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Review and analysis of Ghosts of Onyx by Eric Nylund
When the Spartan-II program goes public for the sake of morale, the Office of Naval Intelligence loses their strongest covert operation. They decide it’s time to make more. Enough to make them expendable.
There’s an old joke – Why did the restaurant on the moon shut down? As a child, I eagerly gave my mom the punchline: “There wasn’t any oxygen!” While it certainly produced the desired effect of a laugh, and my answer was scientifically accurate, it wasn’t correct. The actual punchline was “It lacked atmosphere.”
Atmosphere, in spatial design terms, is the “objective properties of an environment that metaphorically exemplify structures of feeling through the creation of embodied experience” [x]. In shorter terms, it’s how a constructed environment evokes emotions – the comfort of your living room and the discomfort of an interrogation room, the cozy bookstore and the energetic club.
Just as The Fall of Reach was built on introspective character growth, The Flood contained the visceral emotions of inspiration and devastation, and First Strike was a composition of relationships, Ghosts of Onyx is imbued with atmosphere. Every chapter is a sensory experience, ranging from horrendous combat to quiet reflection, from the desperate frontlines to the political underground.
In the infiltration mission to the Insurrectionist base, Nylund demonstrates the ease with which he can change the atmosphere with his writing style. The chapter begins with a cautious, yet deliberate pace. Extra sentences and paragraphs are taken to describe what John-117 sees, feels, or hears, instead of simply stating the events.
“The guard on the perimeter of Base New Hope drew on a cigarette, took a final puff, and tossed the butt.
John lunged, a whisper rustle, and he wrapped his arm around the man’s neck, wrenching it up with a pop.
The guard’s cigarette hit the ground.
Nearby crickets resumed their night song.” (Onyx, pp 31).
Here the swiftness and silence of the guard’s death is implied within the sensory descriptions. However, as the pace picks up partway through the chapter, so does the writing style. Sentences become shorter, to-the-point – the usual style used by Nylund for battles.
“White-hot fragments cut through the commandos like a scythe.
Kurt leapt out and shot the three men still moving. He went quickly to each Spartan and pulled off the collars.
Kelly rolled to her feet. Fred and Linda got up.” (Onyx, pp 38).
The chapters of political subterfuge also have a fitting atmosphere. Either the reader or the viewpoint character, and many times both, are placed in positions of ignorance. Information is slow to be released to the reader or character, true to the bush-beating conversations of intelligence agencies. A fine example of this particular atmosphere is the revelation of Alpha Company’s fate.
During the briefing, Kurt watches the top brass dance around the topic of his Spartans, referring to them in vague terminology. In turn, Kurt’s concern heightens throughout the scene, his senses constantly alerting him to the fact that something is wrong. Statements, intel, they aren’t adding up, and it all culminates to Kurt watching the death of his Spartans, unable to look away.
This is the first book in which John-117 is not a main character. He appears once and is mentioned a couple of times throughout the book, but the protagonist is Kurt-051. This change of protagonist matches the heightened atmosphere of the book. Even more than his fellow Spartans, Kurt is someone who is tuned to the atmosphere of his surroundings.
Many first-person novels are known to have the narrative voice be in-tune with the main character. The Maximum Ride series has a sarcastic and cocky voice to them, being told from the perspective of a teenage girl. Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien are third-person perspective novels whose narrative voices are disassociated from the main character, as if they are bards at a fireside or fathers at their children’s bedside. Ghosts of Onyx confidently has a foot in both courts.
On one hand, the third-person viewpoint is not tied solely to Kurt. Other Spartans, Dr. Halsey, the crew of a UNSC Prowler, and a Sangheili Ship Master all get their moments in the story’s driver seat. Each of these characters also have their own voices, with Nylund once again exhibiting his talent at communicating a person’s inner thoughts. But each and every scene has that heightened atmosphere, as if we, the reader, are consistently being encouraged to see, hear, and think like Kurt.
One of the ways that Nylund allows for this awareness is in the novel’s very title. We get to ask the question: who are the Ghosts of Onyx?
I believe there are multiple answers, varying in impact on the story, but all relevant.
The first ghosts we see in the story are the Spartan-IIIs, Beta Company on a high-priority, high-risk mission.
“Every other Spartan in the field charged as well, hundreds of half-camouflaged armored figures, running and firing at the dazed Jackals, appearing as a wave of ghost warriors, half liquid, half shadow, part mirage, part nightmare.” (Onyx, pp 20).
The Semi-Powered Infiltration (SPI) armor is what makes these Spartans melt into the background. Active camouflage winks them out of sight, and their training does the rest.
We are also provided ghosts in the form of oral folklore and campfire stories.
“Two years ago, Team X-ray vanished on a routine exercise up north. A lot of the kids said there were ghosts up there – floating eyes in the jungle – but everyone really knew the DIs had done something and covered it up.” (Onyx, pp 94).
