Karen Traviss penned the story of Gears of War 3 which wrapped up the original trilogy in epic fashion and then when on to write a sizable chunk of the official novels, expanding on the universe in numerous ways. She has 5 books to her name before the series went on hiatus along with the games. Her books are typically seen as the top of the totem pole and have done immeasurable work in making Gears of War what it is today. Now that Gears is firmly back on our screens the books have made a comeback as well, with Jason Hough authoring two new titles. This is Michael Stackpole’s debut Gears novel, having formerly written works in other universes such as Star Trek. He’s got some big shoes to fill, because by licensed book standards and just by book standards in general, Karen Traviss was a strong author. So how does Michael stack up, and where do the books go from here?
The novel picks up shortly after the events of Gears of War 3. Delta Squad has successfully deployed the countermeasure device, seemingly eradicating the Locust threat once and for all. But while the Locust may be gone, a ruined planet has been left in their wake. The remnants of humanity are spread far and wide, cities are in ruins and infrastructure is largely non-existent. It’s a period of time the game’s skip over, going from Gears of War 3 to Gears 4 where civilization has managed to pick itself up, dust itself off and gone back to stabbing each other instead of stabbing monsters. Within those years of rebuilding, there are plenty of opportunities to tell interesting stories about Marcus, Anya, Delta Squad and others, so Stackpole certainly has plenty to work with under the purview of Microsoft and The Coalition.
We catch up with the legendary Marcus Fenix and Anya as they make the trip to Anya’s childhood home, the Stroud Estate which they hope can be fixed up and become a home for them and their future family. The burgeoning love between the two didn’t get a lot of room to breathe in the games where the need for constant action had to come first. This book presents the perfect chance to explore who these people can be outside of near-constant terror and combat Who are Marcus Fenix and Anya Stroud when they aren’t unloading a hail of bullets on underground monsters? Can Marcus even function without his armour or does he just fall over?
There’s barely any time to spend developing the relationship between Marcus and Anya however, as the author quickly splits the pair up, a decision I struggle to understand. Anya becomes tangled with the rebuilding of society and the many political machinations involved in such an ordeal. Meanwhile, Marcus heads out to investigate reports of Locust that have somehow survived the events of Gears of war 3. Whether or not there are still Locust out there or if it’s simply the humans being monsters this time is something you’ll need to read the book to find out for yourself, but Stackpole’s goes in some interesting directions. The chapters bounce between Marcus and Anya’s perspectives, with Anya’s leaning heavily on the political side of things while Marcus goes on a small tour of a few settlements, providing an interesting look at how people outside of the military have been surviving. This split POV isn’t a bad idea, but I would much rather have spent some time with Anya and Marcus together.
There’s a substantial time gap between Gears of War 3 and the new games, providing a huge range of events to cover. It seems like we’ll need to wait for the bigger events of that time period to be covered though, as this novel focuses on a very short span of time, never going anywhere near things like Anya becoming First Minister or the birth of Marcus and Anya’s first child via the fertility program. This feels like a much more self-contained story, almost to its own detriment. By the final page, I felt like nothing of substance had happened in the wider Gears universe. On reflection, that’s not entirely fair because a lot of what happens is laying the foundation for everything else to come, making this book a tricky proposition for Stackpole.
A few aspects get either forgotten about or swept under the rug deliberately. In particular, the COG seems to almost disappear in the book entirely, as if they were disbanded. It’s odd that the military would simply vanish instead of them becoming the de-facto faction in power since they’re the only ones with some semblance of organization outside of some settlements. But the book acts as though every surviving COG shrugged and ambled off into the distance. A few brief mentions indicate that the COG does still exist in some capacity, and we know they have a major role down the line, but it feels like the author wasn’t sure what do to with them here and now. While various people scheme, plot, plan and ponder how to rebuild the world the COG seems content to linger in the background like the socially shy friend at a party.
