“We will gather our forces on this world and depart at once. There is a greater purpose that the Banished must attend to.”
It’s been some time since now since Troy Denning’s latest Halo novel, Shadows of Reach, dropped out of slipspace (in fact, they’ve already announced the next one!)
From the state of the galaxy, to the Master Chief’s character arc, Banished politics, and beyond – let’s explore everything Blue Team’s return to Reach sets up for Halo Infinite…
STATE OF THE GALAXY
Halo: Shadows of Reach is set in October 2559, a year after Halo 5 (October 2558) and seven months before Halo Infinite (May 2560).
What this book gives us is a pretty good picture of what the state of the galaxy is looking like from the Chief’s perspective.
At the start of the story, the Chief ruminates on everything that went wrong in Halo 5 (as we all do). It is said that interstellar civilisation is “sinking into a nightmarish surveillance state, with the situation worsening each day.”
Guardians have been deployed by the Created across the known regions of the galaxy, and any major spike in conflict will result in these constructs being unleashed upon the perpetrators.
Cortana is often referenced as ‘Pax Cortana.’ Pax was the Roman goddess of peace, and the word is used in the context of referring to peace that has been imposed by a powerful force. For example, ‘Pax Romana’ means ‘Roman peace’ – the two centuries of Roman history regarded as their empire’s golden age.
Thus, what we have here is ‘Cortana peace.’
As the grip of the Created tightens, Blue Team are deployed to Reach by Doctor Halsey (who now has a prosthetic arm) for Operation: WOLFE.
Their mission is to recover some ‘assets’ from Halsey’s lab in CASTLE Base, stored within cryo bins (used to store organic materials) and a mysterious lockbox bearing the Avar saber – a symbol associated with SWORD Base, which we visited in Halo: Reach.
The contents of these cryo bins is never explicitly identified, but it is abundantly clear that they contain Halsey’s illegally flash cloned brains – one of which (the brain referred to as ‘H1’) was originally used to create Cortana.
As is noted in Halsey’s Journal, which came with the limited edition of Halo: Reach:
Specimens H-2, -3, and -4 remain in cryogenic suspension. I have other, future plans for them as technology evolves. [November 7, 2549]
Halsey believes that this is their last chance to ensure the Created are defeated, just as Cortana was once the key to discovering Halo and setting in-motion the events that would fracture the Covenant.
I think we can all reasonably infer that Halsey is looking to create a new AI from these brains, some kind of equivalent mind to combat Cortana – much like Offensive Bias was created to counter Mendicant Bias during the Forerunner-Flood war.
At the end of Shadows of Reach, the portal to the Ark – hidden under the Menachite Mountain on Reach – is successfully activated and Atriox returns to the galaxy.
Atriox informs the Banished forces that there is a greater purpose they must attend to, something even more important than the Ark, and it lies on Installation 07 – Zeta Halo.
Considering the fact that Halo Infinite takes place in May 2560 and picks up six months after the devastating battle that shatters the ring and leaves the Chief adrift in space, this event occurs just a couple of weeks after the UNSC Infinity and the Banished forces leave Reach at the end of this book…
THE MASTER CHIEF
Much of Shadows of Reach is told from the Master Chief’s perspective, and Denning gives us a great deal of insight into where his head is at right now.
From the beginning, we see that the Chief feels an immense amount of personal responsibility – bordering on guilt – for everything that has gone wrong with Cortana.
He wants to think of Cortana as “broken,” rather than evil, and often finds himself distracted by circular internal arguments, thinking about what he could have done differently. (Very relatable indeed that he, too, is trying to rewrite Halo 5.)
And he also expects that there will be a reckoning someday for his decision to go AWOL.
Indeed, we see that Sarah Palmer’s estimation of the Chief has been shaken by this. She said herself in Halo 5 that he “does what he wants.” So, there’s a growing complexity around how exactly this living legend fits within the military hierarchy when he is seen as something else – something more – than just the UNSC’s ideal of ‘the perfect soldier.’