“The Zone was where the ‘ghost’ of Onyx was supposed to be. It’d been spotted once or twice according to other Spartan candidates: a single eye in the dark. They just made that stuff up to scare plebes. Ash had, however, heard of a Beta Company squad that had vanished near here and had never been found.” (Onyx, pp 115).
What’s interesting here is that these ghost stories, the occupants of which are revealed to the the Sentinels of Onyx, get passed from one generation of Spartan-IIIs to the next with some evolution. Beta Company speaks of many ghosts; Ash mentions one. It’s a sort of classic transference of oral folklore.
Another “ghost” that we see is the UNSC Prowler lead by Commander Lash. Like the Ossoona Covenant role introduced in The Flood, these ships would be sent into battle situations to simply observe, to take stock of the situation and report back. These ships have very little in the way of combat, their sole defense is invisibility. It is through this defense that they observe the events of Delta Halo and Onyx, staying just out of sight. To add to the Prowler Dusk’s specter metaphor is the ship’s skeleton crew status – the rapid pull into duty leaving Lash with less than half the staff usually required.
On the other side of the war, we find a ghost in Ship Master Tano ‘Inanraree, who is killed in the very sentence he is introduced. His killer, successor, and old friend Voro orders his blood stain to be left where it is:
“The stain would remain forever on Voro’s soul; it could stay on the deck as well, a reminder of the price he had paid for their survival.” (Onyx, pp 191).
Tano’s religious zeal had overtaken his reason and considered the Flood to be as holy as their gods and nearly doomed the entire crew. The necessity of Tano’s death stays with Voro throughout the rest of the novel. It wards him off of acts such as supplicating before the Imperial Admiral or before Forerunner relics in the middle of a battle. It’s what pushes him to the end of his battle. It’s also what pushes him to diminish the faith aspect of his religion for more practical concerns, bringing us to yet another specter of the planet.
“Voro must not bow to the Forerunner ghosts. He must be the sole authority here.” (Onyx, pp 285)
The ghosts of the Forerunners have always been a part of the Halo Universe, from the very first game onwards. Ghosts of Onyx is no difference. Their relics make up the planet itself and are the reason for the conflict arising. But even they, with their eons of haunting the stars, are not the final ghosts.
The final ghosts are the first ghosts we see in the book, and are interwoven with the first we see in the story. They are every Spartan ever made.
Before the story begins proper, we are provided with a quote from First Strike. All the Spartans who have died are condemned forever to be “missing in action,” never KIA for the sake of morale. It is a method to keep humanity fighting in the face of our doom. It is a lie to say “we have unconquerable heroes and are thus unconquerable ourselves.” Whatever the success of this morale-boosting plan, there was another effect.
” ‘Spartans never die…’ That was the mantra we in the UNSC repeated maybe too often. We said it because it made us feel secure, because it gave us hope — ‘Spartans never die.’ But we have no right to take that away from them. Their sacrifices are a legacy we will no longer deny.” Halo Escalation #3
The KIA status becomes sort of purgatory, maybe not spiritually necessarily, but for those they leave behind. The Spartans and those close to them are never allowed to fully grieve, because they will never be considered officially dead. We see Kurt in this purgatory during the revelation of the slaughter of Alpha Company. We learn that Blue Team was in this purgatory after Kurt’s disappearance.
“That was definitely Kurt’s voice. His last words had haunted Kelly’s dreams for years. She remembered him tumbling into the black of space. ‘I’ll be okay, I’ll be o—’” (Onyx, pp 167).
We also see these Spartans haunt those who create them, in an interesting twist on the horror trope of a child ghost. After all, every Spartan-II and III are child soldiers. However, in a deviation from the trope, we see that the Spartans themselves are not “haunting” them maliciously. Rather it is the internal guilt of Catherine Halsey and Kurt-051 that causes them to be surrounded by these ghosts.
And it’s these ghosts who come to Kurt’s side in his final stand:
“His vision doubled and he thought he saw Tom and Lucy come back to get him… but it wasn’t them. It was Shane, Robert, and Jane from Team Wolf Pack.
There were hundreds of Spartans with him on the platform – from Alpha and Beta Companies, Dante, Holly, Will, and even Sam… all ready to fight and win this last battle with him.
Hallucination? Maybe. It was nonetheless welcome.
The ghostly Spartans nodded, and gave him the thumbs-up ‘can-do’ signal.” (Onyx, pp 372).
Page 367 of Genreflecting describes a specific subset of Science Fiction called Earth’s Children, asking “What lies ahead for the human race?” To Halo fans, this question, or rather its answer, is rather familiar.
“My Spartans are humanity’s next step: our destiny as a species,” Catherine Halsey declares to an ONI investigator.
“Reclaimer, when I indexed mankind for repopulation, I hid seeds from the Didact. Seeds which would lead to an eventuality. Your physical evolution. Your combat skin. Even your ancilla, Cortana. You are the culmination of a thousand lifetimes of planning,” the Librarian tells John on Requiem.
