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HALO: The Thursday War by Karen Traviss
Cover Artist: Eddie Smith
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765333636
Date: 02 October 2012 List Price $27.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

It's a quiet time in the Halo universe. The war with the alien Covenant is over (we won), there's a massive artificial planet (Onyx) for the Office of Navy Intelligence to play with and exploit Forerunner technology, and Earth's space going really-big-stick, the Infinity, is just about ready for operations.

Dr. Katherine Halsey, the woman who engineered the Spartan super-soldier program that resulted in Halo's game character, Master Chief, as well as all the exoskeleton clad warriors, is being held under a sort of working house arrest because her methods fall short of ethical, including child napping and human experimentation.  As she points out in the prologue for Halo 4, the video game that covers approximately the same period, humanity owes its continued existence to her work, but with the war over, people tend to get picky about ethics. In Halo: The Thursday War, it turns out that this might not be quite the right time to get all that picky.

Anytime you think you're at peace, an old saying goes, it just mean that you're not paying attention to the fighting  because  it's not happening to you, so don't tell Kilo Five, ONI's top black ops team, that there's no conflict for them to wade into.  For openers, Venezia, a human colony world, is stirring up revolt, and a messy detail surfaces when they discover that one of the insurrectionists turns out to be the father of a member of Kilo Five. He's always believed that his daughter Naomi was replaced by a clone, one which died not long after, and as it happens, he's right.

But before Naomi can figure out whether to contact her father, or the team can figure out whether that's a good idea at all, they get diverted by a rescue mission for their civilian linguistics expert, who gets caught in the middle of a civil war on the Covenent's home world, where he was invited to visit a Forerunner “temple.”

Extracting Phillips in the middle of a civil war turns out to be difficult, especially since the very presence of the team on the planet is enough to rally the rebel forces against the incumbent we're carefully trying to keep in power...if not in strength. Then again, you can't count on a scientist to stay still when there's a whole alien maze to study, so even when the team arrives, they're not sure where to look.

Meanwhile...yes, there are other threads to follow as well…Jul, the alien rebel the team captured in the previous book (Halo: Glasslands), is working hard at finding a way to escape his imprisonment by ONI on ONYX, the artificial world that humans have taken over. ONYX was a Forerunner shield world, a lifeboat for that ancient race to hide out in when the Halo artifact scoured the galaxy of all sentient life, the only way to defeat something called the Flood.

It didn't work out for them as far as we can tell, since the shield world was abandoned, except for a bunch of very helpful alien caretakers keeping it in perfect condition for the last hundred thousand years. And the caretakers are friendly, in their own, alien way, and happy to rework human tech with a few Forerunner upgrades, though that may turn out to be a mixed blessing.  Unfortunately, in an attempt to give Jul enough rope to hang himself, his captors wind up slipping the noose around their own necks when he manages to convince one of the caretakers to help him escape, something that’s going to have repercussions down the line for sure.

What I like most about Karen Travis' take on the team is probably what others like least, and that's the way they wrestle with the gray areas of black operations, playing enemies against each other under the cover of covertly helping them, poisoning prisoners to see how bioweapons would affect their population, and walking away from civilians who had sheltered them moments before.  There's no sense that they like doing any of that; they do it because the mission requires it, and while they may not like it, they don't whine endlessly about it. The mission is to protect humanity, and though the Covenant may be contained at the moment, ONI isn't making the mistake of believing they've stopped wishing for the extermination of humanity. As Robert Redford's says in the movie Spy Game (2001), "When it's you or them, send flowers."

There's a fair amount of combat, but it's not the book's core, and that elevates this from simple game/mil-sf fiction to a story that resonates with today's political realities and as a character driven novel.

Though Halo: The Thursday War is the middle book in Travis' trilogy, it manages to stand on its own two feet just fine. The author has a handle on how teams work and that elevates her stories beyond simple tales of blood, guts, and glory, though that means that its considerably more nuanced than the video game it's based on. Still, if you've been playing Halo 4, you’ll recognize the universe it's set in, and you might even wind up on the Forerunner world the Infinity is bound to set course for in the final installment of this series. If you do, you'll find yourself hoping that Kilo-Five is in the neighborhood to help pick off a few hostiles.

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