I do appreciate the small attempts to tackle how Marcus Fenix and his fellow soldiers would be mentally beaten down from years of fighting monsters that displayed no mercy and would even eat people. We get an inner monologue from Marcus that gifts the author the chance to present a more human side of Fenix than his grunting would normally allow, and that lets us see him trying to deal with his own trauma. It’s only a passing aspect of the book, but at least it’s addressed in some way. I don’t know about you, but if I had spent years chainsawing monsters in half I probably wouldn’t be the most mentally sound guy. On top of that, Marcus also has to deal with a level of mistrust from civilians who have grown to fear the COG, especially because of their use of the Hammer of Dawn super-weapon. There’s a feeling that if a COG soldier turns up in your settlement, trouble is sure to follow.
It’s fair to say that if you’re a fan of the franchise like myself then the blood, guts and violence are all par for the course. And so you might also expect any written work to be similar. However, Ephyra Rising is actually very light on action, focusing more on the political and social struggles of trying to rebuild a destroyed world. That isn’t to say there’s no action at all, but it’s kept minimal with the main bulk of it toward the end. When the bullets do start flying it’s written passably but lacks the flair that other Gears writer Karen Traviss has imbued her novels with.
I do appreciate the core idea of the book, though. While the chainsaws, machismo and bro-dudeness of the franchise take centre stage there’s still an interesting world and lore behind it all, and a cast of likeable people. Novels are a perfect opportunity to explore that world and provide different perspectives, to give us new ways to engage with Delta Squad outside of nailing active reloads. While we’d probably all love to think that humanity would band together to rebuild, the reality is it would be a complicated process fraught with politics, arguments and debates about what should be done first, who should do it and so on and so on. A good example is how Anya ends up having to deal with people who are focused on how wealth will be handled because those who had money before E-Day want to ensure their prior wealth is returned to them. It’s the kind of nonsensical stupidity that would likely occur, even while there are so many bigger issues to deal with.
Easily the biggest problem with the book is how the romantic elements are handled. The tricky thing is that the games never did give us an idea of how Marcus would be in a loving relationship, so my criticisms here largely stem from how I perceive Marcus to be. Their relationship is portrayed as kind of lovey-dovey. They sit by a fire, sip wine and refer to each other as “love.” It’s fairly cliche, and I struggle to reconcile it with either Marcus or Anya. Perhaps it would have worked if the author hadn’t split the couple up so quickly and had instead spent time on exploring the romantic sides of the two so that us readers could mentally meld kickass Marcus Fenix with lovey-dovey Marcus Fenix. But without that time I just couldn’t buy into their love and was left feeling like Marcus in particular had a split personality. As a character he’s always been a man of few words, expressing himself more through action, which doesn’t come through in this book or in his relationship with Anya. By the final page, I still didn’t have an understanding of why Marcus and Anya love each other. Does Marcus think she’s actually a Lancer in a wig?
There are a few other characterization problems throughout the book, too. Damon Baird, for example, has jumped from being a mechanical engineering wizz to being a wizz at everything. His dallying in robotics and other things throughout the book are somewhat believable since it’s not too far from his wheelhouse, but it’s still a leap. Cole fares better. He is busy managing Thrashball teams and trying to bring joy back into the world via the medium of sport. It’s believable that Cole would reckon Thrashball is a priority, and his big personality means people would easily gravitate toward him. Even so, there’s still something a little off about him. However, I do expect Stackpole will get a firmer grasp on these characters by his next book, assuming he’s producing one.
With the novel only covering a few months after Gears of War 3 there’s still plenty of room to expand on the events between games, especially since Ephyra Rising sets up a couple more plot points at the end to be explored. One especially is going to be interesting since it doesn’t get mentioned in the later games or books, at least not that I can remember. I’m not sure how Michael Stackpole is going to tie everything together. On top of that, there are a host of other characters and stories that can be mined.
Simply put, Ephyra Rising is a solid read, neither particularly memorable nor particularly bad. I had a good time with it, but doubt I’ll ever go back for a second read like I have done with some of Karen’s prior Gears books. It doesn’t jump into the bigger plot points between games and because of that it does come across as somewhat inconsequential in the bigger picture, but that also makes it a good, light read. The Gears universe has plenty of scope for these smaller stories, and I do like the idea of focusing a little less on the blood and guts and more on the politics and the world. However, I think it’s also fair to say that some fans might find corruption and politicking too dry and cliche. Finally, Stackpole doesn’t quite seem to have a firm grasp on the character’s voices yet, although I imagine by his next book, assuming there will be one, he’ll have it nailed.