This is the thing that Chief’s burgeoning sense of independence has been building towards, which has been a consistent throughline across Halo 4, Hunt the Truth, and Halo 5.
To borrow a phrase from Captain America: it’s not about being a perfect soldier, but a good man.
Two years ago, Cortana had been John’s AI, residing in his Mjolnir armour, connected to his mind through a port in the band of his skull. And she–
Damn. It was happening again.
John could hardly think of Cortana’s name without finding himself in a battle against his own thoughts, replaying the entire incident in his mind and wondering what he might have done differently.
[…] John had known before their last battle together that Cortana was descending into the final stages of “rampancy” – a sort of inevitable AI schizophrenia – as her mind literally outgrew its neural matrix after seven years of existence. But with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance, he had allowed Cortana to infiltrate the control systems of a primordial enemy vessel, sacrificing herself so he could destroy a devastating weapon threatening Earth. And it had worked.
Until Cortana returned from the dead.
Things had really gone off the rails then, and John had made some decisions he regretted. Worse, he had dragged the rest of Blue Team into the mess along with him, going AWOL to uncover the mystery of Cortana’s rebirth and rescue her… from what? Herself?
[…] There had been no good choices, in any event – John knew that. He had done the best he could under such terrible circumstances… right up until he disobeyed orders and went AWOL, and had to be doggedly hunted down by his superiors and fellow Spartans. Someday there was going to be a reckoning for that decision. Just not now. [Halo: Shadows of Reach, p. 2-3]
Another thing that Shadows of Reach explores is the Chief’s connection to humanity, which is some of the best narrative content in the book. It gives us a bit of a glimpse at what we might see in Halo Infinite where his characterisation is concerned.
One scene in particular stands out. While Blue Team are being patched up after a battle, the Chief speaks with Doctor Somogy, where he notices that she has a holographic locket and he wants to ask about the two boys in it.
He wanted to ask whether the boys were still alive, but the question kept sticking in his throat.
Forty-seven years old, and he still didn’t know how to ask a personal question. [Shadows of Reach, p. 156]
This tension is suspended throughout the scene. As the conversation returns to focus on the mission, the Chief keeps wanting to ask about the locket.
He eventually bucks up the courage to do so.
John took a deep breath, then pointed at her locket. “Your two boys, are they…?”
The smile that spread across her face told him the boys were alive. [Shadows of Reach, p. 161-2]
Somogy reveals that her boys, aged ten and twelve, are part of Reach’s militia. That’s just the way things are on this planet – everybody is in the militia.
The Chief laments that the days of shaping children into soldiers have not yet passed on Reach, and perhaps they never will. He reflects on who he is as a Spartan-II and what that means to him at this point in his life; he feels proud of who he is, but is also mindful that he wouldn’t wish that on anybody else.
This gives us, I think, an interesting lens through which to see how the Chief will interact with the Pilot in Halo Infinite.
Obviously this is a new character that the Chief has no established relationship with, so he’s not going to be chatty with him right off the bat. He’s going to start off the ‘strong, silent type,’ and will undoubtedly develop from there.
We’ve already seen a bit of how he interacts with the Pilot, which definitely feels like it’s building on some the character work 343 has been doing with him over the last decade.
What Shadows of Reach makes clear is that he’s trying to form these connections with others, and there are such a great variety of character moments which come from that. We see the Chief lose his temper, we see him banter with people (in particular, Maks Chapov, who is honorarily acknowledged as part of Blue Team), we see him reflect on his legendary status and how he won’t be around forever…
Another really compelling part of the writing in the book comes from the moments where Blue Team disagree, or have diverging perspectives. Fred remains suspicious of Halsey, noting the possibility that she could still be playing multiple sides, but Kelly defends the Spartans’ mother figure for having no other choice. The Chief is adamant that she is not a traitor, but somebody who simply doesn’t let rules get in her way.
