The Halo universe is a big place. It isn’t as meticulously catalogued as some older franchises (cough Star Wars): there is no official map of the galaxy, although most of it takes place in and around real locations. Nevertheless, the story is branching out in all sort of directions, from Halo 5’s Master Chief tale to intelligence agents and newborn AI in the books and narrative podcast. Unfortunately, the latest short story collection set in the Halo universe doesn’t fully address them, providing a few enjoyable stories but many that feel oddly incomplete.
There is no “The Mona Lisa” here, no story that transcends its source material. One of the best stories, “Saint’s Testimony,” was previously available as an e-book. Written by Halo creative director Frank O’Conner, it plays with the idea of what artificial intelligence means in the franchise, building an entirely virtual world in which an AI stands trial. The story includes nice cameos from established characters, adds shades of meaning to Cortana’s tale by nature, and pleasantly stretches the limits of how a Halo story can be told.
Like “Saint’s Testimony,” the best installments in Fractures tend to be the longer ones. “Promises to Keep” follows the Forerunner cast back to the ruined Ark, once the center of their nearly godlike space empire. Greg Bear’s Forerunner trilogy is required reading for “Promises to Keep,” but author Christie Golden gets closer to the Forerunners’ perspective than Bear usually did, emphasizing their feelings of horror and guilt at what has happened to their ambitious plans.
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The Forerunners know that they, in part, brought about their own destruction. Bornsteller, the hero of the Bear trilogy, wants to make things right and take the capital back from the strange creature that captured it, while former leader Splendid Dust wallows in his own guilt. Both of those characters, plus the xenobiologist Chant-to-Green, are treated with care, and used to illustrate the Forerunners’ ancient tragedy in a way that feels more human and immediate than the ancient aliens usually do.
“Defender of the Storm” is also a good Forerunner story. We interviewed author John Jackson Miller, and his musings about heroism were particularly interesting in the light of the story. It places an everyman Forerunner into a dramatic adventure, and works well as both a slice-of-life story and an action story that feels very Halo. Adequate-Observer has to make a similar choice as the characters in “Promises to Keep,” whether to live with a dramatic decision or to fade into important obscurity, and it’s handled well.
I’m a big fan of Matt Forbeck’s Halo novel New Blood, but without Buck’s voice to give it character Forbeck’s story in Fractures stagnates a bit. The dialogue in “Lessons Learned” is stiff, and the plot feels more like two loosely connected vignettes than a single story.
That problem plagues a lot of the book. Two early stories feel simply unfinished, major plot questions left unanswered or climactic scenes oddly short. “Into the Fire” by Kelly Gay is written well, but ends on essentially a cliffhanger, an advertisement for Gay’s Halo novel, Smoke and Shadow, coming next year. Blurbs introducing each story are designed to orient them in the timeline, but because the stories are not in chronological order and the blurbs sometimes obscure events, these also just feel like a hook for fans who are into the franchise but may be missing a product somewhere along the way. “Into the Fire” is a nice look at the universe after the Human-Covenant War, though, with alien species mixing increasingly comfortably on the border planet of Venezia.
Unfortunately, one of the stories with the most potential also falls apart under scrutiny. “A Necessary Truth” is written by Troy Denning using characters he developed in “Last Light.” Former detective Veta Lopis is now the leader of a squad of volatile Spartan-IIIs. When a training exercise goes wrong, her distrust of ONI raises its head when she has to prove that one of her Spartans didn’t commit a murder. The story is an interesting puzzle, but it also depends on the characters intentionally withholding information, and casts the Spartans as more naive and accident-prone than they seem to be in the games.
Ex-Spartan and ONI heir apparent Serin Osman gets short shrift in “Rossbach’s World” too. The story, by Halo 5 lead writer Brian Reed, covers a fascinating event: the evacuation of key UNSC personnel after Cortana’s AI rebellion. It also addresses BB’s opinion on Cortana’s Created, which was handled well. However, the prose is a mess, written not so much as if it was a stylized children’s story but as if it was for children. The ideas are good, but games are made with a team – and this story could have used more feedback.
On the other hand, “Anarosa” by Kevin Grace is a tightly-written, unsettling look at the partially-willing subjects ONI uses to create its AI. If there’s an overarching theme in the collection, it’s about the parallel between Spartans and AI. Both have to question whether ruining a life temporarily is worth saving many potential lives in the future.
Although Fractures does catch up with characters like Serin Osman and Veta Lopis, the short story collection doesn’t feel at all essential. With hardly any room to breathe, many of the stories suffocate, and don’t have enough of a unique tone to satisfy as simply vignettes. Even for a die-hard Halo fan, the lack of atmosphere made this one hard to praise. Maybe check out “Saint’s Testimony” on its own.
Halo: Fractures is available now.
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.