SHADOWS OF REACH – a review of one of Halo’s best books yet (NON-SPOILER)

“Welcome to Reach. The time is 0241 military standard. I suggest you collect your weapons and equipment and exit the craft as quickly as possible. We have company on the way.”

Halo: Shadows of Reach releases October 20th 2020, author Troy Denning’s fifth novel for the series – and quite undoubtedly his best!

Bridging the gap between Halo 5 and Halo Infinite, the Master Chief and Blue Team return to Reach to extract some vital assets from Doctor Halsey’s lab at CASTLE Base that will help turn the tide against the Created. But an army of Banished stand in their way.

343 was kind enough to provide me with an early copy of Shadows of Reach, so here’s my non-spoiler review of what’s easily become one of my top ten Halo books…The first thing to mention here is that it doesn’t matter whether this is the first Halo book you ever pick up, or if you’ve read some – or all – of the others. There’s no qualifying knowledge required here to ‘get’ the story, characters, or the state of the universe.

By the same token, this is by no means required reading to ‘get’ Halo Infinite either. It’s an entirely separate story with some connective tissue to the past and the future.

Shadows of Reach sits very comfortably as an open reading experience that picks up and continues some things from the previous games, while also giving you a good sense of what 343’s vision for Halo Infinite looks like going forward.

It’s a moment in time, suspended between the last game and the next, which takes every opportunity to plunder the depths of its characters which you may have felt was lacking in Halo 5.

You can also expect plenty of little details and payoffs here for fans who have delved into the expanded universe around the story of Reach, and none of it feels like overwrought fanservice.

If you’ve read The Fall of Reach and First Strike, you’re definitely going to get the most out of some of the surprise callbacks. A number of long-forgotten things come up again with renewed relevance, lending crystal clear clarity to how some stories may be develop.

There’s a lot of connective tissue to Halo 5Halo Wars 2, Denning’s other books, and more. What this means is that Shadows of Reach is every bit as rewarding a read for long-time fans of the fiction as it is welcoming to newcomers.


‘UNDER PRESSURE’ – BLUE TEAM

Under pressure that burns a building down
Splits a family in two

At its core, this is a story about the Master Chief and Blue Team returning ‘home’ to the glassed remains of the place that defined their lives from childhood.

That alone is a compelling premise. If you found yourself at all disappointed by Halo 5 not doing very much with these characters in their debut game appearance, rest assured that I felt this is the best that the Chief and Blue Team have ever been written.

Despite a few false starts (*side-eyes ‘The Next 72 Hours’*), this is their definitive post-war story.

“We knew that this was a place we’ve wanted to go back to for some time, and to do so in a way that thematically complemented the original story. Fans should go into this novel with the expectation that this story moves the universe’s overall narrative forward in the wake the traumatic events of the last game by returning to its roots, the place where it all began. There are elements that touch on Halo: The Fall of Reach, Halo: First Strike, and even the game Halo: Reach that we hope fans will be pleased with.” [Jeremy Patenaude, Canon Fodder #109 – ‘Pen Umbra’ (7/10/2020)]

If you were invested in where Halo 4 took the Master Chief as a character, the path that set him on, then you’re going to see a true continuation of that in this book.

This story has the Chief at his most ‘human.’ He’s reunited with his family, who he’s with the entire course of this story, and they’re fighting alongside both UNSC personnel and ‘rehab pioneers,’ a group of people who have come to reclaim Reach (not unlike the miners on Meridian in Halo 5, chipping away the glass to revive a dead world).

The mix of characters gives the Chief plenty of people, both new and familiar, to interact with. Denning handles this beautifully, bringing in some new characters (like the race car driver Bella Disztl) who you’ll definitely want to see more of.Blue Team have served together for thirty years now, they’re practically extensions of each other, but there are some bumps in their relationship here that gives them some much-needed complexity and inner conflict.

Remember, the Chief was apart from them for almost five years while he and Cortana were adrift in the aft of the Forward Unto Dawn, following the most harrowing months of the war.

During that time, Blue Team was still actively serving in the UNSC. When the Chief did eventually reunite with them, following the demise of Cortana in Halo 4, he processed that loss by going on mission after mission, before going AWOL in Halo 5 (which culminated in them getting trapped in a Cryptum).

There are consequences to this, and we see a lot more disagreements naturally emerge among Blue Team.

As a fun aside: Kelly’s own rebelliousness has been spurred by her newfound hobby of listening to Queen to ‘meditate’ before missions – select songs that come up are ‘Killer Queen’ and ‘Another One Bites The Dust.’

“In Shadows, they’re in their mid-forties, which means they’ve been in the thick of high-intensity warfare for thirty years – and they’ve endured it pretty well. I really enjoyed examining how their early experiences changed them, and the kind of armor that they’ve had to grow on the inside to protect their emotional well-being as efficiently as the Mjolnir that protects them physically.” [Denning, ‘Pen Umbra’ (7/10/2020)]

Shadows of Reach delivers perhaps the broadest range of character writing the Chief has ever had. He has never felt more ‘complete’ as a character than he does in this book.

