Halo: Battle Born – On Lost Childhood and the Value of YA Literature

“If the Covenant hadn’t attacked, she would just be getting out of school. Maybe meeting up with Victor to do homework and talk about his holo-film.The normal world felt like a dream, fragmented and half-forgotten.”

One day, life is normal.

You go to school, to work, or you have a day in and spend the time doing what makes you happy. You’re writing, or drawing, maybe you’re filming or watching something, or reading a book, or catching up with a friend, or worrying about what to wear…

But you know – or, at least, some part of you does – that it could all end in an instant. That’s all it will take. Your home, your job, your family, your friends – your life.

This is not a bedtime story, some frightening fairy tale to entertain or scare young children; this is as real to you as the feeling of a book in your hand, a hot dinner to eat, an AI to hack, a concert to visit, a tree to climb, homework to be bored with.

This is what happens on the day the Covenant drops out of the sky to tear down your world.

In the many tellings of this story, never has it been told quite like this before.I have observed a rather unfortunate tendency towards dismissing YA literature, which is something that I find perplexing – a word which here means that it is confusing for a variety of reasons I will elucidate over the course of this article.

The dominant perception of this genre in geek culture seems to have broadly evolved out of cultural osmosis from two things: Twilight and the film adaptations of The Hunger Games. In the case of the former, it’s with disdain; in the case of the latter, it’s with a sense of “Well, I guess it can be okay.”

And that is something that simply doesn’t make sense.

It’s akin to judging the entire shooter genre of video games based on the cultural status of Halo and Call of Duty, which is something I’m sure you’d raise your brow at – right?

One should find it immensely strange that those kinds of attitudes have been directed at Halo: Battle Born for its association with the YA genre when Halo’s audience and community is (has always been, and will continue to be) largely composed of people who grew up playing the series when they were at the younger end of the genre’s target market.

I myself was seven years old when The Fall of Reach and the original Halo released in 2001, as were most of my friends who I played the game with.

We grew up playing the games through our teens; writing fan fiction; cosplaying; engaging in theorycrafting on the Bungie Universe forum, and setting up our own communities.

(Indeed, the lore-oriented Halo Archive – of which I am one of the original founding members – has its roots in 2010/11, when I was sixteen.)

The engagement of youth with fandom, people who grow up alongside their favourite universes, is essential to the survival and growth of a series. Indeed, they often go on to become the ones telling its stories.

That is not something that one should turn their nose up to, nor at a literary genre made for those people (which can be read and enjoyed by people of all ages).

Once upon a time, that was you.

Once upon a time, you found that magical.


FOLKS NEED HEROES

Stories are part of what enable us to relate to other people – people who, in various ways, may or may not be like ourselves – by seeing through their eyes.

That is, ultimately, the entire purpose of this exercise – why we tell stories. To build some kind of empathy and chase that thing we all find ourselves seeking, especially during our teenage and early adult years: understanding.

We latch onto characters with whom we see our emotions and experiences and identities echoed.

It’s healing in the magical kind of way that the right arrangement of letters to form the right words, which are then put in the right order and read by the right person, is.

YA literature is defined by it being written from the perspective of young people, generally around the ages of twelve-to-eighteen. It gives them a voice and tackles the questions of what issues young people are facing.

The odyssey from childhood to adulthood can be a lonely and frightening one. There’s a reason why we’ve had a word for it in literary criticism for over two hundred years (Bildungsroman), for a kind of story that has been told for over two thousand – going back to Telemachus’s own coming-of-age voyage from Ithaca to Pylos and Sparta in Homer’s Odyssey, and beyond.

YA stories frequently explore how teenagers deal with hard-hitting subjects, such as mental health, queer identity, bullying, sex, addiction, racism, terminal illness, death – the experience of these things from the perspective of young people is very different to stories about adults dealing with similar subjects.

It’s a safe way for young readers to gain some degree of knowledge about life experiences that may (and likely will) affect them throughout their lives.And, well… this isn’t really Halo’s first foray into the YA genre.

The obvious example to go for would be Matt Forbeck’s Halo: Legacy of Onyx novel, which released in 2017, following Molly Patel and other teenage characters of varying races (human, Unggoy, and Sangheili) in the multi-species Paxopolis within Onyx.

But how about a less obvious example?

Halo: Cryptum.

