The Master Chief Collection is out this month, offering players the chance to catch up with the Halo series before its first bespoke Xbox One outing next year. But what of the rest of the Halo universe? The webseries, the comics, the novels – where would one even begin to penetrate the huge transmedia phenomenon that Halo has now become?
Personally, I think the collection of novels set in the Halo universe is the best place to start digging. There’s a wealth of information, great action and even a handful of endearing characters to be found, and if you’ve ever been curious to know whether there are other Spartan IIs out there or what the Forerunner civilization was like; if you’ve ever wondered who the hell the Didact is or why the Master Chief is back fighting the Covenant in Halo 4, then these novels will both inform and entertain you. So let’s take a look at the books and how they fit in and around the Halo games.
The core of the Halo extended universe is built around three trilogies of novels, two of which are connected directly, and each written by a different author, which lends each trio of books a distinct tone and writing style. I feel like tie-in novels often get a bit of a bad rap, as if they’re not worth reading because they’re associated with video games, but these three trilogies are definitely worth your time if you’re invested enough in the lore to want to dig further. There’s also a small collection of other books that don’t really tie into the three main trilogies that I’ll touch on next time. Today, we’ll be taking a look at the first two trilogies in the series.
The first set of books, written by Eric Nylund (now of Amazon Game Studios), form a loose trilogy of enjoyable pulp-y sci-fi action-adventures that lay the foundations for much that follows in the series, while also serving to expose some of the backstory to readers. They’re also the only books to prominently feature the Master Chief and Cortana, with all their other exploits taking place exclusively in the games.
Nylund’s three books take place in and around the first two games in the series, beginning with The Fall of Reach. The first book exposes a darker side to the UNSC that we hadn’t previously known existed, taking us back forty years to the genesis of the Spartan II program – a top secret initiative that involves the Office of Naval Intelligence’s top scientist, Doctor Halsey, kidnapping young children and subjecting them to a decade’s training and physical augmentation. Originally intended as a means to end insurrection in humanity’s colonies, they are quickly re-purposed when a collection of alien races known as the Covenant begins their genocidal holy war against them.
The Fall of Reach leads directly into Halo: Combat Evolved, where the UNSC ship Pillar of Autumn has just escaped the destruction of Reach, the most important human planet next to Earth. The planet is lost to the invading aliens at the end of the book (as the title would imply), but survivors remain, deep underground in mysterious, ancient ruins. After the events of Combat Evolved (retold in the book The Flood, which we’ll look at next time), the Master Chief and Cortana venture back to see what became of their comrades in the next book, First Strike. Making their way back, they manage to extract the final remaining Spartans, as well as Doctor Halsey, before making their escape.
Unfortunately, their relief is short-lived. Heading back toward Earth, Cortana learns of an enormous fleet of Covenant vessels planning to attack the human homeworld. They are massed at a battle station called Unyielding Hierophant, and the Master Chief hatches a daring plan to attack the station, crippling the fleet before it can ever reach Earth. Taking advantage of the chaos, Doctor Halsey drugs an injured Spartan, hijacks a transport and heads for a location she discovered in her final days on Reach – a place she believes could be a sanctuary to ride out the war. Meanwhile, the remaining Spartans enact their plan and destroy much, though not all, of the Covenant fleet. The remainder begins its journey toward Earth, leading into the events of Halo 2.
While the first two novels in Nylund’s trilogy revolve around the core of the Master Chief and Cortana, his third novel, Ghosts of Onyx, branches out a bit more, introducing new characters and setting the precedent for later novels to tell different, but inter-related, tales in the wider Halo universe. Ghosts introduces the reader to the Spartan III supersoldiers for the first time, trained on a top-secret UNSC-controlled world called Onyx. A world that is not what it seems to be, and a world that Doctor Halsey speeds toward in a stolen ship carrying a sedated Spartan II.
Onyx, it turns out, is actually an entirely artificial planet, created by the long-dead Forerunners, the race that the Covenant revere as gods, and so it’s no surprise that the aliens eventually make their presence felt, attempting to remove the blaspheming humans from what they view as a holy relic. Escaping into the heart of the planet, the survivors quickly realise that Onyx is in fact a Forerunner shield world existing in a slipspace bubble that isolates it from the rest of the galaxy – a bunker intended to sit out the Flood menace that caused the Halo rings to be fired 100,000 years in the past. Unaware if they will ever make it back into real space, the remaining humans set out to explore this unfamiliar world.
In 2009, when Halo: Reach was announced, I was hopeful that the game would take its cues from the Reach sections of these novels, maybe even allowing fans to play through the events they’d read about. Bungie decided to go a different way, however, and while Reach is an excellent game (arguably the best in the series, in my humble opinion), they also managed to step on the expanded universe lore somewhat. Some things, like the presence of the Autumn on the surface of Reach or Cortana’s fragment entrusted to Noble 6, are a bit clumsy, but can be (and later were) smoothed out, but the biggest issue is Halsey’s complete indifference to seeing Spartan IIIs. In the books, she didn’t know about their existence until she left Reach, which was something of a shock to her, given the Spartan II program was entirely her initiative. This creates something of a black hole in the lore which still manages to irk me somewhat even now.
[In 2010, both The Fall of Reach and First Strike were re-released with additional content and some minor revisions. I haven’t read these new versions myself, but have looked into the changes, and I don’t believe they do anything to address the plot holes introduced by Halo: Reach.]
