Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Halo 5: Guardians and the Halo novels.
Ghosts of Onyx is one of the most highly-regarded books in the Halo franchise. Along with the previous novels, The Fall of Reach and First Strike, it launched a cast of new characters who never appeared in Halo games but existed around the edges of the Master Chief’s story.
Eric Nylund was the man of the hour in 2001, in charge of writing a prequel to Halo: Combat Evolved for Microsoft Studios and Del Rey (who also handles the Star Wars EU). In fact, it was solely Nylund’s responsibility to expand the Halo universe at the time of the first game’s release, not an easy task since he had to deliver on a blockbuster phenomenon like the industry had never seen. Unlike any other video game expanded universe, Halo had the advantage of being the most successful game in history. And fans wouldn’t hesitate to revisit the universe any way they could. Nylund had a deadline of just seven weeks to write the book, and it arrived just two weeks before the release of Halo: CE and the debut of the Xbox. The Fall of Reach was quite well received, offering a good first look at the wider Halo universe, but that’s perhaps an article for another day. Nylund followed up The Fall of Reach with First Stike, a sequel to the game, and would go on to contribute a novella, “The Impossible Life and Possible Death of Preston Cole,” to the Halo: Evolutions story collection.
In 2006, Tor Books took over the Halo Expanded Universe, and asked Nylund to return for a new book, one that would ultimately open the gates to the Forerunner Saga, which is the current subject of the games and books. That book was called Ghosts of Onyx, and its influence on Halo 5: Guardians is undeniable. Both the Blue Team and the Spartan-IIIs, who were introduced in Ghosts of Onyx long before players took control of one in Halo: Reach, had a big impact on the Halo universe, and Halo 5: Guardians is the first to feature these characters in the games.
Although the Blue Team roster in the beginning of Ghosts of Onyx isn’t exactly the same as the roster in Halo 5, the book can tell us a little more about the personalities of the men and women who fight beside Master Chief. In the novel, Kelly-087, Linda-058, and Fred-104 find themselves investigating a shield world called Onyx and fighting the Forerunner constructs that defend it.
The shield world, or Dyson sphere, becomes important in the Halo expanded universe as a setting we’d visit again in Halo 4. Its discovery beneath what humans thought was a naturally made planet rocked human understanding of Forerunner capabilities. Deep inside the shield world is a Dyson sphere separated from the rest of the universe by a rift in slipspace. Like a planet turned inside out, it has its own sun and convex landscape inside a surface made of Forerunner Sentinels.
This was one of several shield worlds, created by the Forerunners long ago as a refuge after the Halo installations were activated. With preserved biomes not entirely unlike those found on the Ark, the shield worlds became fertile research grounds for human science teams. Indeed, the Dyson Sphere inside the shield world on which Halsey finds herself in Ghosts of Onyx becomes an ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence) research station for many years.
Another shield world, Requiem, where the Forerunner Ur-Didact was unleashed and which served as the main location in Halo 4, could have an impact on the story of Halo 5. We can only imagine that the Chief and Blue Team are headed to one in the game, possibly the place where they’ll find Cortana uploaded and well. Onyx itself remains important in several books, and a third shield world makes an appearance in Halo Wars.
The other half of the book is concerned with Kurt-051’s secret mission to train the next generation of Spartans. The segments concerned with the military training undergone by the Spartan children are pleasantly reminiscent of The Fall of Reach, although the characters are more crucial to the Halo universe as a group than individually.
Kurt is sort of an analog for the Master Chief, heroic and authoritative, but also the polar opposite: he prioritizes friendliness, and John (Master Chief is John-117, for the uninitiated) often criticizes him for being too talkative. As a trainer for the Spartan-IIIs, Kurt is willing to die for his students, but also performs his own not-quite-moral experiments in order to make the IIIs more lethal.
