Discussing the style of Shadow of Intent could almost be a copy-paste of Contact Harvest’s breakdown. Staten’s cinematic flair, the introspective pace, the nuggets of foreshadowing, it’s all here. However, what stands out to me is how poetic and in-depth the novella is without having barely any fat to be trimmed, and I think the key to this is the ballad of Kel ‘Darsam.
Kel ‘Darsam was among the ancient pantheon of Sangheili gods before they began worshiping the Forerunners, the son of a mortal mother and the head of the gods and namesake of their greatest sun – Urs. The ballad recounted his adventures fighting the monsters of Sanghelios’ seas and his quest to free his uncle from imprisonment, an act that cost him his life. The ballad sets the stage for the journeys of the main characters and weaves them together in an elaborate dance.
The ballad is first told to us, the reader, when Tul ‘Juran invokes the “right of release” to free her father and brothers from imprisonment. The right to release is an oath most famously claimed by Kel on the quest that claimed his life. While Tul has the least amount of spotlight out of the main characters, it is with her that we first associate the herculean Sangheili of lore, with Tem’Bhetek taking the role of the rival Nesh ‘Radoon in capturing her kin. And it is this relationship to kin that ties Tul to Kel’s story. While Kel’s achievements are what made him famous, it is his relationship to Urs that sets him in the pantheon of gods. By the end of Tul’s part in Shadow of Intent, it is her accomplishments in battle that set her apart and pave the way for other women to enter the military, but it was first her lineage that brought her the privilege to pave that road.
“‘You wear the armor of a warrior’
‘Does that surprise you?’
‘No. What else would the daughter of a kaidon be?’” (Shadow of Intent, 16% in on the Kindle)
Tul faces off against Tem in artwork by Halo-veteran Isaac Hannaford
While the only one of the protagonists who is not a Sangheili, Tem the San’Shyuum warrior is the one whose emotional journey most mirrors Kel’s, with the Minister of Preparation taking the role of Kel’s uncle in the darker take of Kel’s final quest.
“[T]here were two version of the ballad: one in which Nesh ‘Radoon threw the spear that killed Kel ‘Darsam, and another in which the spear was instead thrown by his uncle, Orok. In the latter version, the entire capture was a ruse – a trap designed by Orok, who was deeply fearful that Kel would someday tire of slaughtering monsters and decide to claim the title of kaidon for his own.” (22% in on the Kindle)
Throughout the novella the Minister relies heavily on Tem’s loyalty to remain in control of their plan, and though he may have lacked the foresight to orchestrate Tem’s hatred against Rtas and the Sangheili from those first moments of panic at High Charity and the loss of Tem’s family, he definitely knew how to play the notes in the months following. With false sympathy and half-empty promises of revenge, the Minister sets up Tem’s demise, fearing that eventually the warrior’s commitment to him will falter.
And while Tem avoids the spear that the Minister had planned for his back, Tem’s eventual end is that of Kel’s:
“As Kel ‘Darsam fell, dying, toward the waves, he was touched by the first rays of Urs as the god-star rose over the edge of the sea. In this moment, Kel was transformed into pure light; and eternal reflection of his divine father’s pride and grief.
After the founding of the Covenant, many of the old myths faded away. But the Sangheili continued to sing the ballad of Kel ‘Darsam to their sons and daughters, just as they taught them that the Sangheili word kel means ‘light (that dances on the waves).’” (22% in on the Kindle)
Tem is already dying from his wounds from battle before the Halo ring fires, but like Kel, those are not what takes his life. As the Halo begins to fire, Tem has a vision of his lost wife, “her thin yellow gown fluttering in the ring’s invisible waves” (91%) much like sunlight that dances on a sea’s waves, and the last words he hears are also from his wife “Into the light, forever free!” (92%). The motif continues as we learn in the first few pages of Shadow of Intent that the Halo prototype’s firing results with a single blinding flash and leaves no bodies to be recovered. In Tem’s final moments, he too is transformed into light upon waves.
Rtas seated at the helm of Shadow of Intent in Halo 3.