While both these women were discussing the Spartan-IIs in general and John in particular, this question about humanity’s next step applies to all Spartans. Earth’s Children is a subgenre that is focused on “clones, robots, cyborgs, and individuals who have been genetically enhanced or otherwise had their humanity ‘tinkered’ with” (Genre, pp 367).
The Spartan-IIs and IIIs have not only been genetically and cybernetically enhanced, but there’s also the indoctrination that they go through. All this has lead them to being called “wind-up tin soldiers” in The Fall of Reach, a “failed experiment” in The Flood, “freaks” in First Strike, and most recently “monsters” in the HUNT the TRUTH series. Here in Onyx, they are expensively expendable. Heroes created to die on high priority missions, little kids beaten into the most deadly soldiers the world has ever seen – and humanity seems content to rate their own children as inhuman. These are all textbook examples of what Genreflecting calls “stories that deal with the possibilities available for those who are differently abled, and the ethics of the way society treats them” (Genre, pp 368).
Colonel Ackerson commissions three Companies, minimum, of child soldiers for suicide missions. Admiral Parangosky looks Kurt dead in the eye and says that she would order Alpha Company to their deaths all over again. Even the standing order to have Spartans as MIA as opposed to having their sacrifice and death acknowledged is a demonstration of how the UNSC as a whole doesn’t see the Spartans as human. They are Other.
A final, important aspect of the subgenre of Earth’s Children is the insistence to write about these individuals labeled as “Other” both “thoughtfully and sympathetically” (Genre, pp 367). In truth, this is one of the core aspects of Halo as a whole. Even the Spartans who become dangerous or turn their backs on the UNSC, we are never meant to demonize. And that has been Nylund’s ultimate contribution to the Halo Expanded Universe. From John-117 to Lucy-B091, there has always been a humanity to the Spartans. They have always been one of us.
As we go deeper and deeper into the Halo fiction, we begin to see connections, large and small, that tie characters and events together. This new section of the reading journals will explore those connections.
Ghosts of Onyx could be considered the next step for Halo’s expanded universe. The three preceding novels introduced new characters and events, but they still relied very heavily on Combat Evolved and Halo 2 to craft their plot. While Onyx is informed by the events of Halo 2 – mainly the invasion of Earth and the Great Schism – the main plot and focus is disassociated from the games. It stands on its own.
As such, Onyx ends up setting the stage for a number of different stories down the line, while still giving us updates on familiar portions of the Expanded Universe. Furthermore, the novel does so without the Adjuncts that had been added to the reprints of the three previous novels.
In terms of setting the stage, Onyx is capable of creating the foundation for another story in a portion of a sentence:
“And what had ever happened to Gray Team on a mission far outside the confines of UNSC space, now missing for over a year?” (Onyx, pp 221).
This mention of the covert Spartan-II team in Onyx, it seems like a nice little nod to another Halo novel. It’d be a nice callback. However, we were not officially introduced to Gray Team until 2009 with the release of The Cole Protocol, and I am reading the edition of Onyx that was published in 2006. So this mention of Gray Team is a call back to their equally brief mention in Fall of Reach as well as the continued establishment of this Expanded Universe.
Another collection of sentences sets the stage for two more stories, as Halsey discusses that she’s kept track of the Spartans that were actually MIA, as opposed to semantically. She name-drops Kurt, Shelia, and Randall.
Two other stories were birthed from Shelia and Randall’s status farther down the line in the Expanded Universe.
As Halsey clarifies that she witnessed Shelia’s death personally at the Battle of Miridem, we realize that she is the Spartan who was faced and defeated by Major Thel ‘Lodamee in the events described in The Fall of Reach Adjunct. This leads to the kidnapping of Halsey and the events of the anime short, Halo Legends: The Package. Randall’s story is found in Nightfall, a Spartan-II who is off the grid with a distinct distaste for the UNSC in general and ONI in particular.
Onyx also sets the stage for further themes, such as the rediscovery of long-lost Spartan friends. Compare Blue Team’s reaction to finding Kurt alive again…
“Fred set a hand on Kurt’s shoulder, a rare gesture among the Spartans. It spoke volumes in the language of the Spartan’s tightly restrained emotions.
‘We thought you were dead,’ Fred whispered.” (Onyx, pp 254).
…to their reaction upon finding Serin is alive in the novel Glasslands:
“Fred, Kelly, and Linda seemed to hold their breath for a second and then murmured.
‘We thought you were dead,’ Fred said. ‘But don’t think for one moment that we ever forgot you.’” (Glasslands, pp 384).
Furthermore, this is the first instance we see of Shield Worlds in the Halo fiction. These massive Forerunner constructs have since become an integral part of canon, being major locations for both Halo Wars and Halo 4.
Countless different connections, themes, and stories can all be traced back to Ghosts of Onyx, Halo’s first step into a larger universe than before.
Want more thoughts on Ghosts of OnyxArbiter Watch? Check out the installment of “” for this novel!