He’s got a personal stake in this, fighting for Reach. He pushes himself to a Spartan-II’s absolute limits, causing him to reflect on his own mortality as he gets older. He feels guilty for failing to deal with Cortana; he gets irritable with people, even moved to anger at times, but he’s also his usual wisecracking self and a has to navigate a lot of complex tactical situations to be the best leader he can be.

And he also feels hatred. Real, intense pain for returning to his ‘home,’ seeing the devastating aftereffects of its fall.

There were a lot of character moments that resonated with me, but (in the interest of keeping this spoiler-free) you’ll have to read them for yourself.


‘WE WILL ROCK YOU’ – THE BANISHED

Buddy, you’re a young man, hard man
Shouting in the street, gonna take on the world someday
You got blood on your face, you big disgrace
Waving your banner all over the place

Shadows of Reach does not solely follow Blue Team, however. We also dive deeper into the Banished.

When we met this faction in Halo Wars 2, it was very much through the lens of Atriox – the beginnings of his legend in how he defied the Covenant.

In this book, you’ll get to see a lot of doors opened that help to effectively consolidate the Banished as the primary antagonist going forwards, right down to learning about some of the weapons we’ll undoubtedly be seeing and using in Halo Infinite.

My definitive takeaway here, though, was that the Banished’s politics are every bit as compelling as the Covenant’s in Halo 2.

We see this part of the story play out through Castor’s perspective, the Jiralhanae who has appeared in Denning’s other books – leader of the faction named the Keepers of the One Freedom. It’s not just humanity who have been looking to build bridges, as the Keepers have uneasily allied themselves with the Banished to face the new state of the galaxy.

Castor is joined by a Banished ‘aide,’ of sorts, a Sangheili Blademaster called Inslaan ‘Gadodgai. The relationship that develops between them over the course of the book is one of its most compelling aspects; we’re so used to seeing Brutes and Elites at each others’ throats, but the Banished brings with them a very different dynamic.

A certain Brute who appeared in July’s Halo Infinite demo might also play a small part in this story, and we may just learn exactly what he represents to Atriox and the Banished…

(No, not Craig – the other one!)

I don’t want to give anything further away here, but you will be left wanting to see a lot more of these characters. This is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding and unique areas of the book – just another reason it’s worth picking up!


‘STAYING POWER’ – STYLE, SUBSTANCE, AND SPACE

You and me got staying power yeah
You and me we got staying power
Staying power (I got it, I got it)

Denning’s books are an interesting study because they’re so varied. He’s now the author who’s written the greatest number of Halo books, and it’s easy to see why he’s earned that kind of trust.

Last Light is often regarded as the point where the post-war era really started to love up to its potential. It had the compelling set-up of Blue Team and the Spartan-IIIs of Gamma Company from Ghosts of Onyx (who were largely absent from the Kilo-5 Trilogy) in something of a crime drama with a Forerunner AI, while also introducing the amazing Inspector Veta Lopis.

Retribution followed up on that story, with Veta now leading the Gammas as part of their classified ONI ‘Ferret team.’ It’s much more ‘theatrical,’ with Veta’s gambits and her way of thinking mapping events out like a stage play.

Silent Storm was the first of the Master Chief-centric novels, returning to the roots of classic military science fiction in the first year of the Covenant war.

Oblivion similarly continued that, but with a lot more of the kind of weirdness that I really gravitate towards as a still very young Blue Team must play the role of begrudging caretakers to a group of children marooned on this planet with mysterious alien ruins (that aren’t Forerunner).

Shadows of Reach doesn’t have (and doesn’t need) another genre beneath the surface, but it feels like it’s got some of the best of these books.

It’s very much a space marine sci-fi novel. There’s extensive military sci-fi action for both ground and air engagements, with a lot of that ‘chessboard’ thinking Denning writes so well that manages to be both tactical and theatrical. And there’s that element of weirdness that comes through with the way the post-Created setting is articulated, without the Created ever being truly present.

I’ve personally struggled a little with some of Denning’s prose in his latter entries in terms of getting an idea of the settings that sometimes go minimally described for the action. There were one or two engagements in Shadows of Reach where I felt a similar lack of clarity, but overall this is some of Denning’s tightest work that had me gliding from page-to-page.

Just as a great Halo game compels you to play “Just one more match,” Shadows of Reach had me up into the early hours of the morning to read “Just one more chapter…”As I wrote at the start of this year, I feel that Halo has come to a point where it really needs to slow down its expanded universe and tell more focused, high-impact stories that get more of a chance to stick in peoples’ minds.

Remember when the first two Forerunner Saga and Kilo-5 Trilogy books released? We’d get a Forerunner book at the start of the year (around January to March) and a Kilo-5 book towards the end (September to October), leaving plenty of time between them to digest and discuss these stories.

Counter to that, there’s no better example of publishing schedules working against 343 than it did in 2019, where Oblivion and Meridian Divide released within a week of each other in a content-packed year (three novels, four comic issues, and Outpost Discovery).

2020 has comparatively been a very dry year for Halo, and I personally think that having this breathing room has been a good thing. Denning’s latest outing will undoubtedly benefit from having that space.

