Interview: Halo: Retribution author Troy Denning talks about his epic new novel

When it comes to Halo, most people only care about Master Chief. But a new hero has arisen in the Halo-verse, one that's captured hearts and minds without ever setting foot in a game: ONI agent Veta Lopis, who was first introduced in Troy Denning's 2015 novel Halo: Last Light, and later appeared in his story "A Necessary Truth" from last year's short story collection Halo: Fractures.

With Denning's new Veta novel Halo: Retribution out this week, we spoke to him about where he got the idea for this new sci-fi novel, his personal connection to this character, and if he'd like to see her get her own Halo game.

GameCrate: To start, what is Halo: Retribution about, and how does it connect to the games and other novels?

Troy Denning: Halo: Retribution details maverick detective Veta Lopis' first assignment as a reluctant ONI agent, and it's a direct outgrowth my first Halo novel, Halo: Last Light.

In the final chapter of Last Light, Veta finds herself a woman without a world, and she reluctantly agrees to lead an ONI troubleshooting team composed of 14-year-old Spartan IIIs. Retribution begins five and a half months later, December 2553 , when Veta and her underage operatives are pulled out of the last two weeks of their espionage training.

They're assigned to retaliate for the assassination of a UNSC admiral, and the situation feels wrong from the start. Soon, Veta and her Ferret Team find themselves involved in a conspiracy that it is still resonating five years later, during the events of Halo 5.

GC: Where did the original idea for it come from? 

TD: By the time I was drafting the final chapter of Halo: Last Light, I knew I wanted to write more stories about Veta and the Spartan IIIs she'd met on Gao. So the idea of a Ferret Team grew out of their relationship; that of a wary, embittered homicide investigator whose maternal instinct is unexpectedly awakened by a trio of battle-hardened Spartan-IIIs working their way through a very strange adolescence.

It seemed natural to make the next book about their first mission as a Ferret Team together. So I was already thinking about that as I played through Halo 5 and realized I wanted to know more about the backgrounds of Governor Sloan and the Argent Moon. It turned out that there was a lot of open territory surrounding both, so I began to think about how to tie them into a story involving Veta and Ferret Team.

GC: What impact, if any, did 343 Industries (who oversee all things Halo) have on Halo: Retribution?

TD: 343 works hard to give authors a lot of freedom. As long as the story you want to tell is actually a Halo story, they'll try to find a way to make it work. When we decided to do a second Veta Lopis novel, all they asked was that it be set around the same time as Last Light, and that it include Castor and Arlo Casille, since they had enjoyed those characters in the first book. So, I began to develop an idea that grew out of the events of Last Light, while at the same time exploring the elements from Halo 5: Guardians that I was interested in. They made a few suggestions at the outline stage, and we worked out a few of the details that touched on Halo 5. But, basically, they were happy with the story from the start.

GC: Obviously, Halo: Retribution is influenced by the Halo games, books, and comics. But are there any other novels, movies, TV shows, or games that had an impact on it as well?

TD: There weren't any specific non-Halo influences for Retribution. But I read a lot of thrillers, and I think they influence how I write all my books. I like stories that build suspense and keep the plot moving, and that was certainly one of my goals in writing Retribution.

For Halo stories, I think my biggest influences are probably Ken Follett's World War II novels Jackdaws, Eye of the Needle, and The Key to Rebecca. Follett is a master of suspense and character, and his WWII stories are structured so well that no matter how many times you read them, it's hard to put them down. When I'm writing Veta, the biggest influence is probably John Sandford's Prey series. His lead character, Lucas Davenport, has a certain ruthless pragmatism that I really enjoy, and echoes of that probably show up in Veta's character. I also read David Poyer's Dan Lenson series for the realistic navy feel, which helps when I'm trying to make sure that Fred and the other Spartans think and act like military people rather than superheroes.

GC: Halo: Retribution is the third story you've told about Veta. What is it about her that you find so inspiring?

TD: Veta is a fun character to write. She's smart, stubborn, and focused-to-a-fault. She's a bit of a wiseass who answers to her own moral code, which means she's going to be an engine for snappy dialogue and moral conflict. That makes her the kind of character who seems to write herself at times.

But it probably goes deeper than that. My father was a sheriff's investigator who ended up working quite a few body-dumps while I was in high school, and as I started to talk with Simon & Shuster and 343 about doing a book, he was dying of cancer. So, when 343 asked what kind of story I might like to write, he was very much on my mind, and I asked, "How about a detective story?" They were enthusiastic from start, and the character of Veta Lopis was born.

Which is not to say that Veta is based on my father. They're very different people, and not just because Veta is female. But she has a dark core and a pragmatic approach to justice that reflects some of what I began to see in my father as his investigations drew him deeper into the world of serial killers. In a lot of ways, when I write Veta, I feel him looking over my shoulder.

GC: So do you have a deal with 343 that no one else can write a story about her?

TD: No. When you work in tie-ins, the people who own the IP need to be free to use your creations in many different ways; for example, as a character in a game, or in a minor role in a comic or another book. But then, I want anything I create to become part of the world fabric in that way, so I don't even ask.

Though I'd also be very surprised if 343 asked someone else to write a story about Veta. They have a lot of respect for their authors, so I think that as long as I'm willing to write another Veta story, they wouldn't ask someone else to do it.

GC: Have you tried to get them to put her in a Halo game?

TD: I haven't actively lobbied for that, but I'd be thrilled if they wanted to use her. Especially if I got to write the dialogue.

GC: Speaking of which, do you think Halo: Retribution would work as a game?

TD: I think it would be a shooter game with a big puzzle element. There is a lot of combat in Retribution's story, and some pretty tough opponents, so shooter seems like a given. But the story is a mystery at its heart. If someone reads the book, they're going to know the secret driving the plot. So there would have to be a lot of fake-outs and traps, where what someone thinks he know gets him into trouble. That would be in keeping with the deepest level of Retribution's plot, and playing with the gamer's mind is exactly the kind of thing the real protagonist of the story would do.

GC: Finally, if someone enjoys Halo: Retribution, and they've already read Halo: Last Light and Halo: Fractures, which of the other Halo novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?

TD: That's a tough question because the answer depends on what elements the reader liked the most. If they enjoyed the special ops/combat, I'd send them to Joseph Staten's Halo: Contact Harvest or Eric Nylund's Halo: Fall of Reach. If they liked the setting and/or the emphasis on characters, I'd probably send them to Kelly Gay's Halo: Smoke and Shadows, Tobias S. Buckell's Halo: Envoy, or Matt Forbeck Halo: New Blood. If they liked the scenes dealing with the Forerunner artifacts, I'd probably send them to Greg Bear's Halo: Cryptum or Peter David's Halo: Hunters in the Dark. One of the great things about Halo is that there are so many different types of stories exploring different aspects of the universe. Most readers are going to find something that really engages their interest.

Halo: Retribution will be released in paperback and digitally on August 29.