Set 100,000 years ago, during the final years of the Forerunner-Flood war, we are told this story from the perspective of Bornstellar-Makes-Eternal-Lasting, who is twelve years old at the time.

Bornstellar is a Manipular, the title of an adolescent who hasn’t been moulded into their place in society yet through a process called ‘mutation,’ which physically and mentally changes a young Forerunner (it’s Space Puberty).

What’s notable about Cryptum is the fact that the Flood aren’t in it at all. They’re only mentioned. Mendicant Bias doesn’t even appear until the concluding chapters of the book.

This is because Cryptum is the story of Bornstellar learning about Forerunner society and finding his place in it.

He’s born into the Builder rate (the highest of their castes), only to find himself thrown into circumstances where he must become a Warrior-Servant – the bottom rung of their society, culturally shunned and looked down upon because of the dirty work they have to do in order to ensure the Forerunners’ rule of the Mantle is unchallenged.

All my young life I had lived on an invisible cushion of civilisation. The struggles and designs of thousands of years of history had brought me to this pinnacle. I had had to exhibit only the tiniest minima of self-discipline to inherit the place my family had planned for me: the life of a privileged Forerunner, the very notion of which I found so restraining.

My privilege – to be born and raised all unaware of what Forerunners had had to do to protect their position in the galaxy: moving opposing civilizations and species aside, taking over their worlds and their resources, undermining their growth and development – reducing them to a population of specimens. Making sure their opponents could never rise again, never present a threat to Forerunner dominance, all while claiming the privilege of protecting the Mantle.

Mopping up after the slaughter.

How many species had collapsed beneath our hypocrisy, stretching how far back in time? What was myth, what was nightmare, what was truth? My life, my luxury – rising from the crushed backs of the vanquished, who were destroyed or deevolved

And what did that mean, precisely? Had the humans defeated by the Didact and his fleets been forced into sterility, senescence without reproduction, or had they been forced to watch their children subjected to biological reduction, to becoming lemurs again? [Halo: Cryptum, p. 126-7]

Cryptum is a story about the blinding effect societal privilege has on youth, perpetuating generational cycles of maintaining the power structures that maintain a stagnant status quo – not just on a broad scale (the other races of the galaxy), but within their own societal politics too.

(This is a narrative that remains politically pertinent today…)

Before you can end the world, you have to show what is going to be lost in the fire – otherwise there’s just no hook for people to care about the drama.

Greg Bear’s Forerunner Saga is quite rightly perceived as a Tolkien-esque trilogy, one that echoes a classical style of both Homer and hard science fiction.

And that is framed within something that fits the bill for YA literature, something I think ought to be acknowledged more in this discourse:

Halo: Cryptum is a YA dystopia novel.

*Drops microphone.*


STILL GOT SOMETHING TO SMILE ABOUT

*Hastily runs back to pick up microphone.*

Whoops, sorry – I wasn’t actually finished there…

Over the years, our glimpses into domesticity in Halo have been quite limited. It is difficult to really describe the ‘normal world’ for your everyday citizen of the universe.

The Human-Covenant war is one that takes and takes, but rarely do we get to see – with any real intimacy – what it takes.

We see the buildings collapse and the people running for their lives and the lances of plasma that impact on the ground, all framed within the larger purpose of what the Covenant are after – told from the perspective of somebody who can fight them.

Children, and the idea of the childhood they’ve lost, have been central to the series since the start, but never before have we really had a story that explores what childhood is for the average human in the Halo universe.

What does it look like?

What does humanity really look like outside of the military-industrial complex and other conventional sci-fi trappings?

Halo: Battle Born finally looks to answer that question. That much is made instantly clear from the blurb:

“Saskia, Dorian, Evie, and Victor aren’t exactly friends at their small high school in the middle-of-nowhere colony world of Meridian. Each has their own problems, from absent parents to supporting their family, getting into a good college to making the next hit holo-film.” [Halo: Battle Born, blurb]

In following the perspective of these teenagers, Battle Born gets to tell a story that is singularly unique in the series. The questions from which it begins with are to do with the things the average person is concerned about on a day-to-day basis.

What do they aspire to? What do children grow up to want to be?

The very first page of Battle Born sets the tone of this starting point beautifully.

