ORIGINALLY POSTED ON THE OLD HALO ARCHIVE, APRIL 2015
Reposted without edits, save navigational issues.
Review and analysis of First Strike by Eric Nylund
Alpha Halo was not the end of the war. The Covenant continue their genocidal campaign, the Master Chief, Cortana, and a team of survivors must race to Earth and stop the Covenant’s advance. This novel follows up on the events and characters of both Fall of Reach and The Flood and sets the stage for Halo 2.
The first thing I need to note here is that it has been years since I last read First Strike, and I was more partial to rereading portions of the other novels due to the characters involved. So what I am about to say is a testament solely to Nylund’s writing abilities and not my own nostalgia.
Even more so than in Fall of Reach, Nylund has an incredible ability to define the camaraderie between the Spartans and between other characters. By the end of chapter one, I knew exactly what Fred, Kelly, and the rest of the Spartans meant to each other. It was small touches, like Kelly and Fred volunteering to take the more dangerous mission, Kelly covering for Fred when he makes a communications blunder, and Fred grabbing Joshua as they leap from the doomed Pelican. These sorts of gestures extend throughout the book, as we see snippets of how individuals from varying military branches interact within the new ragtag team assembled here.
Many times we hear that a sequel should build off the previous tale – not just in terms of plot, but character development. Nylund does a rare thing in that in his second excursion into the Halo Universe; it’s not just the plot or the characters, but the theme itself builds off of his previous installment. The Fall of Reach was defined by character growth; First Strike, though a plot-driven story, is defined by character relations. The development of these thematic relationship statuses between characters is a combination of rapid establishment and Nylund’s distinctive style of repetition.
Beyond the close-knit community of Spartans, we see this theme when the crew of the Pelican is pulled aboard the Longsword fighter. The relationships between the incoming characters and the Master Chief are defined within moments.
“With a lightning-quick motion, [the Chief] drew the newcomer’s pistol and aimed it squarely at the man’s forehead.
‘You were dead,’ the Chief said. ‘I saw you die. On Jenkins’s mission record. The Flood got you.’
The black man smiled a set of perfect white teeth. ‘The Flood? Hell, Chief, it’ll take more than a pack of walking alien horror-show freaks to take out Sergeant A. J. Johnson.’” (pp 63).
“‘At ease, Corporal,’ the Master Chief said.
The Corporal’s eyes finally locked onto the Chief. He shook his head in disbelief. ‘A Spartan,’ he muttered. ‘Figures. Outta the friggin’ frying pan – ’” (pp 65-66).
“He wore the black enameled bars of a First Lieutenant.
‘Sir!’ the Chief snapped off a crisp salute. …
The lieutenant settled to the floor and lazily returned the salute.” (pp 66).
“She saluted the Chief. ‘Petty Warrant Officer Polaski, requesting permission to come aboard, Master Chief.’
‘Granted,’ he said and returned her salute.” (pp 67)
After this five page introduction of major characters and their relationships, Nylund puts his use of repetition to work. Unlike the over-exposure of this style in Fall of Reach, First Strike hits just the right balance, especially in the connection shared between Cortana and the Master Chief.
First Strike, though set between Combat Evolved and Halo 2, could be seen as a precursor to Halo 4 in terms of Chief and Cortana’s interactions. After absorbing a massive amount of information on Alpha Halo, Cortana finds herself overwhelmed by the data that she’s constantly cataloging and analyzing. This in turn makes her short-tempered and absent-minded. While it’s not actual rampancy, it does set both John and Cortana on edge.
Cortana has concerns about being able to do enough, and do it fast enough, to keep her crew and the Master Chief safe. John in turn worries about Cortana’s wellbeing, having admitted to himself that he could not consider her expendable equipment. These themes are defined in far more depth in Halo 4, but they have their roots all the way back in this novel.
In a further indication of how this book is defined by inter-character relations, even one-scene wonder characters of the novel are placed in settings acutely defined by how they connect and interact with others. When Lieutenant Wagner returns to Earth to bring the news of Reach’s fall, he sets the stage to showcase the calm and collected Admiral Hood butt heads with the aggressive Colonel Ackerson. In turn, Ackerson relishes in the assumed demise of his rival.
When Kelly, Fred, and Joshua are sneaking past the Covenant front lines in stolen Banshees, it’s the strained relationships between the Sangheili and Unggoy that allow this un-scheduled flight plan passage.
When we get our first glimpse of our villains for Halo 2, the Prophet of Truth and Tartarus, this sets up the changing relations between the races of the Covenant that we would see a year after the game’s original publishing.
And here you must forgive me for grafting a portion of my Arbiter Watch piece into this reading journal, because this aspect of relationships is absolutely fundamental to the claim I am about to make.
Thel ‘Vadamee is in First Strike.
I don’t mean the mention that Tartarus gives at the end, complete with his own pet name for the future-Arbiter. I mean that we actually see Thel ‘Vadamee on the bridge of the Ascendant Justice, pages 91-96, fighting hand-to-hand with the Master Chief and getting chucked out in an escape pod.
I know that this is an old theory that was considered debunked when Halo: The Graphic Novel came out and Seeker of Truth was revealed to be the fleet’s flagship. However, the updated canon actually supports this theory, as well as Nylund’s deliberate use of relationships here in First Strike.
The canon is discussed over in this journal’s Arbiter Watch, so here let’s focus on the relationship aspect.
As we’ve established, even characters that appear for just one scene in this novel are given a relational reason for existing. Throughout the rest of the assault on Ascendant Justice, enemy positions are given, enemy actions are described, but they aren’t given character. The Sangheili fought by the Master Chief on the bridge is.
