As the first Halo novel, it fell to The Fall of Reach to make a wider universe out of the popular first-person shooter.
The book came out about half a month before the actual release of Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001, and it was tasked with fleshing out much of the game’s backstory and larger concepts. Little did writer Eric Nylund, Del Rey, Bungie, and Microsoft Studios know that the game would be such a massive hit.
I read the book back then, and several times over, struck by the heroism of the Spartans as well as the morally questionable but brilliant Doctor Catherine Halsey. After re-reading Ghosts of Onyx, it was essential to go back to The Fall of Reach as well, to see where Blue Team got its start and what seeds were sown for Halo 5 to follow, 14 years later.
I often refer to Halo novels as science fiction beach reads, and The Fall of Reach has some of those elements that make it escapist and light: it starts out with the low-stakes, creative obstacle courses put in front of the Spartan children during their training, and progresses into the UNSC’s most disastrous encounters with the alien Covenant. It isn’t a happy book, but that’s because it was never meant as an ending. Instead, it kickstarted the long series to come.
Because this is the book that started it all, its connection to Halo 5 is strong. The Fall of Reach shows the genesis of Master Chief, along with Blue Team, the Spartan compatriots closest to him and who are featured for the first time in the upcoming game. Halo 5 returns to themes of Spartan camaraderie and the heritage they uniquely carry on their soldiers, first as despicable lab experiments and then saviors.
The Fall of Reach begins with the Master Chief winning a battle but choosing to watch as humanity loses the war. He pauses to watch a glassing, seeing a planet undergo the same fate Reach will later, and so, the whole story is bookended by destruction. Afterward, the book shifts backward in the timeline to show the first meeting between Dr. Halsey and John, the boy who would later become Master Chief.
The majority of the story switches back and forth between Blue Team and Captain Keyes, telling episodic tales of battles against both human insurrectionists and the Covenant. Spartans John, Linda, Kelly, and Fred are introduced here, and are as distinct as they have ever been: Kelly is particularly memorable for having blue hair when she is kidnapped, and John notes at one point that he’s actually afraid of her.
The Chief himself has his quirks—he dislikes space travel and likes the smell of pine, and at one point envies the Covenant’s firepower. Despite some clumsy but endearing lines about how he sometimes feels afraid during battle, Chief’s story doesn’t really have a through-line. He is shown to the reader in creative, scrappy training scenes. In this, The Fall of Reach has a lot in common with school stories: like Hogwarts, the Spartan training complex is a grueling curriculum for students with special powers, and as an escapist story, it absolutely succeeds in putting the readers in the shoes of a super soldier.
The training scenes are also puzzles, and the way the characters solve them tells not just about the Spartan program but also about the people within it. At other times, the Spartans are portrayed as unstoppable monsters emerging out of the darkness, and that portrayal serves them well too, highlighting the difference between Spartans and baseline human soldiers.
Does the plot on the whole hold up to a re-read? The pacing is muddled, with several large setpieces meaning that the final battle at the planet Reach itself feels more like another incident than a culmination. We know that Reach is important because it is closer to Earth than the Covenant had been before, because it was the site of an Office of Naval Intelligence research site, and, on a more personal level, because it was the location of the secret Spartan training camps. However, the lead-up to the attack loses steam during the (nevertheless entertaining) MJOLNIR training scenes.
There has been a lot written about the inconsistencies between the novel and the game Halo: Reach, which takes place at the same time. Most of it focuses on Cortana, who was apparently in two places at once: this was smoothed over in canon by suggesting that a fragment of Cortana had been split off from the rest. More painful was the idea that Blue Team was present on Reach testing out new armor while Noble Team was fighting for their lives—an inconsistency which could also be explained, since the Covenant were playing havoc with the human communication network.
While not an inconsistency per se, Dr. Halsey has been portrayed various ways in the Halo canon, from the guilt-wracked mad scientist in the Kilo-Five trilogy to the steely, put-upon traitor in Halo 4. The Fall of Reach treats her with more sympathy than later books do, despite being set right in the middle of her child kidnapping spree. Halsey feels guilty for her actions every step of the way, but it’s her twisted sort of respect for the Spartan children and her belief that humanity needs them that keeps her going. She is the mother of both Chief and Cortana, and she’s lost them both.
As for him, John thinks he would prefer the stimulating training to having no real aspirations or challenges at home. Imagine that—instead of the Master Chief, John could have been an arrogant, unmotivated, overqualified couch potato. Instead, he’s the endearing, unrealistically skilled game character we all know.
We’re also introduced to Cortana. She and John immediately snark, but it’s also through her that we see some of the more technical aspects of the Halo universe, such as when she hacks into a UNSC officer’s files. The AI and the ship-to-ship space battles both contribute to Halo’s hard science fiction feel, while the superhuman Spartans and the people around them have human enough stories to be enjoyable on a personal level, too. A chapter from the perspective of the AI Deja combines both in a particularly smooth fashion.
Even if it weren’t the first book in the canon, The Fall of Reach would have earned its place as one of the most enjoyable and important Halo books. The invasion of Reach is portrayed as melancholy and important, even though the prose is exciting and precise instead of lingering and sad. Unlike Halo: Reach, the story isn’t about the loss of a team. Instead, it’s the story of the creation of one—a team that often finds themselves separated from one another, certainly, but still a team. Along with the action scenes, that’s another reason why The Fall of Reach is one of the most entertaining, feel-good tie-in novels out there. The story is dark and full of hardware, but, like the Spartans, it’s also resilient and personable.
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.