Evie waited until her father was grading student papers before she approached his door. He always said that he hated to be interrupted during grading, but over the years, Evie had learned the opposite was true, that really he was grateful for the break. It meant he was more likely to say yes to whatever it was she wanted to do.

This discovery was a tactical maneuver Evie was careful not to overuse. But she suspected she would need it for the concert. [Halo: Battle Born, p. 1]

Lying in wait, observing and learning about her target, finding a strategic weakness – a “tactical maneuver” – to exploit…

Evie approaches her father to ask if she can go to a concert like a military operation.

That has to be one of the best openings a Halo story has ever had.The concert is a great place for the story to start because it gives us a glimpse at what the culture of youth in Halo on a colony world like Meridian looks like.

Music is part of the fabric of everyday life. It, and the aesthetic that youth adopts around it, really goes a long way to substantiating what humanity is off the battlefield. People construct images and movements around music which informs and reflects aspects of culture and society.

This is something that isn’t used in worldbuilding quite as much as it should be, but Cassandra Clarke uses it to great effect at the start of this book.

The band was taking their places, picking up instruments, sending a few jagged guitar chords out into the world. Dorian had slipped onstage too, behind the holographic impressions of an elaborate QJ setup. One of the guitarists gave him a head jerk of acknowledgement.

They began playing almost immediately, not bothering to announce themselves, just releasing a torrent of music that burned in Evie’s ears. […] The band thrashed around, and the lead singer howled lyrics in that half-English, half-French pidgin old people used sometimes. [Battle Born, p. 10-11]

It’s loud – obnoxiously so – and discordant, with the up-and-coming band (Drowning Chromium) not even bothering to introduce themselves. One might imagine a soundscape that is virtually indistinguishable from the sounds of battle.

Even the way in which the concertgoers dress is a matter of intrigue in terms of how the youth of Meridian – who have grown up only knowing humanity to be at war with the Covenant, even though it has hitherto been distant to them – aesthetically respond.

Evie jumped and glanced over at Victor, who was lurking next to a streetlamp, trying to film a pair of particularly gruesome-looking concert-goers, their faces streaked with purple and white makeup and their hair twisted up into vicious spikes. They hadn’t seemed to notice Victor yet.

[…] “Like you would have the guts to talk to those two guys. They look like they’re part of the Covenant.”

Victor grinned. “Yeah, that’s the whole thing with these bands! It’s for the shock value.”

Easy enough to do something like that out on Meridian, Evie thought, irritated. They were far enough from the fighting that the Covenant felt distant. As distant as her mother. [Battle Born, p. 8-9]

It’s a Covenant Dance!I wrote earlier about how the YA genre explores adult realities through the perspective of teenagers, and that is something that’s made immediately apparent from the opening point-of-view chapters for each character.

With a war for the very survival of humanity on, many parents and siblings have taken up the call to arms and are serving on the front lines – leaving their children behind in order to fight for them.

Evie’s father works as a teacher at the University of Meridian, while her mother is a soldier in the UNSC.

Dorian lives with his Uncle Max and eight-year-old cousin Remy, both of his parents left to serve the UNSC which has left him with abandonment issues that greatly affect his character arc throughout the book.

Uncle Max scoffed. “You’re as bad as your mother was.”

Dorian didn’t want to talk about his mother. Didn’t want to talk about either of his parents, who’d decided that fighting a war was more important than having a son.

[…] “Still, want to swing by the house first. Make sure Remy’s doing okay.”

“Wait, you left him alone?” Dorian jerked his gaze away from the window and over to his uncle. “He’s only eight years old, man!”

“Left you alone when you were eight. He was all wrapped up in those comm channel games. I’ll bet he hasn’t moved from the living room.”

Dorian crossed his arms over his chest and returned to his vigil of the overgrown road. He hated when Uncle Max left Remy alone. Little kids shouldn’t be abandoned like that. [Battle Born, p. 16-19]

This resentment feels astonishingly realistic. It is, in a way, selfish and entitled – in the way a teenager’s resentment might be – because his parents “decided that fighting a war was more important than having a son.”

We’re so used to seeing the sacrifices made by the people who signed up to fight the Covenant as heroic, which is very much is, but this particular perspective – split across four different viewpoint characters – demands something new.