“The Elite drew a plasma pistol and fired at the Lieutenant – but never took its eyes off the Chief.” (pp 91).
“The Elite removed its helmet and dropped it. The plasma pistol clattered to the deck a moment later. It leaned forward, and its mandibles parted in what in what the Chief guessed had to be a smile.” (pp 91-92).
“…this Elite was tough, cunning, well-trained…” (pp 94).
“The Elite’s mouth opened, and it snapped at the Chief. It was angry or panicking now… he felt it getting stronger.” (pp 95).
Furthermore, the relationship between these two characters – the Master Chief and the Sangheili – has a progressive arc. When the Sangheili first appears on the bridge, disengaging its active camouflage, the Chief’s response is almost nonchalant: “Even with the shield malfunction, he was confident he could take a single Elite.” (pp 91).
However, the moment the two step into battle, the Sangheili proves to be a difficult adversary, being capable of removing two of the Chief’s allies from the fight while keep the Spartan at bay. At last, only with the help of Locklear and Johnson is the Master Chief able to defeat the Sangheili by tossing him alive into an escape pod and jettisoning him.
Why would Nylund, who demonstrated such deftness of storytelling, take this much time to write out a one-on-one encounter between the Chief and an enemy? The only other times we’ve seen him do this was when the moment was or was initially intended to be the first encounter of a new threat – the Hunters at Sigma Octanus, the Sangheili at Reach, the Jiralhanae on the Unyielding Heirophant. This attention to detail with this particular Sangheili, alongside Tartarus’ line about “the incompetent” who lost Ascendant Justice, the introduction of three other major characters of Halo 2, and the canonical support to this theory, convinces me that that this Sangheili was indeed our future Arbiter, Thel ‘Vadamee.
Because ultimately, First Strike is defined entirely by relationships between characters, and what better soil can you find for the root of the relationship developed between John-117 and Thel ‘Vadam than the writing of Eric Nylund?
I’ll be departing from the Science Fiction section of Genreflecting this time around, because a different type of book continually pressed into my consciousness while reading First Strike. I kept thinking of Voyage of the Dawn Treader from the Chronicles of Narnia series. Treasure Island, a book I haven’t touched since the seventh grade was always lurking in some back corner. It took me a while to place it together, but First Strike is a road trip book.
The main plot of the story – and the novel is very much plot-driven – revolves around the importance of getting from place A to place B, with innumerable obstacles between. The starting point is Alpha Halo, and Earth is the destination. Chief and Cortana must locate and take control Slipspace-capable ship, rescue a team of Spartans from a Covenant-controlled sector, survive an unprecedented and devastating battle, locate a place for repairs, and destroy a massive Covenant fleet heading for humanity’s homeworld. The goal is to reach Earth; the plot is the actual journey.
One genre that is defined by this journey-centered plot is Wagons West – a subgenre of Western Fiction. Page 215 of Genreflecting describes this type as:
“The way west was filled with danger from accidents, disease, and violence…”
Replace “west” with “home,” and you’ve found yourself with a very solid description of First Strike. Part of the journey-centered plot requires survival to be threatened multiple different sources. While survival in-and-of itself is not the goal in First Strike, it is a requirement for the Master Chief and his team to warn Earth. As a result they encounter war fleets, dangerous radiation, damaged ships, and a battle in Slipspace.
To emphasize the dangers of the way west/home, the subgenre may have multiple side characters succumb to threats. If the threat is large enough, main characters will as well. The one actual Wagons West story that I have read was The Overland Trail by Wendi W. Lee, and this novel about a wagon train did exactly that. There was a very large cast of characters, most of them having died by the end of the story. Again, First Strike is the same; the final number of people arriving at last at Earth is a fraction of the initial cast.
The second part of the Wagons West description is as follows:
“…and often families were involved imbuing this stories with relationship as well as survival issues.” (emboldening mine).
There it is again, that core theme of the novel. Relationships. Walking hand in-hand with the survival of the journey-centered plot. A true Wagons West. In a manner of speaking.
Of course First Strike lacks many of the trappings of the Western genre, and I would not place it even in the category of SF Westerns like Firefly and Cowboys & Aliens. However, in performing literary analyses, you will find that a lot of themes and writing styles cross between genres, which is the mark of a genre’s evolution and the evolution of literature in general.
Unfortunately I have very little experience in the Western genre of fiction, but I can give you other stories that have the journey-centered plot.
To again re-iterate a recommendation from my Fall of Reach post: The Lost Fleet by Jack Campbell. Six books about a stranded military fleet, deep in enemy territory, trying to make it home.
Two of Robert A. Heinlein’s YA novels don’t necessarily have an end goal in-sight, but the journeys provided really capture wonders of space travel. Time for the Stars is a more reflective piece, and Have Spacesuit – Will Travel is a lighter fare with plenty of heart.
Finally, let me give a very strong recommendation to two (three) classics.
Richard Adam’s Watership Down. Don’t let the species of the characters dissuade you. This is a tale about home, companionship, and leadership. This is a brutal and emotional odyssey, tinged with love and hope. It is one of the best books I have ever read.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. It’s the pair of road trips that has been embedded in the cultural consciousness since their original publication. A resurgence came in 2001 with the first of the Peter Jackson films. What also was released in 2001? Halo: Combat Evolved. No, that’s not a coincidence; it’s a sign. Go read these books.
Want more thoughts on First Strike? Head over to this installment of “Arbiter Watch,” analyzing the canonical evidence for Thel ‘Vadamee’s appearance.