Once Shadows of Reach is out in the wild and people have had a chance to digest it, I expect we’ll be seeing a lot of in-depth discussion about this book and the direction 343 is taking Halo Infinite.

In case you couldn’t already tell, I loved this book. Despite what some may feel to be a rather hurried conclusion and some sections that are perhaps overlong, the highs this novel hits are some of the highest in recent Halo literature.

So many things that I wanted to see in a post-Halo 4 story for the Chief are here, immaculately delivered by Denning’s writing and vision of the universe. To return to Reach with Blue Team is the perfect idea to properly explore where each of them are at as individuals in this limbo space between the past and future of the series.

343 has been doing a lot of their own soul searching over the last few years. If Shadows of Reach is any indication of where they’ve landed… well, I think the next decade of Halo is looking like an exceptionally bright one.


SUMMARY & RETAILERS

October 2559. It has been a year since the renegade artificial intelligence Cortana issued a galaxy-wide ultimatum, subjecting many worlds to martial law under the indomitable grip of her Forerunner weapons. Outside her view, the members of Blue Team – John-117, the Master Chief; Frederic-104; Kelly-087; and Linda-058 – are assigned from the UNSC Infinity to make a covert insertion onto the ravaged planet Reach.

Their former home and training ground – and the site of humanity’s most cataclysmic military defeat near the end of the Covenant War – Reach still hides myriad secrets after all these years. Blue Team’s mission is to penetrate the rubble-filled depths of CASTLE Base and recover top-secret assets locked away in Dr. Catherine Halsey’s abandoned laboratory – assets which may prove to be humanity’s last hope against Cortana.

But Reach has been invaded by a powerful and ruthless alien faction, who have their own reasons for being there. Establishing themselves as a vicious occupying force on the devastated planet, this enemy will soon transform Blue Team’s simple retrieval operation into a full-blown crisis. And with the fate of the galaxy hanging in the balance, mission failure is not an option…

Halo: Shadows of Reach by Troy Denning releases October 20th, 2020 (and October 26th in the UK).

Certain (Walmart) copies may include an additional exclusive short story titled ‘Sacrifice.’

Some of the retailers you can purchase the book from:

Amazon (UK | US)
Simon & Schuster
Barnes & Noble
Titan Books
Audible
Walmart

8 thoughts on “SHADOWS OF REACH – a review of one of Halo’s best books yet (NON-SPOILER)

  1. I love Blue Team So Much, but I Hated Halo 5 SO MUCH. Should I read it? How mad will the created stuff make me. Please help Haruspis.

    1. Good to see you around, Dendritic!

      Yeah, totally get the feeling here lol. Let me assure you: the Created are only in the background in this book, they have no direct presence.

      Blue Team are wonderfully written here too. This book effectively has the latitude to tell the kind of story that we were sort of expecting from Halo 5 itself with regards to how it uses them, so on that score I can’t recommend it enough to get that fix you’ve been waiting for over the last five years!

  2. Seeing you say this is an amazingly good book has relieved a whole lot of concern I had for the book, all that’s left now is being concerned about what happens to the rest of Blue Team (I’m almost positive the book ends up explaining why 343i’s not going to include them in Infinite 😡 )

    1. Let me allay your fears further here: This doesn’t actually move Blue Team out of the story for Halo Infinite at all. I very much expected that it would, but it’s a complete story with them from beginning-to-end.

      It’s a self-contained story that gives insight into the universe and the characters rather than something that really looks to drive the plot of the overarching universe from Point A to B to set up Infinite. There IS set up here, but it’s actually very light.

  3. I just finished this morning and I’m glad I got it. Just like Silent Storm and Oblivion before, it does Blue Team the justice they deserve and actually makes me want to care and play as them. A character that’s invincible and can defeat armies of enemies nonstop doesn’t make for a compelling character, it just feeds into the childlike fantasy of immortality, but add moments of weakness, times that character is forced out of their comfort zone, and give us insight to their thoughts and feelings make them real characters to root for like Thel ‘Vadam, Ur-Didact, Chakas/Guilty Spark, and so many other characters in the novels and some games. I truly hope 343 will learn from 5: Guardians and actually SHOW us character development in-game during Infinite.

  4. I strongly disliked the ending. It felt as if you were being led up to a big reveal and then just left wanting. I don’t understand why this was done. Great book, terrible ending.

    1. I have strong suspicion that answer is in Infinite, and due to the original release you wouldn’t have been waiting long.

  5. This was a great review and it is making me very eager to read the book.

    I’ve not really entrenched myself in Halo lore very much for a number of years, but my childhood and teenage love for Halo is really starting to rekindle and I’m super excited to catch up on all the stuff I’ve missed. I must admit, I did not finish Halo 5’s campaign the first time I played and I know that a lot of people have a lot of issues with its story, but I am looking forward to playing it through (I’m playing through Halo 4 at the moment) and falling in love with this new era of the universe.

    Keep doing what you’re doing. I’ve got a big backlog of your content that I’ve got to get through. 🙂

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