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A review: The Fall of Reach

Fall-o-reach
Behold, a review! Arisen from the computer crash that deleted the whole thing, it is rewritten and displayed on this blog post for your reading pleasure… hopefully. Regardless, here you are: a review of Halo: The Fall of Reach.

It has been 10 long years I’ve lived in the wake of The Fall of Reach. Combat Evolved opened the door to the Halo series, but it was this tie-in book that built the framework and foundation. In those ten years much has occurred. Disasters, terrorists, exams, rebuildings, avengings, we’ve seen many things happen. From the Halo side we’ve also seen much: the invasion of Earth, the Forerunners and the Ark, Spartans I and III, the Squad, The Spirit of Fire, and the continuing adventures of John-117. It comes no great surprise that Bungie’s last Halo game chose to bring things full circle and take us back to the very start, at the Fall of Reach. The series has spread itself so large, but this book was where it began.

So it was with no small expectations I approached the book in the library, heard so much about what it it introduced, what it had hid for later, but others had ignored, etc. And I wanted to know those things. Despite being an editor on Halopedia, there’s a great deal of difference between knowing how something happens, and seeing actually happen. As a once-reluctant, now dedicated fan of the series, I would now at last find out for myself.

Below are my thoughts. Dissect and enjoy.

The book starts out with the Spartans battling on Jericho VII. Good ol’ Blue Team, seen for the first time in action. And was it an action-packed sequence, Grunts a-dying, guns akimbo, Banshees, Baysplosions, etc. Exciting stuff to start out with.

If it weren’t for the fact that book action sequences tend to bore me. Nothing about writing, just my preferences about genre. So yes, this one had nice elements, but it immediately bored me, me thinking, oh great, here’s the first of a ton of Spartan action sequences. They’ll do everything perfect, but it won’t matter, because the Covenant will just carpet-bomb the place. Let’s read a ton of pointless Grunt mowing. You monsters, Grunts are people too!

Nemo
Dissected like this little beauty.
Bad footing I was starting out here. Me, not the book. But I had resolved to read this book thoroughly, just how I had read Moby-Dick and The Brothers Karamazov (both good, but overflowing). So I decided to take a different approach.

I decided to approach the book scenes as I would for a fanfic, as a single self-contained piece. Hmm, nice writing. Good attention to detail. Not overlong on description. Keeps the action varied. And it closes out poignantly, with the Covenant’s bombing. Stands well on its own. Pretty fine stuff.

We cut back in time to the invasion, where we see the beginnings of the Spartan program. Here we see three of our most prominent characters of the Halo series, John-117, Halsey, and Keyes. Before I go any further, I would like explain a little habit of mine. Often when I’m reading a book, I recite the dialogue back out loud to myself, not loudly, but to get a feel for it. It comes in really handy so one can see how it sounds and where all the tenses and subtleties would be. And it’s very fun when reading from excellent dialogue writers like Orson Scott Card(shameless plug is shameless). The Halo series has had its own share of dialogue, both good ("don’t make a girl a promise") bad ("To war!") and ugly("wort wort wort!") As my own personal habit, I found myself unconsciously doing so with this book and decided to pay attention a little more closely to see what its speech felt like.

HReach - Carter and Halsey
C'mon, Cathy, you whipped this guy, give Mr. Keyes a whipping!
Neh, it was okay. Didn’t do much, did its function, didn’t shine in any particular area. I guess where the real “touch” occurs in Nylund’s writing is in the events and action, but in the actual writing it felt okay. And that bled in to my perception of the characters. They felt OKAY. So we got some kind of idea of what they were like, but more what they were supposed to be like, not actually feeling that way. So Keyes is supposed to be heroic but humble, but his humility came off more like just stating sentences and saying “Ma’am?” a lot. Likewise, Halsey didn’t come off as too cold, just somewhat brash, and nothing that really showed off her supposed genius. Same with John, supposed to be a nice little kid, but didn’t do much to prove it, just came, flipped the coin, then left. Little idea of his character. The description of the characters was good, but the actual results from their personality didn’t seem like much.

