I’ve often had the unenviable task of patiently explaining to other gamers why I really just don’t care about the Halo series. It’s not that I dislike them, it’s just that the gameplay really doesn’t click with me, though I thoroughly enjoy the multiplayer for its inherent carnage. But I’ve always loved the characters and lore. In fact when Halo 4 came around I ditched playing the game at first and just watched the inevitable “MOVIE” version put up on Youtube which basically just jams together all the cutscenes, opting to purchase and play the game much later when it was heavily discounted. So when a chance came around to review the last Halo book penned by Peter Hines it seem like a no-brainer – all the story without the gameplay. Sounds good to me.
Of course the problem is that I don’t have a clue how to review a book, and I have a deep suspicious that most of today’s smartphone loving kids don’t actually know what a book is anyway. I read voraciously ever single day and obviously I write reviews for games and even movies sometimes, but those mediums can be broken down into lots of different elements that can then be critiqued individually before finally talking about it as a whole package, whereas a book has always somewhat baffled me. I know good writing from bad, or at least I like to think I do, but trying to express the difference in writing of my own is…well, an illusive concept. I don’t have the words.
But let’s give it a go, eh? You can always have a good laugh at the end at my expense.
Halo: Hunters in the Dark takes place in the year 2555, two years after Master Chief went missing following the events on Installation 00 and therefore placing the book between Halo 3 and Halo 4. A tenuous peace exists between humanity and the Elites, but it gets put to the test when a Halo installation that’s being explored suddenly begins counting down. To the horror of everyone it turns out that the entire Halo array is also counting down, and unsurprisingly when the countdown hits zero they’ll all activate, killing all sentient life within the galaxy. It’s quickly asserted that the only way to stop this and find out who or what activated the Halos is to travel to the Ark, the very Forerunner installation responsible for the construction of the Halo array a hundred thousand years prior. To get there in time, though, the humans need the help of the Elite to open the portal above Earth, thus we have the foundation of our story as a group of both species must venture forth and save…well, everybody.
If this all seems like nonsense to you then that’s probably because you aren’t up to speed with the Halo series, which does beg the question of whether someone without any knowledge of the Halo franchise could pick this off the bookshelf and read it as a sci-fi novel without feeling lost? The answer, I believe, is yes. The author has attempted to fit enough exposition into the book that people unfamiliar with the series could probably just about muddle through, managing to understand, at least in rough terms, who and what everything is, as well as some of the historical context.
This, though, is where some of the problems begin. The general quality of the writing is decidedly average, the construction of the sentences and plot never really flowing as nicely as one would hope, and the fact that exposition for the general Halo universe is also jammed into the book doesn’t help. On top of that exposition for the book’s main narrative is also wedged into the pages as well, and the end result is prose and dialogue that often feels awkward and stilted. A key quality of good writing is being able to smoothly insert the information that the reader needsin order to fully understand the situation or a character’s reasoning into the plot, but Peter David seems to struggle with this. There’s even some tense scenes that come to a grinding halt so that some little piece of exposition can be slotted in or so that something that happened can be shoved into the readers face. There’s very little subtlety in the book, with almost every important character moment or plot point covered several times. It feels like the reader isn’t trusted to understand the interactions between characters, or why certain things happen. Even moments completely free of exposition don’t fare a whole lot better, including such painful lines as, “He saved my life. Damn him.” This line of thought came from a Spartan who was saved by another character to whom he held a rather significant grudge. I’m sorry, but that’s some pretty bad writing. Who says or even thinks something like that? It’s hardly the only example. Transitions are also clumsy, especially in regards to a couple of them that begin by recapping previous events, again demonstrating a complete lack of trust in the reader. However, in the interests of fairness and especially since I’ve come across as nothing short of disdainful so far, Peter Davids writing is solid. It’s what you would probably describe as unspectacular work, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading.
It feels like the book either needed to be longer so that the author had some space to work with in order to better spread the exposition, or it needed to be written for Halo fans only, meaning removing all exposition regarding aspects of the Halo universe that fans would already be quite aware of, such as who the Spartans are or what the monitors are. I feel like the second option would be better, because if I sit here and flip through the book and mentally remove sentences and snippets of dialogue which only seem to exist to clue in non-fans then much of the writing seems to flow better. More importantly even though an attempt is made to make the novel work for non-fans, they are still going to be relatively lost. As I said earlier I think they could just about muddle through it, and maybe enjoy it, but it would be a slog for them. So why not cut the offending material out and use the space to better serve the story?