It further informs Dorian’s character arc because he is terrified of the idea that he might let down the people he loves. His fellow band members perish after they split up when the invasion begins in the middle of their second concert, which severely rattles him; he’s got to face the idea that his uncle and cousin might suffer the same fate, and that he might let down Victor, Evie, and Saskia, too.

Victor has both of his parents around on Meridian, instead it was his two sisters – Camila and Maria – who left to fight and their influence is a voice of strength and wisdom for him to draw upon when the time to be brave comes.

Saskia… well, her situation is by far the most emotionally complicated.

As part of a rich family of weapons manufacturers that came to Meridian (whereas the others were born and raised there), she finds herself a complete outsider.

They’d raised [Saskia] to never get too close to anyone, that she was never part of the town, not really. At first, she convinced herself that the invasion hadn’t changed that.

After all, she was the only one without family in the shelter. The only one with nothing to fight for. That was how the others saw her, wasn’t it? And she could see the truth to it. [Battle Born, p. 168]

Saskia’s family discouraged her from forming any ties with the local community and her relationship with her parents is effectively non-existent. So non-existent, in fact, that they frequently abandoned her for months at a time.

The convenience of them not being on Meridian when it is invaded by the Covenant even leads to the considered possibility that they left Saskia to die.And then, there’s Owen-B096.

I was initially hoping that this character would’ve been Maria-062, but – in reading the book – a Spartan-III (of Beta Company) really was the perfect choice for this story.

What these characters all share in-common is that they’re part of a generation that has known nothing but the Human-Covenant war.

Owen crouched down until they were eye-to-eye. He stared at her, his gaze piercing. She couldn’t find it in herself to look away.

“I was a war orphan,” he said. “ONI found me on Jericho VII, eating bugs in the countryside. Half the planet had been glassed. My parents had been in town when it happened.”

Saskia pulled back. “I’m – I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“I lost my family,” he said, “but I was given a new one. Your parents – they might have left you here. But you have a new family now. They’re upstairs.” [Battle Born, p. 202]

For the Spartan-IIs, their memories of childhood before being kidnapped is tenuous and doesn’t greatly inform the people they are or who they’ve become. This is something that post-war stories typically do more exploration of.

That is not the case with the Spartan-IIIs, many of whom were coerced into the program in order to get revenge against the Covenant for murdering their families.

There’s a more open kind of humanity that one can get from a Spartan-III in how they relate to and interact with non-Spartan characters than you’d typically get from a Spartan-II, which – to me – totally justifies Owen’s role in the story.

One might be led to think that because a Spartan is in this story about a Covenant invasion, there must be some high action – the likes of which might really bend one’s suspension of disbelief in what these high school students can realistically take on.

Fortunately, that is not the case at all.

When Owen trains each of them, it is for scouting – for reconnaissance missions. What this rather brilliantly accomplishes is further foregrounding the strongest aspect of this novel: the unique perspective of these characters.

From our perspective as fans, we know all the ins-and-outs of the Human-Covenant war. We know why it started, where and how it ended, and a lot of stuff in-between… but Dorian doesn’t. Evie doesn’t. Saskia and Victor don’t.

And so, it is tremendously refreshing to see the Human-Covenant war through new eyes.

“Why’d they do this?” Evie whispered. “What’s the point?”

Dorian shrugged. What was the point of the Covenant slaughtering everyone on Tomas’s boat? They were civilians. They weren’t a threat. And yet they were all dead anyway. [Battle Born, p. 147]

These aren’t new questions being asked, but the people who are asking them – the angle from which they are being asked – is new and revealing.

In the past, the people asking these questions have been in a position to fight back and find answers. Here, this is a civilian-level perspective.

To these folks, the bigger picture doesn’t come so easily.For the first third of Battle Born, the Covenant largely exists almost as a force of nature rather than a set of enemies you’re familiar with fighting from a video game. Due to the atmospheric disturbances caused by the fighting between the UNSC, Meridian’s own forces, and the Covenant, a series of violent rain storms are caused.

At the start of the book, within the first ten pages – as Victor and Evie make their way to the concert – it is noted that rivers were built inside the shelter by the Insurrectionist forces (the Sundered Legion) in order to prevent it flooding during Meridian’s rainy season.

The way in which Clarke weaves together the worldbuilding for Meridian with set-up for the climax in the third act really is a recurring strength of this book. Because of these violent rain storms, the shelter (which the townspeople of Brume-sur-Mer evacuate to when the Covenant arrives) does flood and our main characters are faced with a unique dilemma.