Rtas ‘Vadum is of course the novella’s lead, and his connection to the ballad is two-fold. It may be Tul and Tem that have the clearest parallels to the ballad, but those parallels are clear because it is Rtas who makes the comparison. In both a narrative and literal sense, Rtas is the bard of Kel ‘Darsam’s tale. He is the one who tells it to the reader; he is the one who sings it to Tem. Secondly, while Tem and Tul both find their journey’s matching Kel, it is Rtas who most closely emulates the character of the demigod. Towards the novella’s climax, we are given a glimpse into his childhood, of an exploration of the shoreline at the edge of his home –
“There were pools farther out filled with even rarer prizes: snap-tails and electric kesh that now lay gasping on the rocks. Rtas picked his way out to these magnificent specimens, shouldered his spear, and stroked their scaly flesh, imagining he was taming them with nothing but his touch…” (76% in on the Kindle).
– a moment of make-believe that matches the herculean exploits of Kel:
“In the days when Urs rules Sangheili spiritual life, the seas that covered much of their home world were still vast and mysterious and filled with monstrous, semi-mythical creatures. Kel ‘Darsam was famous for slaying many of these: the Sand Dwellers of Il’ik; the many-mouth Watcher of the Lonely Harbor; the nine serpents of Dur’at’dur, whose endless thrashing was thought to cause those islands’ deadly currents.” (21%)
Another key point of Kel’s character in the ballad is that he is so fully committed to cleansing the seas of its monsters that he refuses to settle on land and claim kaidonship for himself. Rtas finds himself with a similar offer at the novella’s end, as the Arbiter suggests that he has done enough fighting, that he can return to Sanghelios to rest and lead from a place to call home. Like Kel, Rtas turns down the opportunity, choosing instead to hunt down the remaining San’Shyuum threat in the unexplored corners of space.
There is a point however in which Rtas’ character diverges from that of Kel. The demigod is tireless in his pursuit of battle, and when we first meet Rtas, the first emotion we encounter is weariness. In the novella’s beginning, Rtas may have taken the Arbiter’s offer to settle down and in fact already had. Removing the ship Shadow of Intent from the Covenant remnant’s grasp was supposed to be, in some ways, a retreat for rest until the Minister’s plot came straight for them. And it’s the very notion that there are future battles to fight that weighs upon Rtas.
Where Kel sought to rid the seas of the monsters, Rtas dreamed of taming them. And it’s that second option, of finding a peaceful solution even with the San’Shyuum, which fills Rtas with hope again.
“Maybe in the end, this was the best that any warrior could hope for. A chance to reconcile with your enemy, or, failing that, to fall in the pursuit of peace.
This thought energized Rtas, and for the first time in a long while, he did not dread the coming battles.” (94%)
I think Shadow of Intent would be a darn fine musical. For a number of reasons.
“The most obvious reasoning is that songs are featured heavily in Shadow of Intent. A number of characters do sing, and each song is relevant to the plot or to a character. Even the fact that the information is conveyed from one character to another in-song is an important point. The songs are natural, native to the story.
Secondly, this book is written by Joseph Staten. In my reading journal analysis of his previous novel, Contact Harvest, I mentioned that he has a very cinematic writing style (fitting for a cinematic director). This carries over into Shadow of Intent, providing visuals that could be translated into a stage production.
And finally, Shadow of Intent has the right type of pathos. Any emotion can be elicited by a musical, but because of the nature of the medium, I feel like the emotions in musicals have to be felt and conveyed on a grand scale. No emotion can be half-felt. Even those emotions internally at war with each other have to be at war in equal measures. And that is what Shadow of Intent has.
Rtas is weary, and his weariness is large. Tul is determined, and her determination is passionate. Tem is angry, and his anger is burning. The amount of emotion, and the scale of emotion, that each character has stored up in them always seem to be on the brink of bursting from their innermost beings. So why not have it burst out in song?” (DilDev’s Tumblr)
Songs, and the mythological bent that comes with them, are often reserved in speculative fiction for the fantasy genre, the most obvious example being The Lord of the Rings. Science fiction on the other hand often uses technological or scientific advancements to build the same atmosphere that songs would. While Tolkien may spend pages giving us the tale of Nimrodel, David Weber will give us details on the mechanics of a starship. One is not above the other in terms of value, but they are staples that rarely cross over into the sister genre. Shadow of Intent features both, but only one ever becomes superfluous. Tem takes one paragraph too many to describe his understanding of the ship Shadow of Intent, giving us a lesson on the functionality of a troop deployment lift that is never used or mentioned again in the novella. On the otherhand, two songs we have, the ballad of Kel ‘Darsam and Yalar’s lullaby, both of which contribute to the story and to the emotions of the characters.
