I Interviewed Cassandra Rose Clarke! – A Primer for Halo: Meridian Divide

The final stretch of 2019 is here and it’s been quite an incredible year for Halo!

We’ve had four novels, the Lone Wolf comic, our latest glimpse at next year’s Halo Infinite, more substantial news on the TV show, the Master Chief Collection being flighted for PC, and Outpost Discovery took place over the summer…

This abundance of franchise media and events has been topped off with the recent release of Halo: Meridian Divide, sequel to Battle Born (which dropped January 1st).

Earlier this year, I wrote a lengthy analysis of Battle Born, as it very quickly became one of my favourite Halo novels, so I reached out to author Cassandra Rose Clarke and she very kindly agreed to have a chat with me about what’s next for Evie, Saskia, Dorian, Victor, and Spartan Owen in Meridian Divide.

Welcome, Cassandra! Let’s begin with some introductions? Where have we seen you before?

Thanks for having me! As a writer, I tend to be a bit all over the place. My first book, which was a YA adventure fantasy called The Assassin’s Curse, came out in 2012, and since then I’ve also published some adult science fiction novels, some poems, some speculative fiction short stories – I don’t like to be bound to one genre or form!

You were recently at Halo: Outpost Discovery, weren’t you? That must’ve been quite an experience – especially seeing one of your characters as one of the stars of the show!

I got to attend two iterations of Halo: Outpost Discovery, the first in my hometown of Houston and the second in Anaheim, California. The event was absolutely astonishing both times, even before I got to meet Owen, the Spartan character from Battle Born.

Walking into the space really did feel like stepping into the Halo world, and it was awesome seeing 3D renderings of stuff I first experienced via a video game back in college. And of course seeing a character I created up and walking around was amazing – it was an author milestone I didn’t realize I even wanted to reach!

So, what’s your story for how you got into Halo? What really pulled you into the series?

I first played Halo when I was in college in the early 2000s, right around the time Halo 2 was released. I used to break the dorm rules and sneak into a friend’s dorm when he wasn’t there so I could practice playing. It was a mainstay at parties and general hang-outs, and I even remember watching a sneak preview of Halo 3 right before it came out.

There was something addictive about the game that kept me coming back, even though I kind of sucked at it. I really did feel immersed in the world.

That is so wonderfully devious! I must, of course, ask what some of your favourite Halo fiction is (games, books, etc)?

I really enjoyed the story in the first three Halo games, especially the worldbuilding, which I find incredibly rich and layered – I love the massive scale and sense of history that runs through the story of the Covenant and the Forerunners, and the way humanity gets twined up in both of them.

I’ve also always really liked the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana – when I had to catch up with the game in order to write Battle Born, seeing how that relationship had deepened and developed really hit me in the feels.

Halo: Battle Born really stood out because it follows a group of ordinary teenagers who find themselves in the middle of a Covenant invasion. Is this always an area you’ve wanted Halo to explore more of?

I’m always interested in seeing what life would look like for ordinary people in big science fiction franchises. Take Halo: we generally see the Covenant from the perspective of the military elite. But everything the Spartans do is to protect those regular civilians, who we rarely see!

Maybe the day to day life of UEG citizens isn’t the most exciting for a video game (or maybe not! I’d play it) but it’s definitely a rich source of material for the lore as a whole.

Oh, I’d absolutely play that too! And it’s awesome that this series has an author specifically interested in exploring those things.

The setting, the planet Meridian, has appeared a few times before (notably, in Halo 5). You do a tremendous job of detailing it and making it feel so alive. Was that a place you particularly wanted to flesh out, and how much freedom did 343 give you for that?

In all honesty, it wasn’t something I’d really thought about much before I sat down to write Battle Born.

What happened was that 343 sent me a fairly lengthy internal backstory document about Meridian, including a lot of details that had never been published before. I read through the whole thing and was really inspired by the story I found in it, particularly about the planet’s relationship to the Insurrection, a piece of Halo history I find interesting.

From there, I went wild, and 343 pretty much let me do what I wanted with Meridian, as long as it fit with what had already been established.

And the characters! I adore Evie, Saskia, Dorian, and Victor. What were some of the ideas you wanted to explore with them and how did you develop their unique voices and perspectives?

The pitch I was working from for Battle Born was basically the movie Red Dawn, but set in the Halo world. (As an aside, I actually think Meridian works better as a setting for that premise than the US in the 80s! That movie is pretty silly.)

Anyway, I wanted to explore the idea of a bunch of teenagers who wouldn’t have necessarily interacted much in the regular world of school suddenly being thrown together in an intense, seemingly insurmountable situation and thus forging really deep, strong bonds.