Salome, the town’s dumb AI, operates strictly according to protocol and simple mathematics. She calculates that there is a 98 percent danger of flooding, but the Covenant threat is rated at 100 percent.

Contrary to previous depictions of ‘hacking,’ in which Catherine Halsey harnessed powers that surpassed that of the Precursors themselves when facing off against a Contender-class ancilla, Evie has to change a single number in the AI’s systems.

The fate of her family and the people of the town rests on changing a 2 percent difference.

Clarke further keeps that sense of believability when it comes to the latter end of the book where the teens have to engage in combat. While Saskia and Victor are relatively confident with their use of weapons, Evie is, comparatively, gripped by fear.

One really comes to admire these characters for how brave they must become. I have a real soft spot for stories about people who are thrown into horrific circumstances and are afraid, but still choose to take action.

“Are you ready?”

Saskia took a deep breath. “Are you?”

She couldn’t bring herself to lie and say no.

“Do we have a choice?” [Battle Born, p. 106]

And even though Evie does grow to find her courage, by no means does that become a static trait of her character.

As we head into the climax, Evie panics going up against a lone Unggoy.

Evie fired from her pistol again. Once. Twice. Missed both times. All the lessons she had gotten from Victor and his sisters had vanished from her memory – all she could think of now was survival. [Battle Born, p. 227]

Where Halo has indulged in the player power fantasy of you ‘being’ the Master Chief, I suspect that the reality for all of us when thrown into this situation is that we would quite undoubtedly be Evie.

It’s another thing in Battle Born’s repertoire of new and interesting perspectives it gets to explore by virtue of following younger characters.

These issues that young people commonly face today (abandonment issues, parental absence, emotional abuse, and so on), which are commonly explored themes in the YA genre, are framed through the lens of a Halo story, with the backdrop of a Covenant invasion.

Which brings us to…


CALL ME CUPID

(Art by Lorraine R. McLees.)

…sexuality.

This is another element that Battle Born does some exploration of, which is wholly appropriate for the cast of characters we follow.

At the start, Evie is surprised to learn that Dorian and Victor have been talking to each other. Victor has agreed to film the concert Dorian is performing at with his band, which prompts some teasing.

“Hey, there’s your boyfriend,” she said, nudging Victor.

“What?” He blinked up at her. She pointed at a spot next to the speakers.

“Dorian. He’s the whole reason you’re here, right?” [Battle Born, p. 10]

Later, when Dorian is out running handyman odd-jobs with his uncle, his comm pad goes off prompting this interaction.

“Girlfriend?” Uncle Max said.

“No.”

“Boyfriend, then?” [Battle Born, p. 21]

There’s some playful teasing throughout the book about Dorian and Victor as an unlikely but cute pair.

Victor also has an unrequited crush on Saskia (and she likewise develops a very close relationship with Evie), so Clarke overtly flirts with the idea of these characters being gay or bisexual – the idea of a relationship forming between Dorian and Victor is treated (thankfully) as an entirely normal possibility

I say “thankfully” because – to get real for a second – this is an area that Halo… hasn’t done well with.Over the years, a tendency has developed where some people say that Halo “doesn’t really do” romance, that sexuality isn’t really a part of it. That simply isn’t true.

Between the Didact and Librarian, Jacob Keyes and Catherine Halsey, Buck and Dare, Jul and Raia, Johnson and Jilan, Fal and Han, Tom Lasky and Chyler Silva, Sadie and Mike, Bornstellar and Chant, Sif and Mack, Margaret-053 and Otto-031, Dutch and Gretchen, Mken and Cresanda, Lnur ‘Mol and Tersa ‘Gunok, Tem’Bhetek and Yalar’Otan’Elat, and so on…

…there’s something to be said about the fact that all of the major relationships in Halo – games, books, and other media, spanning over seventeen years – are straight ones.

It doesn’t help either that a number of these stories culminate in classic examples of unnecessary fridging.

Raia ‘Mdama is one such example that still makes me very grumpy.

Jul knew that ONI was arming the Servants of the Abiding Truth, who wanted to fight the Arbiter, in order to keep the Sangheili locked in a stalemated civil war.

