By most accounts, Staffan Sentzke is at least slightly unhinged. A member of an independent government of a distant colony planet, he, like most of his associates, fears that Earth will start asserting its authority over its colonies now that the decades-long war against a genocidal alien alliance has ended. Staffan lost his young daughter to a disease born of genetic defect; her mother, Staffan’s wife, blamed herself for the genetic fault and took her own life shortly afterward.
The trouble is, Staffan refuses to accept not just the doctors’ diagnosis, but also that the child who died was actually his daughter. He maintains that the dead child is some sort of replacement, that his real daughter was taken from him and his wife. Staffan believes he’s not alone, that he’s uncovered a pattern of healthy children suddenly taking ill and dying across the colonies, often after a brief disappearance. Few, even within his new family, truly believe him.
The real trouble is, Staffan is one hundred percent right.
The child who died was a clone; the girl who was once Naomi Sentzke was taken by Earth, trained in commando warfare and genetically modified to eventually become SPARTAN-010, one of the unit of supersoldiers made famous in the war against the Covenant and sister-in-arms to the greatest Spartan of them all, the Master Chief.
Now, Naomi-010 has been assigned to Kilo-Five, a unit of Naval Intelligence special operatives tasked with ensuring another war doesn’t break out by keeping any potential enemies, especially the shattered fragments of the once mighty Covenant, from becoming powerful enough to challenge Earth again. But as the colonies start seeking the strength to ensure Earth won’t meddle further, Naomi seems set on a collision course with the father she barely remembers – a course made even more catastrophic by the fact that, before the Covenant arrived, the original target of the Spartans was the colonial insurrection…
Karen Traviss has a way of taking fictions about uber space badasses and telling tales about regular human beings doing ugly things in the hope of preventing uglier things from coming to pass. Almost all of her characters have senses of humour and few are blind to the sad ironies of their situations. She did it in the Star Wars: Republic Commando series, about an elite squad of clone troopers born and bred for war behind enemy lines, and she does it again in the Kilo-Five trilogy for another video game, Halo.
As much as this is Naomi’s story, the Kilo-Five trilogy (Glasslands, The Thursday War and Mortal Dictata) is the story of everyone on the team and more besides. Karen is a master of multiple viewpoints, letting us look at the actions of its characters through their own eyes, from the leader of Kilo-Five, future head of Naval Intelligence and wash-out of the SPARTAN programme, Serin Osman, through the two ODST troopers assigned to the team, Mal and Vaz, the team’s artificial intelligence, Black Box and even their opponents, from the wife of an alien Elite warrior seeking her husband, through a bird-like Skirmisher aiming to secure a Covenant battlecruiser for her own species’ sake and even the driven, embittered Staffan himself (who doesn’t truly appear until the third novel, Mortal Dictata). They banter, share good times, disagree, fight and not one of them is rendered unsympathetic. Each one of them deserves a happy ending that the complicated nature of the universe they inhabit won’t let them have; the story is more about what peace they can work out for themselves in the resulting mess of compromises, especially in the dirty world of espionage.
I think my criteria for a satisfying story is one where I feel like the characters are real people whose company I’ve been glad to spend my time in, and the Kilo-Five trilogy delivers, so much so that after having finally read the last book I’m going back to the start with Glasslands. Naomi’s story in particular, of working to square her conditioning as a warrior in the cause of the human race with her slowly-revealed past as a kidnapped child with a father who never gave up looking for her and what that means for her future, is gripping, but what makes it more so is Naomi’s colleagues and friends’ reactions to what was done to her in the name of Earth and the choices they make about their mission and cause as the ugly truth comes to light.
If there’s a downside it’s that, like with most licensed fiction, it helps to know what’s come before to understand what’s going on here. The Kilo-Five trilogy doesn’t just occur between the games Halo 3 and Halo 4; Glasslands is a sequel to the novel Ghosts of Onyx, with one part of the narrative focusing on a group of that novel’s characters and their actions directly after the end of Ghosts of Onyx. New readers might wind up feeling a bit lost with all the talk of Spartans and Sangheili, Engineers and Forerunners, Shield Worlds and Halos.
But the Kilo Five trilogy is still a great, entertaining read. I’ll have to track some more of Traviss’ other work down soon.