Published by: Del Rey
Huge spoilers ahead for anybody who has not played through Gears of War I and II.
Summary Judgment: It is a slightly above average military sci-fi novel. However, I’m not convinced that it possesses the je ne sais quoi that makes Gears of War’s story so damn compelling.
Unlike many videogame-to-novel transitions, I found myself quite eager to read a piece of Gears of War fiction. In so much as I love GoW for its frantic firefights and its delightful chainsaw-to-torso mechanics, I also find myself strangely drawn to its narrative. Sure, there’s the obvious imulsion/oil allegory. Beyond that, Gears of War has always felt like something that is aware of the allure that it presents via its own mysterious internal history. Set amid the ruins of a civilization that mirrors our own in its politics, architecture, iconography and even sports, it’s almost impossible not to want more back story. As much as I love the gunplay, I keep coming back to the franchise for the hope of gleaning a bit more of the mythos that permeates all things Gears.
Much to my surprise, Karen Traviss’ Aspho Fields evokes a bit of a mixed reaction. On the one hand, it is 352 pages of fairly well crafted story designed to fit in nicely between the first and second Gears video game. It also shows life on planet Sera prior to the emergence of the Locust horde. I’ll even go so far as to say that the writing is at least moderately sophisticated; the prose isn’t so dense as to alienate gamers who like to read but neither is it so picayune that readers who like to game will be put off. If this was my first exposure to the Gears mythology, I probably would have really enjoyed this book.
Despite its noteworthy contribution to the Gears canon – I’ve heard that Traviss’ books are canon, correct me if I am wrong – Aspho Fields leaves me feeling unsatisfied. Consider that the narrative in Gears of War I and II is empowered by the fact that we are not privy to events occurring outside of Delta Squad’s combat radius. Marcus Fenix and Dominic Santiago get their orders via radio, rarely seeing their commanders in person and rarer still having a sense of their role in grand scheme of humanity’s defense. In limiting the exposition, the writers force gamers to understand the environment through the eyes of Fenix and his comrades. For want of back story, gamers are free to fill in the blanks on their own. While a novel is, by its nature, more expositive than a video game, Traviss gives readers too much of the bigger picture. To adhere to the spirit of the story, readers should be left ignorant of anything beyond the prevue of Marcus Fenix and Dominic Santiago.
In effect, giving readers such an easy picture of the Gears mythology produces a double whammy. Despite strong and occasionally evocative language, some readers won’t find the print details living up to what they imagined. I didn’t envision Dominic Santiago as a teenage daddy when the faded photo of his wife and child appears in Gears of War I. I suppose it can work; it just doesn’t seem any more or less important to shaping Dom’s nature. So really, why bother? The other downfall comes in spreading the focus from Marcus and Dom to secondary and even tertiary characters. Does anybody care about Colonel Hoffman? This broader focus makes it harder to identify with the story’s principle players. The game’s almost exclusive focus on Fenix and Santiago makes them immediately sympathetic, even though they are foul-mouthed ass-kickers.
Essentially, I want something like this.
I don’t need the back story to feel the raw emotions pouring through this scene. With 352 pages at her disposal, I wanted Karen Traviss to use words to make me feel like I felt when I watched the above scene.
As a work of military science fiction, Karen Traviss’ Gears of War: Aspho Fields is a decent read. At the same time, she seems to miss the essence of what Gears of War is all about. It’s not a story about politics, or even the survival of the human race. Gears is about Delta Squad. Gears is about hope and brotherhood in the face of extinction. Gears is about contrasting the best of humanity with the worst of humanity. Traviss might get the body of the story right, but she has missed its soul.
Final Score: +1