He was kidnapped and imprisoned in a human-occupied Shield World where they were reaping the benefits of Forerunner technology and experimenting (on him) with poisoned crops with the intention of causing famine-induced genocide on Sanghelios and other colonies…

But, in the end, none of that was actually dealt with and Jul’s motivation ultimately came down to wanting revenge for his dead wife.

Of the many issues I have with Karen Traviss’ writing, this is one of Kilo-5’s greatest narrative sins.

It is oft remarked by various people, for whom I have a series of vibrant adjectives to describe, that an LGBT+ character who expresses even an iota of their sexuality is “in your face,” that they “won’t shut up about it,” and that they are “pandering to ess-jay-doubleyous and pee-cee culture!”

This stands, of course, in stark contrast to the ‘aggressively straight’ characters whose are succinctly characterised with the two traits ‘asshole’ and ‘womaniser,’ yet are treated as entirely ordinary.

There’s the Nolan North Character – Romeo in Halo 3: ODST and John Forge in Halo Wars (both games releasing in 2009); Madsen and DeMarco’s cringe-inducing dialogue in Halo 4’s Spartan Ops (though the way DeMarco’s advances were shut down by Palmer was well done); and even Johnson has a number of eyeroll-worthy lines.The list of Halo’s queer characters (in a universe set 500 years in the future where human racism has apparently been solved but sexuality and gender look no different) is comparatively as barren as the glasslands of Meridian itself.

Halo has had two lesbian characters, both of whom were introduced and killed off in the same short story (‘Dirt’ in Halo: Evolutions).

Hamish Beamish (the janitor – the joke character played by Frank O’Connor in Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn) was revealed by be bisexual in one line of a poem in Halo: Fractures.

Yeah…

As he chewed the last meat
That he might ever enjoy
He thought about girls and he thought about boys [Halo: Fractures – ‘The Ballad of Hamish Beamish’, p. 218]

Forthencho greatly romanticises his connection with the Didact in Primordium and can be potentially taken as gay or bi, or pansexual.

A Catalog unit in Silentium is ambiguously gay; cross-rate mutation in Forerunner society (as it applies to Bornstellar in Cryptum and Chant-to-Green in Rebirth) draws parallels to being trans; and there’s an off-handedly mentioned gay couple who die in Oasis (also in Fractures).

None of these are especially good or even conscious forms of representation.

The most interesting divergence from heteronormativity the series has hitherto made is the exploration of Unggoy family structures as polyamorous in Halo: Legacy of Onyx (which, interestingly, is the other major example of YA literature for the series).

This is just a bit of tough love I think the series needs.

Over the years, Halo’s done a fantastic job with a lot of things other big franchises fail at. Despite its shortcomings, Halo has actually been one of the more explicitly feminist gaming franchises out there – as I noted in my previous article, every major piece of Halo literature releasing this year is being written by women.

Bonnie Ross has been deservedly recognised for her leading contributions to diversity and STEM opportunities for women; but a series that has largely been written by straight men is inevitably going to have glaring blind spots.

(There’s more to cover on this, but that’s something for a whole article to be dedicated to.)

As such, I would be lying if I said I’m not going into Battle Born’s sequel with certain hopes and expectations around Clarke following through on some of the relationship set-up she’s established as part of the emotional investment in these characters.I bring this up particularly because ‘family’ is one of the definitive themes of Halo, and the concept of ‘found family’ is central to Battle Born’s story.

This is a trope that is deeply (even inherently) queer-coded. It deconstructs heteronormative ideas perpetuated around the nuclear family, positing that one’s family is not defined solely by blood – it involves defining what ‘family’ is for yourself.

A lot of LGBT+ people – myself included – have to deal with the ugly reality of not being able to take it for granted that the people you are biologically related to are going to care for and support you if (and when) they find out who you are.

For the 39 percent of LGBTQ adults who have experienced rejection from a family member or friends, or the whopping 40 percent of homeless youth who identify as queer, Thanksgiving might mean not seeing one’s biological family at all. The statistics are a stark reminder that many LGBTQ people, despite enjoying more rights and visibility than ever before, still deal with overwhelming amounts of personal homophobia and abuse.