Moving on to the actual plot, a key aspect of the novel is the meeting of two very different cultures in the form of the Humans and the Elite, or Senghalli, if you will. It’s probably this aspect of the novel that intrigued me the most, as the potential for some fascinating cultural conflict was huge, as was the potential of discovering more about the Elites and their customs. However, this element of the story felt like it was pretty weakly utilised in the grand scheme of things, the relationship between the Elites and their Human counterparts only occasionally explored in any meaningful way past some pretty bog-standard interaction that’s been seen or read a thousand times in other places, which isn’t even to mention an incredibly underwhelming subplot surrounding one of the Spartans, named Kodiak, having to work with an Elite that he had fought during the conflict between the Covenant and humanity which should have been far more tense than it ultimately was. There’s another subplot involving Kodiak that comes across as actually be rather pointless, and more than a little coincidental, especially considering the fact that very Elite which harmed Kodiak just so happened to get posted to a mission where the two have to work together, too. One major coincidence is fine, but two of them involving the same character is just stupid, especially when the second one doesn’t even serve the story in any meaningful way.
A lot of the problems stems from the lackluster characterisation, of which the Elites suffer the most as half their number feel ignored entirely and the other two have nothing but a shallow, “proud warrior” personalities, which is truly a shame because they are N’tho ‘Sraom and Usze ‘Taham, two names Halo fans should be familiar with. The humans fare just a touch better, but are still nothing more than vague personalities that have no notable depth to them past some surface traits, though it’s nice to see another familiar character in the form of Olympia Vale get fleshed out just a bit. Nor does either species have what could be defined as character development along the way, the book ending with them having apparently grown very little over the course of the story, other than the expected gaining of respect for the opposite species , and even that doesn’t feel as powerful as it should have. Of the bunch Luther Mann felt like the most interesting to me, a specialist on the Elites who became strangely fascinated with the species after they destroyed his home planet when he was younger. Despite obviously being afraid of them he also found them oddly compelling. Spartan Holt, meanwhile, probably had the most outright potential, showing a youthful, enthusiastic personality that contrasts the typical Spartan attitude nicely. Hopefully we’ll see more of him in the upcoming three books that are due out this year.
I find some issues elsewhere, namely in the use of an AI during the book that heads down a completely predictable and clichéd route,. Now, to be clear using well-worn idea isn’t too much of a problem provided it’s done well, after all there’s plenty of games, books and movies that use incredibly well-trodden narrative routes that still turn out to be great, but as we’ve already discussed the quality of the writing here is average, making the use of such a cliché a shame. Still, without spoiling its role in the book the AI does prove to be an interesting piece in the novel.
But hey, there’s some genuinely great stuff in the book, too, including plenty of neat little tidbits of information that expand the Halo universe a tad more, and it was pretty cool to see the Blind Wolves included, a creature intended to be in the very first Halo game but never made it. And while the dialogue is often clumsy, there’s some good moments of interaction between the characters, such as a Senghalli being surprised to learn of Vale’s ability to speak their language, and of Luther Mann’s knowledge of the. Plus there’s some well penned action sequences. But even these good moments lack the impact that they should have had because of the characters. While I enjoyed the depiction of action within the pages I didn’t find myself caring about the characters themselves, which in turn undermined any sense of danger. But hey, who doesn’t enjoy energy sword duel, emotional resonance or not? And if I’m not mistake it’s also the first time one has been depicted in Halo’s written fiction. The Ark itself was a nice choice of setting, giving the author plenty of tools to create challenges for the team, including a pretty cool tree that tries to kill them all. Here the author strangely seems more adept at creating personality out of the environment than he does out of the actual characters. It’s a great place to set a book, and David’s descriptions do a good job of bringing it to life. He also manages to do what a lot of other sci-fi writers struggle with; emphasising the sense of scale.
Halo: Hunters in the Dark can be best described as one of those books that you enjoy while reading, and then kind of completely forget about after just a few days, the characters and events blurring in your memory before fading away almost entirely, perhaps leaving just one or two scenes or snippets of dialogue. As Halo book it’ll be a decent read for fans since it expands the universe in a couple of neat little ways, but ranks far below other offerings that have come before, and as a book in general it’s merely okay. Should you run out and go buy it right now? No. But if you want a Halo fix or just don’t have anything to read at the moment then go ahead and pick it up as a pleasant way to while away some hours.