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Sunday, February 26

JJ Reviews: Halo Cryptum by Greg Bear

Sometimes a story has been told to death. Think any James Bond, Freddy Kruger or Jack Reacher series - all done to death and often not highly original - they become past their use by date.

Eventually someone (a right's holder looking at diminishing returns) realizes the story is stale and reboot or retelling is necessary. Or else some dark secret that was merely hinted at is explored by way of a prequel.

Queue the Halo franchise - 5 Halo games in, a series of animations, cartoons and novels have followed. Some might argue that the Halo story is reaching or has reached its use by date. Whatever you think,  the story is now being split in two directions - 343 Industries think they have a new story for Halo 4 and Greg Bear has been given the task of telling a prequel story but a prequel perhaps unlike any other in that it's set 100,000 years before the age in which most people know the Halo universe. 

Halo Cryptum is the first of a trilogy known as The Forerunner Saga. Pitched as being "the first deep exploration into the time of the Forerunners, the creators and builders of the Halos. Almost nothing is known for sure about this ancient race. Worshipped by the Covenant as gods, their engineering relics pepper the galaxy, and their connection to humanity remains unanswered. "

Well frankly, Cryptum  raises more questions than it answers but that's OK as the plot gives a facinating glimpse into the origins of the Flood, an truly deep insight into the Forerunners and their struggles with what the presence of the Flood means for the 3 million planets that have sentient life. If you've seen Halo: Origins, that story puts Cryptum in context - this book is an exploration of the tales suggested in that story.

Thankfully, writer Greg Bear is no Alan Dean Foster of the Halo universe simply churning out the movie tie-in, his writing is tightly wound to the fabric of the Halo universe but he's been given the chance to add some real meat to the bones of the Forerunner's story which till now has only really been hinted at by the games.

He takes our antagonist 'Born Stellar' on a wonderful journey across the galaxy. Perhaps as a pawn of unseen masters, this 'manipular' interrupts the deep sleep of the Didact, a Forerunner whose knowledge of the universe could either save or perhaps destroy the galaxy. It's epic in concept but framed just right so that through the eyes of Born Stellar we see the ties of  his family and the secrets within it gradually being revealed to show that the treasure he seeks is not the treasure he'll find. 

A key point of plot, and spoiler alert here, is that it's revealed humans have been around much longer than the previous Halo canon has suggested - humans were once a thriving space travelling species that had fought a battle with the Flood, long before the Forerunners knew of its existence...

Cryptum also has carnivorous singing flowers which is always amusing in a science fiction novel. I named them 'Daughters of Audrey'.

As a piece of fiction, Halo: Cryptum isn't going to win the Booker Prize anytime soon, it has a slow pace in parts (save for an excellent finish involving court rooms and epic space battles), one could argue it's characters have little depth and that it's sometimes light on detail, such as lack of explanation of how some technology works.
I think that above gripes can be ignored if you just want to get inside the Halo universe a bit more deeply that you might have otherwise tread by playing the games. It gives an extraordinary insight into why the Halo games are the way they are (albeit they were written first!). That said, if you've never even heard of Halo before, you should still be able to follow Born Stellar's ride quite well.

I enjoyed Cryptum an immense deal and the moment I finished it, I grabbed my laptop and ordered the second book, Primordium. I can't hardly wait for it to arrive!

Extra for Experts: Trainspotters might note that the cover of Cryptum was also used in the Halo 4 Concept Art trailer.

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