But in the face of rejection from one’s family or friends, queer people have built chosen families since time immemorial: families we construct by hand and heart, in an effort to seek out the support and love one’s biological or legal family might not be able to provide. [Kyle Casey Chu, Vice – ‘Why Queer People Need Chosen Families’ (14/11/2017)]

In Battle Born, I found Saskia’s anxieties over her sense of family – her self-perceived otherness from the group (and the town) and the gradual realisation that she, as a survivor of abuse and neglect, has found more meaningful connections with Evie, Dorian, and Victor – to be the most profoundly relatable and emotional part of the book.

Throughout the story, it repeatedly comes up that Saskia doesn’t have anybody waiting for her in Meridian’s shelter. Evie’s father is there, as are Victor’s parents, and Dorian’s uncle and cousin…

But Saskia finds herself alone. In this, the character she relates to most is Owen – her emotional priorities are different to the others, which is why she is the first to spot that Owen has been greatly injured when they’re first rescued by him.

Saskia’s heart thudded. She wondered if a Spartan could even understand what it was to have a family. She wondered if he felt the way she did, knowing there was no one in the shelter waiting for him. But needing to help anyway. [Battle Born, p. 113]

A central conflict for Saskia is the fact that she has not told the others about the prototype weapons her parents have hidden away in their fortress of a house.

Part of her feels some sense of misguided obligation towards her abusive parents, mixed with her lack of connection to the people of Brume-sur-Mer (fostered by her parents) which leads her towards initially being distrustful of the others because she knows – being an outsider – that they don’t trust her.

When Saskia eventually realises that this ragtag group of mismatched characters are the family she wants, and that her own paranoia about trust has emulated that of her parents’, she fears that revealing she lied to them in the first place will split them apart.

“Are you saying you’ve had weapons all this time? And you didn’t tell us about them?” [Dorian] laughed hoarsely. “Why not?”

Saskia shrugged hopelessly. “They’re prototypes,” she said. “And they might not be, um, totally legal. I guess I didn’t-” I didn’t trust you. But the words dissolved on her tongue. “I was being stupid,” she finally said. “And paranoid. And then it had gone too long without telling you, and-” She flung her arms out. [Battle Born, p. 204]

Dorian and Victor take a while to come around to this revelation, but Evie has Saskia’s back as she recognises that time is of the essence to save their families and they hadn’t exactly been friends with Saskia before this all started.

Over the course of the latter hundred pages, Evie’s relationship with Saskia evolves tremendously into open displays of affection – complimenting each others’ talents, hugging (on no less than three occasions), and the like.

It is Saskia who volunteers to lead the survivors from the shelter to the Sundered Legion ship and she finds her place among the people of Meridian as one of them, fighting to save their lives.

When everyone reunites with their families, Saskia finds – to her surprise – that there is somebody there for her.

Saskia watched them go, a tightness coiling in the back of her throat. Tears stung at the sides of her eyes, and she blinked them away before turning back to Evie.

Except Evie wasn’t there.

For a moment, Saskia just stood in place, aware of the reunions happening all around her. She felt like a pillar, like part of the ship. Solid and invisible.

“Saskia!”

Evie’s voice cut through the noise for the second time. Saskia looked up, and there she was, cutting through the crowd, pulling her dad behind her.

[…] The cold knot in her chest was unraveling. Evie reached out and grabbed her hand and pulled her along toward corridor twelve, and for a moment, Saskia felt a fraction of what it was to find your family waiting for you on the other side of horror. [Battle Born, p. 288-9]

As I said: I would be lying if I said that my emotional investment in these characters and the paths they’ve been set on means I’m not going into Battle Born’s sequel with certain hopes and expectations…


MERIDIAN DIVIDE

I was glad to go into this book knowing that a sequel was coming (and it’s coming this year) because I just wanted more of these characters. Turning the final page was a kind of fulfilling agony in wanting to know what happens next, while being reassured that I will.

At the end, upon meeting up with the UNSC, who have been fighting alongside Meridian’s own forces, ONI awards the four teenagers the UNSC Medal of Honour.

While this feels justified for everything these characters have gone through and what they have accomplished, it comes with some caveats.

First, Daniella (the ONI agent) declares that there will be a public announcement and award ceremony to “boost morale among Meridian’s survivors.”

And second, ONI wants them to go back. ONI will put them through an accelerated training program, Daniella noting that – by the time this training is finished – they will be of-age so their service will be legal.