When I was creating the characters, I was also really interested in exploring the ramifications that the war was having on ordinary people. I wanted to show what it was like to have your parents on the other side of the galaxy fighting for your very existence, and the complexities of understanding the importance of what they’re doing versus feeling abandoned by them – that was what led me to Dorian and, to a lesser extent, Evie.

And in any war there are always people who look to profit off of the suffering, which was what led me to Saskia. I also saw Evie and Victor as sort of the “every-persons” of the group, the people that most of us can identify with. How would an ordinary teen interact with the war?

A cruel question to ask, I know, but who is your favourite character of the gang?

Since you acknowledged the inherent unfairness of a question like this, I feel like I should scrounge up an answer!

I wouldn’t say that I have a true favorite, but Saskia was absolutely my favorite character to write. I loved exploring her arc. She was also coming from a much different place the others and had already seen the dark side of the war through her parents’ war profiteering.

As Battle Born and Meridian Divide are classed as ‘YA books,’ what does the YA genre mean to you? Do you think it makes much of a difference to how these stories are written?

YA is probably a marketing term more than it is anything else. Neither Battle Born nor Meridian Divide are the first books to feature younger protagonists, but they are the first to be shelved in the YA section of the bookstore. So… *shrug*

That said, I do think YA books in general are written in such a way that they’re meant to appeal to young readers, rather than adult readers who are remembering what it’s like to be a teen, but I’m not sure how to explain what the difference is other than to say I know it when I see it.

YA was important to me when I was young reader – this was way back in the 90s, before non-publishing people even knew the term! (My mom was a librarian, so I was familiar with it). These were books that spoke to me directly and saw the world more or less how I did.

Like most kids, I was reading about characters who were older than me, so when I was 11-12, I was reading about 16-17 year olds, and it was a chance for me to glimpse what growing up was like without having to jump way ahead into adulthood, which is unfathomable when you’re a kid.

Let’s do a bit of a recap on Battle Born. What are some of the major things that readers should be refreshed on going into its sequel, Meridian Divide?

Like I said earlier, Battle Born is essentially Red Dawn set in the Halo universe. By the end of Battle Born, the team has worked alongside a Spartan, Owen, to rescue their village from the aftermath of the Covenant invasion of Meridian.

In doing so, they uncovered evidence that the Covenant have found a Forerunner artifact buried beneath the village, and ONI has recruited them to go back to Brume-sur-Mer and help the military forces there retrieve the artifact for the war effort.

What would you say are some of your ‘sensibilities’ when it comes to writing? Do you find that you have certain themes and ideas you really gravitate towards?

I’m really interested in moral complexity – I’ve never liked stories where the bad guys are All Bad and Evil for the Sake of Being Evil and the good guys are All Good with No Questionable Stances Whatsoever. I’ll admit I did have to pull back on some of those tendencies a bit with Battle Born and Meridian Divide, particularly when writing about ONI.

I also really like outsiders connecting, or people finding unusual ways to connect. I did this a lot with Saskia and Owen. Obviously they couldn’t be more different, but I feel like, when Saskia learns more about how the Spartan-IIIs were created, it helps her deal with her parents and her own sense of outsider-ness a little better.

Without diverging too far into spoiler territory, what can you tell us about the journey we’re going to be taken on in Meridian Divide?

In terms of a physical journey, Meridian Divide takes the team outside of Brume-sur-Mer and therefore waaaaay outside of their comfort zone.

That Forerunner tech that’s hinted at in Battle Born also plays a larger role. Character-wise, we get to see how the experience in Battle Born changed the characters at the start of Meridian Divide, and how well-equipped they are (or aren’t) to handle being in a more stringent military environment.

The gang were really put through the wringer in Battle Born. Things aren’t going to be getting any easier for them, are they?

LMAO, absolutely not. I feel like I can’t say much more than that without major spoilers, but let’s just say shit starts to get a little more real.

For the people who enjoy your Halo stories, what are some of the other books you’ve written that they might be interested in?

My book Star’s End is a sort of family saga take on a lot of the tropes found in Halo, including genetically engineered super soldiers, the aftereffects of first contact, and monstrous aliens.

For people who are more interested in the action-adventure side of things, I’d definitely suggest The Magic of Blood and Sea, which collects my first book The Assassin’s Curse and its sequel, The Pirate’s Wish. It’s an adventure fantasy about a pirate and an assassin.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions, Cassandra. I hope we’ll be seeing more Halo stories from you in the future!

Before you go, do you have any final thoughts to share?

Thanks so much for having me! I love writing in the Halo world and interacting with the Halo community. When I first sat down with a controller to play Halo: Combat Evolved back in college, I never expected I’d contribute even a little bit to the wider story. That I’ve had the opportunity to do so is amazing!

Halo: Meridian Divide released October 1st.

You can purchase it on Amazon (UK | US) in paperback or get it for free with an Audible trial; it is also available on the Scholastic store and Barnes & Noble.

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 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 artefact 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.

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