It irked me especially with Halsey. I wanted to see her “180” IQ in action. Wanted to see think circles around this Keyes guy. Didn’t see it yet, saw her pull the connections card, but not the smarts. Didn’t help that she was hyped so much in Halo: Reach, a fraction of her legacy. Doesn’t help the smartness reputation after I’ve read Ender’s Game.

Boot comic page 3 by ladylaconia-d3hqpyj
Miss Ell sure knows how to make a Spartan so cute you can't repress the urge to hug 'em!
THEN we cut to the Spartan training. THIS was the strongest part of the book. The details really leap out at you, how intimidating the trainers are, how hard the workload, how confused and tired the children were, it was shown here. Too often I fear the desensitizing of Halo fans, who cheer “Boy, wouldn’t it be cool to be taken as a Spartan?!?!” NO. NO IT WOULD NOT. And I was glad the authors realized that.

Yes, there were things that bugged me. But though they didn’t detract from enjoyment during here, they weigh it down a little. I’ll list them here, but they weren’t that bad, just bothering.

First, it bugged me how passive John was. He hardly did anything past obey orders, but mostly just out of habit than out of real worry about being punished. And he took in the their information blindly, understanding it, wondering about it for a bit, then moving on to whatever they were doing. In fact, none of the kids seemed suspicious about the program, and when the canon has introduced any, such as Daisy, it’s more out of emotion than suspicion and more because they seemed to hate the trainers from the start.

Next, was that their character development seemed to come largely out of time-skip, but never out of growth, that is, we see them with one opinion in one time period, then cut a few years later with a different opinion. That bothered me how we saw so little of their progression, only its effects. Those effects, however, were things that were rich in potential, detailing how John began to see the team as his family, his perception of his current and former lives and and how he grew to accept it; being a constant re-reader of the Ender’s Game series, I saw those ideas that minefields for discussion, if only they hadn’t been passed up so easily. But that can easily be attributed to the fact that the book had a deadline, so for that I do not fault the author. Perhaps some day in the future they will get to expand more on these. (Or we will!)

Giclee art spartans
This is Sparta
We cut ahead to the Spartans actually becoming Spartans, and their deadly augmentation followed by their final training and first mission. Now, I will admit, some days I feel like the Spartans are over-hyped. I doubted their effectiveness. Sure, they are augmented and everything, but is they’re really anything in their training that makes them better than the average Marine? Isn’t the same training, just longer and “harsher”? I mean, any action star in a Bay-esque movie does what a Spartan does without augmentations. Augmentations are just a handwave. Are they really so special without their “strengthy” advantage?

After the fight with the trainers in the Mark I suits, I didn’t doubt them. Not anymore. And I won’t. Don’t kill me, please, Spartans...

Noble Briefing
Morning, Al-Qaeda. We're Noble.
But for the mission against Watts, I started going hazy again. It’s a consequence of the Bin Laden killing that we may be starting to lose our utter faith in “send special ops to kill high-ranking leaders, problem solved” mentality, as now we’re learning that the hard part is finding them in the first place. Like the opening action sequence, I read passively through this, as I knew it wouldn’t affect the plot lot much aside from saying “here’s how cool Spartans are”. Maybe if there had been some important plot discovery from it I would have cared more, but it felt like a lot of battles in the book didn’t exist for much than the sake of having battles, since the plot developments always came after them.
Algorithm
The moment that Mr. Elias Carver discovered the Insurrection.
The introduction of the Covenant came after, but a brief touching on the Insurrection came first. THIS was where I had the most problem with the book, since I was expecting a reveal but instead got an explanation. Let me explain: a consequence of living with Halopedia is that I already everything about the Insurrection that’s detailed there. I know about Carver, the algorithm, the Far Isle bombings, etc. Now we all know that the Insurrection, from a “Doylist” standpoint, serves as a plot device to introduce the Spartan-II program in time for the Covenant’s arrival. Even before the Bin Laden raid, we knew that building lots of super-soldiers is an unusual plan that doesn’t guarantee results against terrorists, even planetary ones. It would require a huge amount of ethical, cost, and logical leaps to enact this. Against the Covenant it could be successful, but with packs of terrorists not so much. The series has thus been doing a lot to flesh out the Insurrection, making a potentially civilization-ending threat, among other measures, helping us understand their decision a little more. The best explanation comes from the data pads, where the Assembly explains the Insurrection explanation was effectively a cover for their back-up work against a possible alien invasion. It makes the out-universe explanation into the in-universe one!