Some have levelled criticism at this ending for being “unrealistic,” but I’m not sure who could expect anything less of the organisation that sanctioned kidnapping children for the Spartan-II project, or trafficking war orphans to become suicide troops by the age of twelve.

Dorian, in fact, (unknowingly) calls this out.

“And if we don’t want to get ourselves killed for ONI?” Dorian asked. “I mean, it’s always easier sending kids to die, isn’t it?”

Daniella smiled. There was something predatory in her smile, Saskia thought. Something dangerous.

“You’re not a child, Dorian.” [Battle Born, p. 294]

ONI wants to put a big show and dance around these teenagers, who are the youngest to ever receive the Medal of Honour, and then use them in such a fashion – by integrating them into Meridian’s militia forces, not making them officially part of the UNSC – that absolves them of the questionable morality of putting them into service.

These are – to put it in scientific, lore-specific terms – classic ONI shenanigans.

To my mind, this is the natural direction to go that forms the next step in the characters’ arcs. From the text, Clarke is clearly aware of the wider implications of this ending and I expect it’s something the sequel will critically follow up on.

On that subject, the next book is called Meridian Divide and appears to be scheduled to release October 1st this year.

It’s been three months since the colony world of Meridian was invaded by the alien alliance known as the Covenant.

Under the close watch of the military, Evie, Dorian, Saskia, and Victor have been put into an accelerated training program with ONI, the Office of Naval Intelligence. And to the teens’ surprise, ONI has a mission for them: Return to their hometown on Meridian and monitor the Covenant’s efforts to retrieve an ancient Forerunner artifact of untold power. But what seems like a simple job quickly spirals out of their control.

With the artifact at risk of falling into Covenant hands, the stakes are raised, and ONI tasks the teens and their team of militia fighters with extracting the artifact for study. After a series of missteps with command costs the militia more than half their fighting forces, the teens take matters into their own hands.

Their journey will take them far behind enemy lines, into the heart of the war zones on Meridian. [Halo: Meridian Divide, blurb]

The Forerunner element was notably absent from Battle Born, it was something on the fringes of the story – the Covenant were clearly after something, but it’s only addressed once or twice because the focus is squarely on the invasion from the perspective of these teenagers.

While the timeline doesn’t quite align with the date given in Halo 2 Anniversary’s fourteenth Terminal (set in 2551), my money is still on this artefact being the Luminary that the Prophet of Regret’s troops discovered – the one that revealed the location of the Halo rings and the Lesser Ark.

If that is the direction the story goes, then we know – in the end – that our characters are doomed to fail that mission.

Time’ll tell. It could be something completely different, but I, for one, am incredibly excited for Meridian Divide.

*

Halo: Battle Born was an unexpected treat, one that brings so much substance to the Halo universe by virtue of grounding itself in the YA genre – as several other books in the series have done.

Cassandra Clarke has proven her mettle and is a radiant example of what can be accomplished with a long-running franchise when it brings in new talent to explore familiar horizons through unfamiliar eyes.

This alone makes Battle Born worth your time.

2019 is off to an incredible start with Halo fiction, next month will see the release of Lone Wolf #2 and Kelly Gay’s Halo: Renegades.

I don’t know what more to say, other than ‘this is one of the most ambitiously invigorating periods of Halo literature yet’ – one that has reignited a spark in me I haven’t quite felt since 2015.

Long may that continue!

4 thoughts on “Halo: Battle Born – On Lost Childhood and the Value of YA Literature

  1. Well, I personally don’t have anything against young adult novels. Recently, I’ve found many of the newest Star Wars young adult books to be more engaging than many of the adult ones (particularly say, Last Shot) as they seem less creatively limited, or trying to be culturally ‘hip’.

    Regarding the Assembly again, I’ve been doing more research, and concluded that the entity referred to in the Datapads as [^] seemed to be the chair of the Committee for Security, both in 2310 and 2525 – although it could be an inherited title. In 2525 he was the one to possibly send a message alerted Covenant ships to human activity near Harvest. There is also this theory on Halowaypoint about the ending of Rossbach’s World: https://www.halowaypoint.com/en-us/forums/db05ce78845f4120b062c50816008e5d/topics/the-assembly-on-rossbach-s-world/93619545-30a2-429a-92db-ed005d30b3c4/posts?page=1

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