Book Review: Aspho Fields

I finished Gears of War:  Aspho Fields by Karen Traviss like I do most books, with a 100-200 page sprint that keeps me up until 3:00 AM.  Traviss appears to have mastered (what I believe to be) the first rule of working in an established universe, and that is preserving the feel of the franchise.

Obviously, there are no brutal cutscenes to watch or bosses to fight.  Instead, Traviss works on the familiar characters of Delta Squad and Colonel Hoffman, along with newcomer Tai Kaliso.  In this, she appears to have mastered the second rule as well:  Adding characters and backstory that fit into what we already know.

Aspho Fields follows two plot threads.  One takes place 14 years after Emergence Day (E-Day) when the Locust first invaded the lands of Sera, and a few weeks after the close of the first Gears of War game.  It details the reunion of the series’ first female Gear, Bernie Mataki with Marcus and Dom.

The second thread takes place a few years before E-Day, during the closing months of the Pendulum Wars, an 80-year-old series of civil conflicts between the various nation of Sera.  Newly minted Gears, Marcus Fenix and brothers Dom and Carlos Santiago are part of a daring raid to wrest the experimental Hammer of Dawn from the rival forces.

A number of passages from the action portions of this novel could easily be lifted and put into a World War II memoir.  The battles are fast-paced and visceral.  Even as the protagonists complete their objectives, things go wrong, and the COG takes losses.  The book reads like an act from one of the games, and, more importantly, makes you want to turn the page.

Aspho Fields takes a logical step considering what we know of Sera, and talks heavily of the scarcity of soldiers, equipment, and even food facing the post-E-Day COG.  Characters are frequently seen searching bodies not just for COG tags, but for weapons and ammo as well.  It ties in nicely with the games, where players constantly have to loot bodies and switch weapons.

By focusing on the Pendulum Wars, seen only briefly in the opening cinematic for Gears of War 2, Traviss is able to work with a nearly blank canvas, and does so by giving much more diversity to Sera’s denizens.  Tai is revealed to be an Islander, and said islands are revealed to be diverse themselves, as Bernie, also an islander, behaves completely different from the quasi-mystic warrior.  The Pesangas are essentially Sera’s ninjas;  volunteer soldiers from a distant COG principality who move silently and only wield huge knives.

Even the rival armies, whose names escape me, are mainly depicted as the opposite side of the same coin.  Major Hoffman (a Colonel in the games) even comments that no one alive is old enough to remember the start of the Pendulum Wars, and hints that the reasons for their continuation were shaky by that point.

Hoffman factors heavily into both plots in the book.  As seen in Gears 2, Hoffman prefers to lead from the front, and even heads up the commandos during the raid on Aspho Point in the pre-E-Day storyline.  Readers also get to learn more about his relationship with Marcus, and why they are not at each others throats as much during the second game.

Traviss’ babies, Bernie and Carlos interact with the established characters extremely well.  Bernie is an experienced soldier, training Dom to be a commando in the past plotline, and an aged Gear in the present, able to keep pace with Delta Squad only by force of will and skill.  Her exchanges with Cole and Baird were a highlight for during this book.  Following her trek across the post-E-Day lands of Sera, her maternal demeanor is often cracked by horrific memories of the atrocities of man and Locust.

Carlos reads like a more impulsive version of Dom.  Marcus’ age and a bit older than Dom, he shows the same loyalty and spirit as his brother, but does not feel quite as developed as the other characters.  It is revealed early in the book that he was killed during the Battle for Aspho Point, and Dom spends much of the present storyline pressuring Bernie to tell him how his brother died.

Unfortunately, the actual tale is a bit of a letdown, but that is because Carlos’ tale is not actually about him.  Rather, it is meant to develop Marcus as a character.  You may notice that Marcus has been mentioned little in this review.  That is because, as a dramatic character, he really is pretty dull.  Traviss seems to have noticed this, and tells Marcus’ story through the eyes of other characters, instead writing “Marcus only grunted” every three lines.

Before the past storyline gets going, the book reveals that Marcus was the son of two wealthy academics, who barely acknowledged him.  Upon entering a public school at age ten, he is quickly befriended/adopted by the working-class Santiago family, and spends more time at their home than his.  The three become an inseperable trio, occasionally accompanied by Dom’s crush, Maria.  The reason why Dom and Marcus are so loyal to each other in the games, it turns out, is because they are essentially brothers.

Dom’s character also benefits from this backstory.  While little new is revealed (we already knew he married Maria and had two children), he becomes much more sympathetic when he laments his murdered children and searches frantically for his missing wife.

Along with Hoffman, Anya gets more pathos as it is revealed that she is the daughter of a hardass female major.  Like Hoffman, Major Stroud leads from the front, and in the scenes where mother and daughter interact, they are rarely warm.  In this respect Anya has much in common with Marcus, and the seeds of a relationship are planted during the final pages of the book.

While there are no more big reveals for the other members of Delta Squad, Aspho Fields does give us more of them, and the interplay is just as fun to experience as it is in the games.  Cole is still an unfailingly cheerful badass, and Baird is still a brilliant asshole.  Tai Kaliso is still just as reflective and cryptic, and it is fun to see him fight alongside the by-the-book Hoffman.

Aspho Fields is a great addition to the Gears canon, and anyone who enjoyed the games will like the book.  There are too many undeveloped plot threads to really recommend it to anyone unfamiliar with the franchise.  Much of the characters’ strength comes from Traviss’ ability to build on what we already know of them, and I am not sure they will appeal to someone who has not played the games.

If you have not played Gears of War 2 and want to read this book, I encourage you to read this first.  Even playing through the campaign again on Hardcore mode after reading this book is a dramatically different experience.  The continuity flows well from Gears 1 to Aspho Fields to Gears 2, and the events of the second game will be much more engaging if you have this game under your belt.

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