So it really, really, REALLY annoyed me when I found that NONE of that was in this book. No mention of Carver, Far Isle, terrorist attacks, nothing. Just one line about “predicted society collapse” and that’s it. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief on that. I could with the knowledge of the Far Isle bombings, or the Callisto, but not with one line about prediction. Had I read the book without knowledge of those, I would have not believed them about the necessity of the Spartan program.

Shields at 40 percent
Shields at 40% and holding!
But then we moved on to the Covenant. Again, more battles, the fight with Commonwealth and the Unrelenting. First ship-to-ship battle. Pretty interesting how they described the damage readouts on the ship and charging of each of the weapons. Nice detailed stuff.

Now, as the book moves on to the rest of the Human-Covenant War, I have to admit one thing about the “when was each Covie species introduced” controversy. A lot of people got mad with media like Halo Wars began contradicting with “Fall of Reach’s” dates, declaring them ruined forever and the newer media non-canon. But before reading this book, during, and after, I welcomed the change. I welcomed our new alien oppressors. Because if the Elites, Hunters, Drones, and Brutes have not been around until 2552, that means for the past 25 years, Humanity has been losing a terrible war against JACKALS AND GRUNTS.

Covenant fleet
The Grunts are coming, and their wrath is great.
KigAdded by Kig
Nothing but them. Only Grunts and Jackals have been responsible for the turmoil of the UNSC’s defeat. Every Wraith has been piloted by a Grunt or Jackal, every Banshee, and ship. Grunts and Jackals have been glassing us, the debris of destroyed ships and vehicles reveals only Grunts and Jackals. And the Elites, the Hunters, the Brutes, all “Proud Warrior Race Guys” have just been twiddling their double thumbs-worms-claws this whole time rather than go out in battle and get some fresh scalps for the kids.

Problem?

The True Halo Reach cover by levihoff
So I couldn’t suspend my disbelief for that, and read those parts with a wry air, watching as the Spartans mowed down Grunt after Grunt with their trusty AR pal, meanwhile riffing about the surprisingly well trained Grunts that were apparently piloting every vehicle and Banshee that were the only things capable of making Spartans break out a sweat.

I did have some respect for the scene introducing William Lovell, which gave him so many traits, quirks, and character motive I was believing that he deserved his own book. Again, a consequence of the deadline, to introduce him so well only to be promoted for SOME reason then disappear into the background with no comeuppance. This carried over with the other officers too, it was nice that they each got a few sentences of background, but it never carried over into their conversation, they merely recited line about damages, weapon charges, and point coordinates like any robot. Lame, I thought, to merely keep them in the background like that.

The concepts for the space battles were interesting, like the Keyes Loop and the sacrifice of the Cradle, but it feels like they were more entertaining in my head than in the book. In my head, I could add the additional movements of the ships and gaps of logic to show them acting more tactically, such as “the Covie Destroyer didn’t move out of the way of the approaching Iroquois because it was trying to box it into a trap with the Frigates,” versus the book, where it doesn’t appear to react or even fire. So I read the space battles with a conceptual interest, silently noting mild physics problems like “Stars are too faint, Keyes, to be seen in orbit” or “why did the ship slow down if there’s no air resistance”, “what about Helmejong turns”, etc.