In 2011, Nebula Award-winning hard science fiction writer Greg Bear released his first book in the Forerunner Saga, perhaps the most interesting set of novels in the expanded universe. The Forerunner culture has always been a source of mystery and speculation in the Halo series; who were these people that built these breathtaking megastructures in deep space? What was their civilization like, and what are the ties they seem to share with humanity? Halo 3 did much to continue this speculation, introducing the characters of the Didact and the Librarian (if only through hidden terminals), characters that return both in Bear’s trilogy of novels and later, Halo 4 itself. We also learn more about the Precursors, a civilization that preceded even the Forerunners, first teased in the terminals of Halo 3 and quite possibly the major antagonistic force for the next game in the series, Halo 5: Guardians.
The Forerunner Saga aims to shine some light on the civilization, culture and great (and maybe even terrible) works of the mysterious race. Set over 100,000 years before the rest of the series, at the height Forerunner power and before the war with the Flood and the firing of the Halo array, the first book, Cryptum, follows a rebellious young Forerunner called Bornstellar Makes Eternal Lasting as he embarks on an adventure to uncover relics of the past. He journeys to Earth, home to a primitive human culture, and there finds the cryptum of a once-powerful warrior that went into hiding in centuries past. Waking the warrior, Bornstellar realises that he is the Didact, the former general of the Forerunner armies and political opponent to the ruling caste of Builders; there had been a disagreement over how best to deal with the Flood, with the Builers favouring the destructive might of the Halo array, while the Didact and his Warrior-Servants wished to construct more shield worlds like Onyx to ride out the oncoming storm.
Bornstellar travels with the Didact and his human guides, learning much about both human and Forerunner history, and is later imprinted with the Didact’s psyche, gaining his memories and tactical prowess into the bargain. Making a trip to a world called Charum Hakkor, the Didact discovers that an ancient creature known as the Primordial that was once imprisoned there has somehow been released. When the Didact is captured by the Master Builder and presumed executed, Bornstellar returns to the Forerunner capital as a rampant Forerunner AI corrupted by the escaped Primordial unleashes an attack at the heart of Forerunner power. Bornstellar is able to escape to the safety of the Ark, where he meets the Librarian and assumes the mantle of her husband, the Didact.
I said before that the Forerunner Saga is likely the most interesting story in the entire Halo canon, but this doesn’t mean it’s particularly easy to digest. Owing to Bear’s hard sci-fi style, these books can be a little ponderous and it’s often difficult to picture the more fantastic elements of the Forerunner empire in your mind’s eye. Many things are stated without the need for explanation – fitting, for characters that already understand what they’re looking at, but not particularly helpful to the reader.
This approach becomes a particular problem in the second book, Primordium, told from the perspective of an ancient human travelling across a Forerunner installation with little or no understanding of the things he’s seeing. This works well to put the reader into the shoes of the character, but can be frustrating for the avid Halo fan looking to comb the story for detail. Primordium itself can be quite a slog to get through, as the main character Chakas – one of Bornstellar’s guides from Cryptum – journeys across a Halo commandeered by the Primordial, meeting up with the Bornstellar Didact near the tale’s conclusion. The Didact confronts and destroys the Primordial, but not before it reveals the true nature of the Precursors and their relationship with the Flood. Chakas, mortally wounded from his ordeal on the ring, is transformed into a monitor through the use of a composer, a Forerunner device that plays a large part in the plot of Halo 4. Before the book ends, we are treated to one final revelation: the monitor that Chakas becomes is 343 Guilty Spark.
The final book, Silentium, is an easier read. It’s less interested in building up the Forerunners, given its focus on the final days of the empire and the build-up to the firing of the Halo array. As the war with the Flood intensifies and their civilization crumbles around them, we view the end of the Forerunners from the perspective of both Didacts and the Librarian. The latter recounts a tale of her journey to another galaxy in an attempt to discover the mystery behind the Precursors’ disappearance, finding a primitive Forerunner civilization and the answers she seeks. We learn that the original Didact still lives, as he awakens on a wreck in Flood occupied system, having been sent there to die by the Master Builder. He is captured and interrogated by a Gravemind and later released to return to his people, with his mind twisted by the experience.
Bornstellar, meanwhile, now acting as the Didact, falls back to the Ark, but not before witnessing his original harvest a population of rescued humans living on one of the Halos, which he uses to create his Promethean Knights. Outraged at his depravity, the Librarian follows her husband to his shield world Requiem, imprisoning him there before leaving for Earth to draw the Flood away from the Ark. Her sacrifice buying him time, Bornstellar fires the Halo array, destroying the Flood and all other sentient life in the galaxy not safely hidden on the Ark.
The Forerunners have long been the biggest mystery in the Halo universe: right from the moment you first step foot on Combat Evolved‘s iconic ringworld, you’re wondering who built it and why, and Bear’s trilogy is easily the deepest look we’ve ever had at this previously mysterious foundation for the saga. There is of course the argument that exposing the mystery can go some way to dismantling its appeal, but Bear’s style oddly helps in this regard, as it often feels like we get little more than a glimpse at many aspects of the series’ distant past. There is still much we don’t know, and while it’s great to have many questions answered, the books raise a few of their own, while laying some groundwork for the future of the series. If you’ve always wanted to know more about the Forerunners, as well as reach a better understanding of the events at play in Halo 4, these books are well worth the effort.
That’s it for part one. Next time I’ll be taking a look at what I believe is the absolute cream of the crop of Halo novels – Karen Traviss’ Kilo-Five Trilogy – as well as covering the remaining standalone books in the series.