Kurt was a quintessential Spartan, in part because of his heroic death. Many other Spartans have sacrificed themselves for their teams, but Kurt’s stoic dedication to the mantra that “Spartans never die”—itself an in-universe morale booster cooked up by the devious Office of Naval Intelligence to inspire these expendable soldiers—makes his action especially resonant.
Blue Team’s characterization doesn’t entail much more than could be gleaned from reading their descriptions in Halo 5 material. Linda is a quiet sniper, her equipment described in loving detail. She enters a “Zen no-thought” state in order to focus before taking her deadly shots. Fred is a tactful leader, a serious and quiet man. Kelly is fast and durable, and throughout their adventure, she is the only member of Blue Team to doubt the Master Chief has survived after the Fall of Reach. She’s also the one who first welcomes the Spartan-IIIs to Blue Team. She gives the finger to a fleet of attacking robots, a gesture which edges on goofy in the context of a big-budget video game but also works on the strength of its own panache.
The very thing that Ghosts of Onyx has in common with Halo 5 is the same thing that makes the team endearing in the book, though: their chemistry together and loyalty to one another makes them appealing as a unit. Based on the ties that bind, it makes sense that Blue Team would go AWOL with Master Chief in Halo 5.
Speaking of ties, Ghosts of Onyx does very well in showing how different generations of Spartans work together. We might see similar interactions in Halo 5 as well, depending on how the Master Chief’s and Agent Locke’s teams interact in the end. Interestingly enough, there is one character that is indirectly at the center of the teams’ differing philosophies.
A shadow that looms over both the games and these early books is the presence of Catherine Halsey, the creator of the Spartan program and the moral gray area of the series. While the original Spartans appear loyal to her, Halsey has acted in a more villainous way as of late, especially in the events of Halo 4‘s Spartan Ops, which sets up the role she will undoubtedly play in Halo 5. There’s no doubt that the new Spartan-IV program is made up of soldiers who would love nothing else but to capture her for her war crimes. These Spartans are volunteers, unlike Master Chief’s generation, which is made up of children stolen from their homes and turned into supersoldiers.
Ghost of Onyx‘s portrayal of Doctor Halsey is balanced and informative, without demonizing her as she is in some of the later books. (She also, delightfully, modifies a Shaw-Fujikawa drive—the Halo universe’s version of a hyperdrive—with a spork.) Her attitude towards the Spartan-IIIs is more protective than she was in less affronted, than what we saw in Halo: Reach.
As a novel, Ghosts of Onyx succeeds at some aspects, but is less than stellar in others. The writing and pacing of the novel suffer slightly from having to deal with tricky organization: the story basically bookends both Halo: Reach and the novel First Strike due to the about 20-year period in which Kurt trains the Spartan-IIIs. Explanations of some scenes sometimes come two pages or more into a time jump, making the book feel less linear than it is.
Combined with the way the plot effectively surrounds itself in order to follow Kurt’s time with the Spartan-IIIs, the changes can be disorienting. There are too many characters for the book to juggle successfully, and the Covenant perspective just muddies the waters. The Elite Voro, who plains the main Covenant role, becomes more introspective and therefore more relatable as the fight against the Forerunner Sentinels continues, but his fight seems inconsequential next to the mission undertaken by the humans. He was essentially in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Spartans themselves are limited by their own nature. They’re usually too focused to relax and express more personality. The novel even points out that there is no time for a “happy reunion” between Kurt and the rest of Blue Team. The story is still enjoyable, though, still has the humor and human moments that make Halo’s world have a buoyancy along with the threat of alien war. The relationships between the team members are conveyed in simple, sincere ways: “good to hear your voice,” an all-clear signal, or the face-swiping gesture unique to their generation. Ghosts of Onyx conveys the long-time appeal of Halo: a thoroughly realized military world, with all its traditions and familial loyalties.
Along with The Fall of Reach and First Strike, Eric Nylund’s novels give Halo fans the best look at Blue Team this side of Halo 5. When we’re put into the shoes of Fred, Kelly, or Linda, it will be like visiting old friends.
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.