LNoS ends
Meanwhile, the IIs are having a nice lunch and board meeting.
The last parts concerned the battle of Reach, and again the canon retcon reared its ugly head. There was amusement a plenty at contrasting the dates with those in “Halo:Reach”, wondering: “okay, here they’re having a conference while Noble is discovering a supercarrier” “supposedly several cities have fallen today”, etc. Again, it also annoyed me how passive John was being, he also didn’t feel like he had progressed at all since he was a child. It felt like a heavy contrast to the “tough-as-nails” Chief I was used to, but nearly every thought of his felt like a question, only to dismiss it as he walked to another area.
Bison
250pxCreate a Spartan-III program. OF COURSE!!!
And another consequence of being too familiar with the canon was the “no-show” of Colonel Ackerson and his off-screen villainy. Having read First Strike before The Fall of Reach, I was really prepared to see some hammy teeth gnashing from him. Sure, it had annoyed me how disrespectful he had been during his one scene in First Strike, namely because it felt out of context to do that at a HIGHCOM meeting, but among a peer like Halsey and her Spartans, it would be awesome to have him really dish out to them.

But he never appeared. He was merely mentioned just a name to pin the crimes on, then punished offscreen as well without one glimpse of him. Disappointing.

(NOW insert gushing here about how the Mark V-Cortana test WAS really cool, and the excellent twist of choosing to dodge an airstrike versus trying to out-run it, which everyone does. Mark V test was VERY cool.)

Battle of Reach
So long, xenophobes!
The last bits of the actual Fall, I admit, I wasn’t that invested in since I knew it was canonically defunct and I was mostly waiting for the jump to Installation 04. I passed along through the big Orbital Defense battle, the fight in the station, the “death” of Linda (who always felt to me like the most overpowered Spartan), and the cameo of Sergeant Johnson, who I was also disappointed in since he never did anything that amazing or characteristic aside from pop up for some reason. This was a problem I had noted when reading First Strike before, that Johnson was so far kept in the background and used only as an occasional source of comic relief, that it felt as though John’s decision to keep Johnson alive virtually never involved Johnson himself to begin with, that is, his friendship with him or whether he would miss him. He could easily been replaced with anybody for that role.

The book ends where Halo ended and began, with the Autumn’s arrival to Installation 04. I held a bated breath for the iconic first lines of Cortana and Keyes, the kicker to the final events. But instead we got the lame “We’re going to find out” we’ve heard million times before. I closed the book, thought it over, then sat down to right this review before my computer deleted the whole two hour product, forcing me write it again over a period of three months.

The above might seem an underwhelming reaction from me, an apathetic, or even a disappointed response. But referencing through it as I wrote the review it still surprised me just how MUCH it did contain. The first Halo game provided a great self-contained story, but very little background of the events or the involved parties. “Fall of Reach” did more than add background, it constructed a universe, and while it’s difficult to appreciate it at first when you’ve absorbed all of Halopedia, creating a universe is no easy feat.

There were the flaws of the uninteresting dialogue and over reliance of caricatures rather than characters to carry the story. But there was a lot to mine in the book from those, a lot of opportunity for further writers of the canon (or us, the wee fanfiction-fanon writers) to expand on what the book didn’t have time to go through, the backgrounds and mechanics, or the feelings and growth of people. That’s not to say the book felt rushed, it didn’t, and each scene contained what it should.

Ultimately, if I hadn’t read the Fall of Reach, I think I still could have written a pretty canon-accurate story based on the information from Halopedia. But if I hadn’t, I also would have missed out on the perspective of the iconic story, that is, the theme, of an out-gunned, unmatched, and growing-desperate Humanity against a truly unstoppable, incomprehensible, ruthless alien force, and the birth of heroes that were believed in and would believe in the power to save the oppressed.

THAT was the important part, the perspective.



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