We also learn about how they feel about the aliens they’re in-conflict with. Linda’s perspective carries a great deal of conflicting and nuanced emotions (contrasting with her silent, zen exterior), and the Chief’s is summarised thusly:
The Banished should never have set foot on Reach – and Reach should never have been glassed in the first place. He had met, and even fought beside, too many noble aliens to believe they were all responsible for this entire mess. But those who were – those he was happy to deal with. [Shadows of Reach, p. 301]
As far as the Master Chief is concerned, Shadows of Reach sets the stage for one of the most interesting character stories with him yet in Halo Infinite – a true successor to the path he was set on in Halo 4.
Introduced in Halo Wars 2, the Banished will be the new enemy faction making its mainline debut in Halo Infinite.
I wrote a piece last year on why the Banished are the perfect antagonists for Halo Infinite, and Shadows of Reach has only further convinced me that this is the best direction for the series to go in at this point.
To quickly catch you up, if you’re not familiar with this faction: The Banished are a mercenary organisation, formed by the strategically-minded Atriox.
During the Human-Covenant war, Atriox’s clan was used as “expendable muscle” on the front lines. Atriox survived battle after battle, his open hatred of the Covenant grew until they tried to execute him – and failed.
From there, Atriox formed a group of pirates and raiders on the hunt for loyal allies, as well as whatever weapons, vehicles, and resources they could scavenge from the Covenant war machine.
All you need to know about the Banished is summed up by Isabel in these three incredible minutes from Halo Wars 2.
The Banished have formed an uneasy alliance with several other factions – those we currently know of are the Keepers of the One Freedom, the Legion of the Corpse-Moon (what an incredible name!), and the Ravaged Tusks.
These three factions have been deployed to Reach with the mission of finding ‘the portal under the mountain.’ Halsey lamented in Halo: First Strike that we may never truly know the extent of the subterranean Forerunner facility under the Menachite Mountain, but Shadows of Reach reveals that a portal to the Ark is one of the immense treasures hidden away.
(And we’ve also seen this facility in the games – it’s the portal on the High Noon multiplayer map in Halo: Reach.)
Where Halo 2 gave a great deal of depth to the Covenant, Shadows of Reach pulls a similar trick with the Banished. Denning explores the politics and Jiralhanae customs that both hold together and sow tension between what’s effectively three separate, competing fiefdoms.
What this effectively enables 343 to do in the long-term is give the Banished a lot of variety in the game(s). They are not an empire on the sheer existential scale of the Covenant; the Banished are composed of lots of different groups with their own themes, characters, aesthetics, motivations, and so on.
Where the Covenant had a very unified core aesthetic, there’s a lot of room for the Banished to mix ‘n’ match visual elements from across the franchise and introduce new things as well.
Shadows of Reach also tells us a lot about War Chief Escharum, who we were introduced to in the Halo Infinite demo shown off in July 2020 and will seemingly be the game’s main antagonist.
We learn a lot about Escharum that really makes him ‘click’ as a character.
We have been teased that Escharum “is connected to The Banished in a fundamental way,” and in Shadows of Reach it is revealed that Escharum was Atriox’s mentor.
Shortly after welcoming the Keepers into their numbers, Atriox had placed his former mentor, the war chief known as Escharum, in charge and then departed with a powerful assault force on a mission that he claimed would permanently remove all threats to the Banished. While Atriox’s old daskalo was a fierce and cunning Jiralhanae leader, the lack of the warmaster’s unifying presence continued to be felt by all in the Banished. [Shadows of Reach, p. 55]
So the Brute we’re going up against in Halo Infinite isn’t just some random new faction leader amidst a plethora of other names (one might be inclined to side-eye the likes of Sali ‘Nyon here).
No, this is the man that ‘made’ Atriox…
What’s more, it is noted that Escharum is at least around eighty or ninety years old. That may seem like a minor detail, until you remember that the Jiralhanae were only inducted into the Covenant in 2492 (just six decades before the events of the original trilogy).
That means Escharum was born before the Jiralhanae joined the Covenant, he would’ve been about twenty years of age when first contact was made.
