Published by November 2009 Evolutions: Essential Tales of the Halo Universe is practically the work for which the animated collection Halo: Legends is a follow up. This short story collection is a rather odd mix of material that includes tales that attempt to fill some holes in the games and/or between them, tales that tell of other things happening in the Halo Universe and, strangely enough, it even includes some art that goes along with poetry presented in a --an almost-- haiku format.
The list of authors is quite interesting, including people that work at 343 Studios and others that have been along with the Halo Universe evolution if not helped it grow directly. Names like Karen Travis and Eric Nylund being probably the ones that will ring more bells to a gaming crowd.
Story quality has its ups and downs, at least the worst of them, no offense, fall in the quite decent range, something that makes those really good shine on their own right. I imagine that for many authors it was very hard to write a short tale for a game universe that is so deep and expansive as is Halo with little to no time to dwell properly on it. At the end it becomes quite clear that the best material comes from the hands of people who have been along for the ride almost since the start.
The way the stories are organized obeys, consciously or not, the degree of capability the writer might have with its tale and the timeline in the games. Going from weaker to stronger with Nylund almost at the end (the only reason there is an author after him is because he tells a story that would fall after the events of Halo 3). If I have to name my favorite stories it would be the adventure of Spartan: Black, Headhunters and, inevitably, the tale by Eric Nylund that attempts to dig deeper into the past and current life of one Vice Admiral Preston J. Cole. I would give a honorary mention to the tale The Mona Lisa.
Most of the other stories go from ok to good. Whatever problem they have has more to do with the lack of familiarity of the author with the Halo Universe than with any ability to actually write what is in their minds. There are also a few too many stories --for the overall size of the collection-- that attempt to complement or fill in gaps from the games. A detail that makes them sound incomplete and out of place, or just feel like they are about nothing, or just random moments, without the proper wider story context in which they actually fit in.
At the end, Evolutions: Essential Tales of the Halo Universe is quite a good collection offering material that is far superior in content to that present in Halo: Legends. Although I would hardly call any of them truly essential, however, they can qualify as evolving along the timeline of Master Chief's adventures. I still like the full fledged novels much more, but then again, in them the authors have had more time to build story, characters and the Halo Universe itself. It's a book worth having but it will certainly offer and have deeper meaning to those familiar --and fresh-- with the games. None of the stories tells much without a proper perspective into the Halo franchise although a few can be read and make sense without it.
Pariah (B. K. Evenson) This tale serves as a short reminder of what the Spartan II are all about, how they became, what they went through. It also explores a little of the life of one of them, one who didn't make it as it was required to be a part of the legend of the Spartan super-soldiers.
Stomping on the Heels of a Fuss (Eric Raab) A scientist turned ONI operative is behind enemy lines learning more about the primitive Covenant faction humans know as the Brutes. As his little exploratory mission turns into one of suvirval he stumbles into somebody who isn't supposed to be alive. The author does a decent job at mixing Halo lore with a tale of politics and religion.
Midnight in the Heart of Midlothian (Frank O'Connor) This short story is a great example of how to go along presenting characters. In the few pages it requires we get somewhat attached to the surviving ODST and the crippled AI of the spaceship UNSC Heart of Midlothian after a random encounter with a special operations Covenant ship. The ending is original, unexpected and it even manages to be... witty.
Dirt (Tobias S. Buckell) A dying ODST officer is found by a rookie who has to hear his tale which covers his life from the Colonial Military to his entering the UNSC. It all becomes an interesting way to narrate a little more of how the outer colonies still see the UNSC even during the Covenant War, and how this officer's revelation might also save the life of the lone soldier who happens to have found him.
Headhunters (Jonathan Goff) A friendly and capable duo of spec-ops Spartan III are on a lone planet behind enemy lines causing as much trouble as they can to the Covenant. But as the mission progresses something starts to feel out of place.
Blunt Instruments (Fred Van Lente) Team Spartan: Black is on a critical mission of mayhem on a Covenant conquered world. An unexpected encounter turns into an alliance that feels a little too good to be true.
The Mona Lisa (Jeff VanderMeer and Tessa Kum) The UNSC Red Horse is on an ONI assigned mission right after the Master Chief blows the first Halo. A prison ship, the Mona Lisa, is the target of a recon and recover operation that isn't what it seems. For the boarding party it becomes increasingly obvious that the prisoners, even the unlikely presence of Elites and Grunts, don't make the real trouble they just fell into. Although the story in itself isn't particularly unique it is well told and would probably have made a great animated short film for the Halo: Legends collection.
Palace Hotel (Robt McLees) We follow the Master Chief as he goes along a path of destruction during the invasion of Earth by the Covenant armada, namely the city of Mombasa. As he opens up a path to where his goal lays and helps a group of stranded UNSC troopers we are reminded that as much as he is a Legend and THE Spartan, he is also a human with a past.
Human Weakness (Karen Travis) This story by none other than Karen Travis takes us deeper into the mind and personality of the AI Cortana as she waits rescue in Halo 3. The minutes turn into time eternal as her incredible fast mind tries to analyze everything she knows, everything she is, and everyone she cares for while being attacked by the Gravemind. A nice insight into the second most known character of the franchise.
The Impossible Life and the Possible Death of Preston J. Cole (Eric Nylund) Without a doubt my favorite story of the collection, something that was expected since the author has been there not only since the start of the Halo Universe lore but he has created quite a bit of it himself. We get the chance to learn a little more of the life, and heroics, of another legend of the Covenant Wars, that of Vice-Admiral Cole the man responsible for recovering Harvest after it was first invaded and the one who fought and won against the Covenant armada over and over. The man behind the Cole Protocol. The lone individual who was to space battles what Spartan John-117 was (is?) to facing the enemy on the ground. We see him as the boy growing up, the legend rising, and later on the man looking for his time of peace.
The Return (Kevin Grace) A lone Shipmaster Elite, a Sangheili, is wandering on the glassed surface of the planet Kholo looking for a reason to keep going after the discovery that everything they believed in, everything they fought for and everything that drove him forward was a lie, a machination of weaker minds seeking nothing but more power over the Covenant. Black smoke rising over the horizon drives him forward, through a planet he himself conquered and sterilized in the name of Faith.
Few of the stories end being truly memorable, fewer yet add anything new to the Halo Universe lore, but they are all worth reading. All characters and all stories are worth knowing. In a franchise as big as the one of Halo there is so much to tell, so much to explore. The eleven short stories in Evolutions: Essential Tales of the Halo Universe do a great job showing us new, complementary and parallel events to those happening in the games.
Evolutions is a book worth having and reading, although, like I said previously, it will mean more and make much more sense to the Halo fans and gamers. As a collection of short sci-fi stories it offers quite a glimpse into the minds of some of the best authors of our time.