The Halo franchise has been one of the most, if not the most popular franchise available on the Xbox and the Xbox 360. Possibly, one of the reasons that the series has managed to attract so many followers is that besides being at the very least “decent shooters,” Bungie (the developer of the series) has managed to create a universe that is both accessible to the masses, yet provides unique layers of depth that will satisfy almost all science fiction fans.
Given the popularity of the series, it should come as no surprise that the series has long since expanded beyond the purely virtual realm. Currently, the canon spans more than 6 books, several graphic novels and five video games. Those who take a closer look at the stories told in the games, will find that they include many elements and details regarding locations, characters but also of the races that comprise the Covenant which are only touched upon briefly during the games. However, Bungie has ensured that all details included in the games are not there as decoration, but tie into the overarching universe and subplots presented in both the games and the associated other types of media.
The primary source to which details in the games are linked, are the six main novels that have been published since 2001. Three of these novels cover the story of John-S117, better known as the Master Chief. The other three books in the series cover the adventures of other characters, most notably Captain Keyes and Sergeant Major Johnson. These first three books will be discussed in this article. The remaining novels, as well as the graphic novel, will be addressed in a later article.
The Fall of Reach
The first book published in the series was The Fall of Reach, written by Eric Nylund and published in 2001. In fact, the book was published several days before the first game, Halo: Combat Evolved was launched as the flagship of Microsoft’s first console. The story is set in a time period spanning roughly 35 years, and covers both the rise and fall of the SPARTAN-II program as well as one of the most important military battles in the Halo canon: the battle for the military bastion of Reach.
The story begins in 2517, at the moment John (a six-year-old at that time) was selected as a potential candidate for the SPARTAN-II program. After being kidnapped and consequently conscripted into service by the UNSC (United Nations Space Command) along with 74 other 4 to 6-year olds, John quickly develops into the leader of the all the SPARTAN-II trainees. The majority of the book follows the story of John, the development of the 75 children into a full-fledged Spartans and several missions early in their careers and against the Covenant.
A side story focuses on Captain Jacob Keyes who, during a routine patrol is confronted with a total of four Covenant ships bearing down on a Human colony. Keyes manages to ward off the otherwise invaders and is quickly turned into a war hero to boost the wavering morale in the Navy.
The separate story lines of the Master Chief and Captain Keyes intertwine when they are both assigned onto a new mission; taking most of the available Spartans who managed to survive the training procedures and weren’t killed in action, to infiltrate the Covenant-controlled regions. With the “Pillar of Autumn” and the aid of Cortana, they were to capture one of the Prophets–religious leaders–hoping that the humans would be able to leverage a cease-fire between the warring factions.
Before the mission had a chance to commence, the Covenant launched an all-out attack on Reach, the last major stronghold of humanity, save Earth. In an attempt to defend the planet, almost all Spartans are sent planet-side to defend Reach, while the Master Chief and two other Spartans are sent to a orbital dock to deny the Covenant information regarding the location of Earth. However, the battle quickly turns sour and Captain Keyes is forced to extract the Master Chief, a squad of Marines and a critically wounded Spartan and flee the system. The final chapter of the book overlaps exactly with the first few minutes that were seen as in Halo: Combat Evolved and therefore make the book a perfect prequel to the entire series.
While the book is generally fairly heavy on terminology, both in terms of military jargon and in-canon references, it is most likely to be a very entertaining read for any who ever wanted to know more about the Halo universe. And while the book was released even before the first Halo game was, it manages to incorporate many elements into the mix that were not explicitly addressed in the video games until much later.
The novel also manages to bring a personal touch to the series. While the Master Chief almost never shares emotions in the games, he appears much more human in the novels, and almost every other character encountered in the story is detailed and relatable… making it harder to swallow that many of these characters die over the course of the story. And this is most likely the largest added value of the book to the series in general: to give a personal touch to characters, and breathing life into the environments that are encountered during the video games.
The second novel in the series is titled The Flood and was penned by a different author than The Fall of Reach. In The Flood, author William C. Dietz addresses the events that happened on Halo during the exact same time as Halo: Combat Evolved, and therefore makes it one of the few books that are directly derived from the content of a videogame.