We have seen songs and science fiction go together before. In the short story “Spider the Artist” by Nnedi Okorafor, a woman befriends a mechanical creature and finds freedom through her songs. In Ann Leckie’s series that starts with Ancillary Justice, the main character is set apart from her peers by her love of music, which allows her to have multiple connections to others throughout the novels. There even exists a musical adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.
However, the use of music in these places don’t fit the same mythological bent that we find in works like Tolkien’s, though Ancillary does come close. Tolkien’s songs have always had two uses:
- To build the world and the lore of Middle Earth
- To establish something about the characters reciting them.
When Samwise begins to sing of Gil-galad, it’s a shock to the other hobbits that he knows such a song. It not only adds context to the battle of the Last Alliance fought against Sauron, but it also says something about Sam, about his depth of character in knowing that tale.
The ballad of Kel ‘Darsam fits both of these uses, though it is never written out in full like Tolkien’s songs. It builds the lore of the Sangheili, giving us yet another glimpse of their society before the Covenant, as well as telling us something about Rtas, who has it memorized, and Tem, when he finally embraces his connection to the ancient Sangheili demigod.
I know this is not the first time I have compared Staten to Tolkien, but the parallels all but write themselves.
Let’s face it, we Sangheili fans have gotten absolutely spoiled within these past two years. Broken Circle, Halo 2 Anniversary, Escalation, Hunters in the Dark, Halo 5: Guardians, and now Shadow of Intent. There has been a tidal wave of information and of stories regarding this race, and it has been fantastic. One of my favorite things about this new flood of Sangheili-related literature is that most of it has been exploring Sangheili culture outside of the context of the Covenant.
Hunters in the Dark, Escalation, and Halo 5: Guardians all have a focus on the forward motion of the Sangheili as they reach beyond the Covenant’s limits. Of particular note are Ayit ‘Sevi, a Sangheili on ONI’s payroll and Cham ‘Lokeema, a Swords of Sanghelios medic who takes pride in his work. Both of these fall outside the Sangheili culture of honor, as Ayit works for the shadiest organization in the current galactic setting, and Cham spills blood outside of the battlefield. Those still within the Covenant under Jul ‘Mdama also undergo this evolution. In the final level of Halo 5: Guardians, two pieces of intel inform us of Bibjam, an Unggoy squad leader held in high esteem by his Sangheili subordinate, a relationship nigh unheard of in the Prophets’ Covenant – Stolt of Shadow of Intent being the only other Unggoy who is ranked above Sangheili. Even more prominent characters such as Jul ‘Mdama, Thel ‘Vadam, and Rtas ‘Vadum all eschew from the rigidity of such honor that was held by Sangheili under the Covenant. Jul lies and quite frequently, while Thel and Rtas negotiate with enemies and bring females into their military ranks.
However, we also find that this forward motion is found by looking back to their roots, from before the Covenant. In Glasslands, Raia ‘Mdama digs deep into old records to begin rebuilding her keep without the guidance of the Prophets. Thel ‘Vadam names his own faction after an ancient brotherhood that reaches back before the Sangheili became spacefarers. Rtas ‘Vadum pulls inspiration from a ballad older than even Forerunner worship. The Halo media itself does this too, especially Broken Circle and the terminals of Halo 2 Anniversary as they us the readers, a glimpse into this ancient Sangheili culture. And in a sense, the way that these stories have grown from those first three games and those first novels by Nylund and Dietz, our journey as readers and gamers mirrors that of the Sangheili in-universe.
We first knew them only in terms of their role in the Covenant, and our understanding of them as a race and a species was colored by that. But as they reclaim, and essentially rediscover their roots, we do too. The Sangheili are nearly as much in the dark as us in terms of their history; there was so much lost to them because of the Covenant, and we get to unravel those mysteries and redefine them for the Post-War years right alongside the characters.
A member of the Halo Archive? Love something about it? Want something to change? Please take a brief moment to fill out a feedback survey for the site!
DilDev has a tumblr for which she writes smaller analyses and thought pieces on Halo, a WordPress site she’s still trying to get in the habit of using, and two published articles for Christ and Pop Culture (for which she name drops the Archive in her author bio).