For some fairly obvious reasons, there has been a taboo about videogame-inspired literature that is in essence the same as the taboo about videogame-inspired cinema. The short of it is, in general, the quality is quite low. I don't think that this has to do with the writers hired (usually), or with the transfer of the medium itself, but more to do with the fact that in general, the tasks and logic assigned to the player during an interactive play experience are essentially different to those assigned during a reading or viewing experience. This interactivity is, of course, an illusion (you can't argue about the particulars of a quest or directive, nor can you rebuke a foolish non-player character), but it gives the player a distinct sensation of control that other media can't replicate.
There are exceptions, however, to this "quality barrier" among the available videogame literature. Among them, the Halo novels have typically carried a bar-setting craftsmanship. They may not be built to the scale of an Alastair Reynolds epic, or as personal as an Orson Scott Card narrative, nor as hard-fact informed as a Niven novel, but they are usually solid reads that you can count on to keep you interested and change the way you think about the Halo-verse. This is due in large part to the fact that the Halo design team, now 343 Industries (owned by Microsoft) has a remarkable quality-control team that keeps their license under tight reign.
Strange, then, that Tobias Buckell's novel emerged the way it did. Cole Protocol, the sixth of a rapidly growing number of Halo novels, is easily one of the weakest installments. Note here that the Halo series is not one of those that degrades in quality over time; indeed, some of the strongest entries came later. This is due in part to the fact that 343i brings in new and established authors constantly. Buckell is one of the youngest and most untested authors they have brought in, and it is a wonder that they didn't assign more of an editorial team to the book. It is rife with typographical errors and strange phrasing that snaps the reader out of the narrative on an almost chapterly basis. Sometimes these errors occur page after page.
Thankfully, Cole Protocol's story is relatively easy to understand. There are four narratives: Jacob Keyes, a mainstay of the Halo-verse, Gray Team, a guerrilla Spartan trio, Thel Vadam'ee, a Covenant Shipmaster, and Ignacio Delgado, who is a pilot and guardian of the coveted coordinates to Earth, which are threatened under the titular Cole Protocol. Keyes and Thel are both investigating the sudden appearance of human-modified Covenant weapons into the human black market, while Delgado and Gray Team are playing cat-and-mouse with the coordinates. All four plot lines merge around the cobble-crafted space-station known as 'the Rubble,' which is the result of a joint effort of human and Kig-Yar engineering.
The Rubble alone is almost worth buying the book for. Almost. Megastructure science-fiction and Halo are like peanut butter and chocolate, but Buckell doesn't spend his time describing, exploring, or even developing the Rubble. He takes for granted that it is a marvel, only occasionally reminding us how large and uncanny this orbiting city made of anchored and colonized asteroid habitats is. This is a shame, since the time he spends enacting intrigue among the UNSC and Covenant forces makes for a pretty terrible, eye-rolling read. He had a golden goose in the form of the Rubble, and dropped the ball.
Part of this might have been due to the fact that there were just too many plotlines. Aside from Ignacio Delgado, there really aren't many compelling narrators in the book. Even the once-off guys are uninteresting. Keyes is whiny, the Spartans are too emotional, and Thel Vadam'ee is, frankly, one of the worst-written narrators I have read in some time. For an established, honorable, full-grown Sangheli master warrior, he has more self-doubt than an unggoy asked to design a nuclear reactor. For a fan of the series, the time spent in his head is uncomfortable and alien, but not in a good way. (But this makes sense, since he is breaking of one of my sci-fi rules.)
These problems, combined with the many, many typographical errors and jarring, stilted phrasing, makes for a difficult read. The charm that Buckell has by way of his sense of humor, too, is often ruined by the bizarre phrasing that sounds like it came off of an internet board with over-inflated intellects. Even a casual reader will notice often that there are repeated words together in the same sentence (e.g., "The unnogy randomly bumping around complaining about their random movements was giving Thel a headache") reads as if this is actually an honest-to-god fan fiction bound and published to the mass paperback market. Buckell also uses unusual terms that other established authors step around, making him sound like a player talking about the game, rather than an author dictating new canon. For example, instead of calling the Covenant's grenades "plasma grenades," he calls them "sticky grenades." In the other fiction entries, they go by the former name. Unexplained terminology changes are rife through the novel, and leaves me wondering, Where were the copy editors?
I hadn't read a Halo book since my early college years, and I was looking forward to diving into another one while I was on my honeymoon. Cole Protocol was a poor choice (especially since I had Kim Robinson's 2312 in the car). While it is a fun novel, to be sure, and has a fair amount of well-written action, the sheer volume of potential that was dropped makes the finished product look like a paltry, naked little thing. I know it is unfair to wonder what might have happened had the novel been handled by more sure hands, like Nylund of Traviss, but I can't help it. The Rubble was too cool an idea to dismiss as fast as it was, and if you're a high-caliber sci-fi fan, you ought to dismiss this one, too. It will only please the hardest core of the Halonauts.