Here we go again. That must have run through Master Chief’s mind at some point in this book. To recap, Halo: First Strike picks up directly after Halo: The Flood which took place directly after Halo: The Fall of Reach. Poor ol’ Master Chief has barely had time to catch his breath between big space adventures as he is thrust from one major encounter to the next. While The Fall of Reach is a slow burn sci-fi story about the necessities of creating a human race saving super-soldier programme and The Flood is a confused retelling of the original game with added cool Covenant points of view, First Strike is a full-on action extravaganza. It moves at an incredible pace and doesn’t fall into any of the traps its predecessors dug and walked into.
Halo: First Strike ties together the end of The Fall of Reach and The Flood excellently. The loose threads from both knit nicely together to form what could be considered a trilogy, especially due to the cathartic end to this book. We pick up with the Spartan team sent down to the surface of Reach as they meet up with Dr Halesy and try to survive orbital bombardments and Covenant incursions. This is because it turns out that there is some fancy ancient alien tech left behind by the mysterious Forerunners in the form of a weird crystal. We follow this Spartan team as they try to keep everyone alive, keep hold of the crystal and shooty bang their way through an underground complex.
This bit is great. Unlike Master Chief most of the other Spartans feel like real people. They are certainly one-dimensional characters and have that famous Spartan stoicism but there is an actual sense of agency and danger as, unlike Master Chief, they can die and make sacrifices. After reading The Fall of Reach and First Strike, you spend a decent amount of time with these characters and that makes their deaths and struggles far more emotional and impactful.
And then we have John, the Master Chief. My issues with him as a character should be well documented by now but suffice to say he is barely a character and probably wasn’t ever meant to be one so he is mostly stoic and good at shooting stuff. However, unlike The Flood, there are actually people he cares about in this story and this means he shows some modicum of emotion every now and again. I’m being a little harsh as I actually found this book to be a major improvement over the previous two in terms of Master Chief’s character. You see him have actual character development, care about the loss of his allies and make choices rather than just following orders. All of which are great and do all of that while also adding the mythos of the Spartan programme.
First Strike neatly ties off the end of The Flood as we pick up where we left John as he escaped Halo. He swiftly heads towards Reach to seek out his comrades and try and save them from all the bad stuff I mentioned before. We also encounter Major Johnson, who you might recognise from future Halo games and an ODST called Locklear. Johnson is your standard gruff ‘marine’ character while Locklear is that with some cheek to him. They are both pretty shallow but Locklear does have aspirations to be a more interesting character. I
Anyway, once we leave Reach with the Forerunning MacGuffin in tow, the story enters into escaping the enemy and then finally hits the titular first strike. I won’t spoil anything else but suffice to say this book is a lot of fun. The shooty bang men or suitably human that you care about their struggles, the Covenant aren’t tried to be shown as anything more than evil aliens which is all they need to be, and Doctor Halsey continues to be a character torn by guilt over ‘the greater good’.
I mentioned this being a trilogy earlier and you easily call it that. However, it doesn’t feel intentional. I suppose that is because you would want each book to be somewhat standalone so people aren’t intimidated and don’t feel they can start with the latest book but to really get the most out of the emotional moments and shooty bang explosions, you need the other two books. You need to know the struggle that came before to understand the framing of this struggle. Without going into detail, they’ve been at this a long time and have barely taken a breath since first heading to Reach and everyone is battered, tired and just wants it to stop. They don’t get that chance though as the Covenant continues to apply pressure and you see the outcome of people put under continuous deadly strain.
Or at least sort of. At the end of the day, this is still a Halo book so you take what you can get. However, it is a really fun and dynamic example of a Halo book. The pace is suitably fast but slows down enough at times to allow us to absorb losses or consider tactics but then picks up again swiftly so nothing gets stale.
I will pause before the end to state that there is an ongoing thread of ‘American history is great’ vibe in this book (and to a lesser extent the rest of the series) that I just don’t like or really need. Like, in this one we have a lot about the Alamo and there are comparisons between The Covenant and the Mexicans. This comparison is wrong and doesn’t work for many reasons that should be immediately obvious. Firstly, Texas was originally part of Mexico, go look it up so calling them ‘invaders’ doesn’t sit right with me. Secondly, it basically says America good, Mexico bad. Which ignores a lot of details. Thirdly, you can probably see issues comparing aliens and ‘invading’ people who are not white can’t you? There is a potential that I’m reading too much into this and that the current political climate makes these statements stand out more than they would have otherwise. However, this kind of mythologising of America’s history is dangerous and washes away a lot of the bad shit they have done. If this was framed differently within the narrative, then I would be more forgiving but it is said in a very ‘patriotic’ way that doesn’t fit with the space-faring human race of the Halo universe.
Bad vibes from those lines aside, this is the best Halo book to date. However, I don’t think it holds up as well if you read it in a vacuum. It needs The Fall of Reach and The Flood to add context and if you don’t read those books I think you’ll have a far worse experience with First Strike. It is still a fun romp regardless, but it requires some investment to get the most out of it.
Thank you for reading. If you want more Bookclubbing head over here. Or perhaps you want to read about the awful Halo: The Fall of Reach film and want to head there. If none of that sounds interesting, why not watch a video about the co-op in Pokemon Let’s Go by moving this way.
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