The story contained in the novel is told from several different viewpoints. Where The Fall of Reach restricted itself to the adventures of John-S117 and Captain Keyes, The Flood focuses on many more characters including an ODST Lieutenant, a Private who is later infected by the Flood, and a Covenant Elite spy on a personal mission to defeat the Master Chief. These different viewpoints contribute to a unique insight into the Halo universe, and it is especially interesting to read what different events transpired during Halo: Combat Evolved besides the events witnessed in the game. For those who ever wondered where all those marines on Halo came from and how they managed to keep all their hardware intact despite the fact that the large ship that carried them crashed and was nearly destroyed… look no further.
Unfortunately, though the novel adds new layers of depth to Halo: Combat Evolved, the book is somewhat less enjoyable to read when compared to The Fall of Reach. This is mainly due to the fact that the adventures of the Master Chief are transcribed into the book in the same way as they occurred during the game. Every line of dialogue, every group of enemies he encounters, down to the repetitive cover-reload-recharge shields-open fire mechanics, it is all included in the story. While reading, you might find yourself wondering why you’re not playing these same sequences, and it can safely be said that this part of the story is much more fun on a gaming monitor. Though the Master Chief might not be the most interesting character in the story, this is more than made up for by the accounts of Captain Keyes as he tries to evade Covenant search parties that are hunting him. Other interesting side-stories include characters like Melissa McKay, an ODST Lieutenant whose main wish is to bring as many of her soldiers back to Earth as possible, and Private Jenkins, who becomes infected by the Flood parasite but manages to preserve consciousness within his own deformed body.
Those who have played the game will find the novel incredibly faithful to the source material. Nearly all lines that were spoken in the game are identical in the novel, though some sentences have been added on occasion to make it easier to understand for those who are new to the series. Furthermore, minor characters in the games suddenly turn out to be playing large roles in the overarching story. Private Jenkins, who was never seen on-screen in the game, proves to be one of the most important characters in the events surrounding Halo. His helmet camera captured footage of the Flood infection, which the Master Chief finds during the game. The book is filled with these kinds of references and it manages to tie links between many of the details in the game. Together, these details lift Halo: Combat Evolved to a whole new level. However, those who have not played this game might find the book a little stale, and might not be able to appreciate most of the fan-service this book offers.
The third, and final book in the Halo series to cover the actions of the Master Chief, was once again written by Eric Nylund. Similar to previous novels, First Strike also tells a story from multiple perspectives. Since most of the characters created in the first two books were killed during the events on Halo, the book begins with an account of the team of Spartans that headed down to the surface of Reach before the conclusion of The Fall of Reach. A small group of the Spartans manage to escape the Covenant onslaught and the subsequent destruction of the planet’s surface. They hide beneath the surface in a military installation with the ‘mother’ of the Spartan-II programme, Dr. Halsey (a minor character in The Fall of Reach).
The novel also addresses how the Master Chief managed to return to Earth after being stranded in the debris field of Halo. After teaming up with one Pelican filled with survivors (including Sergeant Johnson, who managed to escape the Flood infection), they manage to capture a Covenant ship and use it to return to Reach. Revealing much more of the story would reveal too many important plot elements.
First Strike is possibly the most important book in the entire series, as it ties together Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2. Furthermore, those who have played both Halo 2 and have read this book, will find that the game includes a large number of references to the novel. Apparent plot holes that were not explained sufficiently in the game, are made understandable between the lines of the book. The story also includes numerous references to both The Fall of Reach and The Flood, making this a tremendously fun read for those who have read and enjoyed both previous books.
For anybody who has played any game in the Halo series, and has developed any form of interest in learning more about this universe, I can definitely recommend these novels. For general science-fiction fans who are unfamiliar with the games, the plot may seem somewhat shallow at times, but they are likely to find the books enjoyable nonetheless. Readers will likely finish The Fall of Reach and First Strike within days. Finishing The Flood perhaps will take a little longer since it is less adrenaline-fueled, has a slightly slower pacing and spreads its attention across multiple different perspectives of the Halo universe.
These books are available at most bookstores that have a dedicated science fiction / franchise department, and can be purchased in a bundle for roughly $20-$25.