Atriox, comparatively, is much younger. The Banished’s warmaster was born in 2510, which makes him just a year older than the Master Chief himself…
It’s an appropriate parallel because Atriox represents to the Banished what the Chief represents to the UNSC. Escharum, then, might be said to be framed in-parallel with Halsey.
It’s something that can easily be ignored or missed, but if you know it (and you do now if you didn’t before!) then it adds a whole new layer to this conflict with the Banished.
A few other little details that come up are some of the Banished’s new toys that we’ll be seeing in Halo Infinite.
A siege ship called a ‘karve’ is mentioned (which we may have seen in the background of a couple of recent screenshots). The Mangler, a spike-firing pistol-type weapon seen in the Infinite demo, appears throughout the book.
The other debut appearance was for a weapon called the Skewer, which has since been shown off in a developer update from 343 (and is pictured above).
Shadows of Reach describes Skewers as anti-tank weapons with rocket-sized projectiles and sword-length bayonets. They’re meant as anti-armour weapons, but Brutes enjoy using them on infantry.
One final thing is that Skirmishers are in this book , the fast-moving T’vaoan subspecies of Kig-Yar that appeared in Halo: Reach.
There were six of them, all Kig-Yar, still moving into position as the Warthog rounded the corner. These were Skirmishers, an aggressive subspecies of Kig-Yar that had once belonged to the Covenant. Unlike Jackals, who were consummate opportunists on the battlefield, Skirmishers were far less cautious than the rest of their kind. John opened fire, cutting four of them in half before they had even raised their weapons. Then he felt a pair of heavy thumps as Kelly promptly ran over the other two. [Shadows of Reach, p. 302]
Considering that we have specific confirmation here that Skirmishers are part of the Kig-Yar forces in the Banished, we may well see them return to the enemy sandbox in Halo Infinite as well.
Some named enemies are mentioned as well who may appear in the game. The Sacrifice short story includes a Sangheili named Okro ‘Vagaduun, who appeared in the map menu shown during the E3 2020 demo as an enemy that can be assassinated.
While we don’t have specific confirmation that these enemies will appear, let their names be known: Jato ‘Ratum, Zeretus (‘Scourgemaker’), and Balkarus.
The last thing of note here is the recent confirmation from actor and comedian Verlon Roberts that he is portraying a minor character who appeared in Shadows of Reach: Spartan Griffin.
This confirmation came from Roberts’ guest appearance in Episode 54 of the Fadam and Friends Podcast. You can, in fact, see the exact moment when Roberts mentions Halo that the interviewer’s face lights up, as if internally saying “I’m not going to say anything and just let him talk this new info out…”
Griffin is a Spartan-IV who serves aboard the UNSC Infinity as part of Fireteam Taurus. He is one of the Spartans deployed to Reach with Commander Palmer when they link up with Blue Team.
John studied the Spartans a little more closely now, taking in the names fed to his heads-up-display: GRIFFIN, VETTELM DIMKA, OSHIRO… all on Fireteam Taurus. The others were from a similar outfit, Fireteam Intrepid. Two of the best crews Infinity had when it came to Spartan-IVs, trained explicitly for high-risk operations well behind enemy lines. John had seen them in action on several occasions. [Shadows of Reach, p. 305-6]
We’re going to be linking up with Marines throughout the campaign (who else is gonna ride in your Warthog otherwise, right?), so we may well encounter some Spartan-IV NPCs among them.
It makes sense that they, too, would be stranded on Zeta Halo after the UNSC Infinity seemingly fled from whatever cataclysmic event shattered the ring.
As Halo Infinite begins six months after this cataclysm, it seems likely that we’ll be reuniting disparate groups of Marines and Spartan-IVs who have been avoiding the Banished and now – with the arrival of the Chief – are able to form a proper resistance.
And that’s everything! (At least, until the game releases and we get to see whether there’s anything we’ve missed.)
Next time, we’re going to take a closer look at Kelly Gay’s masterful Point of Light and all the things that book sets up for Halo Infinite.
Until then, stay safe, Spartans!
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