hands on a data chip that has detailed navigational data to Earth which could spell doom for humanity if The Covenant got their hands on it. To make matters worse, both a UNSC ship (eventually commanded by a younger Captain Keyes) as well as an Elite ship manage to come across this unauthorized “peace” which only escalates tensions and forces the hands of those who have sinister plans for all involved. Who is trying to get this data, and what do they plan to do with it? Are the Kig-Yar sincere in their desire to keep this colony out of the greater war, and what consequences could befall them for taking such a stance? And on top of all this there’s a small group of Spartans watching all of this and pushing events towards some sort of end goal that may ultimately be in Earth’s best interest, but is The Rubble and the people who built it just collateral damage? I’m not about to say that the book is evenhanded with its politics as military wisdom and strong leaders tend to fare better than those who follow more democratic ideas, but the fact that we’re bouncing around various stories with characters driven by believable motivation makes this one more genuinely engaging novels in the series so far.
The interactions between the characters are what really make this work as well as it does. Not so much the way each person is written as they ALL fall into the stock archetypes for these kind of stories, but the fact that all of these disparate people with radically different beliefs and experiences have to come together was a refreshing change of pace for a series that prized conformity and unyielding duty above all else. Sure, some of the colonists are a bit much, particularly the villainous Peter Bonifacio, but there’s no one even approaching Governor Jacob Jiles with his pony tail and cup holders and Keyes actually cares about doing the right thing even if it rubs up against his stated orders. The three Spartans in here, Adriana, Jai, and Mike, are also perhaps the most interesting and fun we’ve seen so far in the books; even more so than the Chief himself. I really liked the idea that these Spartans are willful loners who rebelled against Halsey’s program and that she was flexible enough to make room for them. It’s not enough to justify the franchise’s weird obsession with child soldiers (and killing the heck out of them), but these three have SO much more humanity and spirit to them that it finally feels like we’re following people who have minds of their own and aren’t just good at punching things.
Perhaps my eye rolling mild-disdain for the UNSC has made me a bit TOO sympathetic to the other side of these conflicts, but in my defense the villains of these novels are almost always the better written characters, and while the writing is pretty solid across the board the villains do stand out as genuinely fascinating. The Kig-Yar are ultimately working against the humans through a convoluted plan by the Prophet of Truth, but throughout the story and from what you hear of their interactions with the humans, it’s almost tragic that they end up finding a way to live the scavenger life they’ve always wanted in The Rubble yet can’t extricate themselves from Covenant rule to truly embrace this life and leave the stifling caste system of The Covenant behind. There’s also a faction of Grunts working and to defend a possible new home for themselves on a methane rich planet near the rubble, and you can see just how far they are willing to go when they have something worth fighting for. It’s clear WHY everyone involved with The Rubble are so eager to defend it because despite whatever issues there may be there’s at least a sense of freedom and self-determination that proves to be a better arbiter of peace than the larger sides from which they obsessively come from; making it all the more tragic when the rest of the galaxy inevitably comes crashing down on them in the form of Keyes’ crew and a ship of Elites on a mission from one of the prophets. As usual, the Elites are fun characters to follow as their over the top Warrior Code obsession is what gives them their strength over the other Covenant races but also sets a firm glass ceiling as their zealotry often leaves them boxed in uncomfortable situations. A ship lead by none other than Thel ‘Vadam (The Arbiter in Halo 2 and 3) is sent by the Prophet of Regret to investigate modified Forerunner weapons which is a blasphemy of the highest order, and yet once they get to the Rubble, see what the Kig-Yar are up to, and delve further only to find that this was all part of another of the Prophet’s plan; that the blasphemy was allowed to happen by one of the three most holy members of their religion. It’s somewhat humorous that they more or less bumbled their way into someone else’s operation that they are now utterly screwing up, but the disillusionment here is a clear prelude to The Elites rebelling against The Covenant and why they were targeted for extermination by The Prophets in Halo 2.
There are a few things that hold me back from saying it’s as good as First Strike or better than Contact Harvest. Perhaps it’s the way I read this book (I listened to the audiobook while moving) but there are a lot of details that just didn’t stick and so I had a bit of trouble grasping the bigger picture. Locations in particular were hard for me to visualize as I wasn’t sure just how big The Rubble was or how the people lived on it (are they all just interconnected space stations on asteroids or were these more like planetoids with atmosphere that people lived on?) and I never got a real sense of what life was like on this place outside of a few scenes in a bar that definitely gave it a Space Deadwood type of feel. How far apart certain groups are from one another at any given time, how close the secret Unggoy planet was to all of this, and I had to look up details on the Exodus project to make figure out it was a planet or just a giant space ship. The moment to moment action and story work very well, but trying to connect them all together is a lot like the Rubble itself; held together with string and it’s a miracle the that it all doesn’t collapse in on itself immediately.
The books are definitely improving after reaching their nadir with Ghost of Onyx, and I can only hope that things get even better from here because I’ve got A LOT more of them to read! The idea of The Rubble as a sort of lawless West for this series where peace is maintained by the LACK of rule of law is a brilliant setup and fits well as a foil for the rest of the franchise’s overwhelming adherence to duty and military deference. It’s too bad that the book itself never quite captures that as everything critical to the story happens AROUND the colony itself instead of taking place within it, but even if it’s not everything it COULD have been it’s still one of the more fulfilling entries so far. I know that I liked it more than Contact Harvest despite the lack of Avery Johnson, though the lack of Chief himself does hold it back a bit and brings it a TINY bit below First Strike; though I suppose I’ll need to get used to that as the books seem to be going further and further away from the games themselves to explore other eras and characters in the universe. It’s kind of a shame, but if the rest of the books are at least as good as this one then I’ll find a way to manage!
So you may be wondering why I’m only covering one book here when I usually cover two in these pieces. Well the next book in the series is Halo: Evolutions which is a collection of short stories, and when I first heard of that I thought great! A few stories that I could look at individually like the Halo Graphic Novel, and perhaps it’ll be just as breezy to get through! Well then I looked up the page count and it is OVER FIVE HUNDRED PAGES, making it the longest of ANY of the novels up to this point. So yeah, that’s gonna get its own roomy piece next week. Cant’ wait to tell you all about it!