Spoiler Warning! Details from the book are discussed in this review...
They say the essence of drama is putting a bunch of people in a room and watching what happens next. And while there’s a chance they wind up killing each other, there’s also the possibility of something magical happening, something akin to storytelling alchemy. Yes, you could just as easily end up with a coalition or a group of characters who while seemingly at odds, find a commonality.
In classical archetypal terms, a team needs a leader, a rookie, a genius, a professional, a big gun, and a wild card to round out your squad. Each one will fit neatly into a paradigm fulfilling his or her role, completing the goals set forth by either the leader or an overseer.
While Star Wars may have started out that way, nowadays it blurs the lines when it comes to morality and archetypes. More and more, writers are working outside the Campbell structure to create a more representative and realistic world view. After all, galaxies are big messy places, politics are ugly, and war is immoral. The events which most often shape our lives and the universe in profound ways are hardly typical, and neither should our characters be.
This is the essence and perhaps the main philosophical point of view of writer Alexander Freed’s latest novel, “Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron”. That heroes can be as complicated and ugly as the villains, and in good modern storytelling, classic rules must be broken in order to slay the proverbial dragon.
This team-building motif has been around since the beginning of storytelling and has been a tried and true method for writers. Bringing together a rag-tag group of misfits, each with a unique skill set and personality, for a common purpose is a mechanism storyteller’s love to use and have to great success.
So, why is it so effective? Pretty simple really as it provides a target rich environment for the audience when they consciously or sub-consciously employ a little relatability or empathy. Seeing some version of them in the story can be powerful, and when used correctly, makes for very effective storytelling.
Great examples of this are Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, A Bug’s Life, even the Guardians of the Galaxy for a more modern perspective. Audiences love the character back-and-forth and repartee as much, if not more, than the action sequences. This group dynamic gives us the opportunity to identify with certain characters and pick out our favorites.
In this canon era, Star Wars hasn’t shied away from using this model. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the Aftermath trilogy, and Battlefront 2: Inferno Squadron, all immediately spring to mind as great examples of coalition-based storytelling.
Freed’s previous Star Wars works, the Rogue One novel and Battlefront: Twilight Company, would seem to be pre-ambles for this latest achievement, which just might be the best of year so far. In fact, I’m inclined to believe it may be one of the best of the Disney era. Alphabet Squadron takes team building to a whole new level of wonderful character detail and high-stakes edge of your seat adventures.
Here’s the publisher’s summary…
“On the verge of victory in a brutal war, five New Republic pilots transform from hunted to hunters in this epic STAR WARS adventure. Set after Return of the Jedi, Alphabet Squadron follows a unique team, each flying a different class of starfighter as they struggle to end their war once and for all."
It’s tough times for the shattered Empire. The Death Star II has been destroyed, the Emperor and Darth Vader are dead, and scores of Imperials are defecting to the New Republic or have gone AWOL. The Emperor’s final manifesto and instrument of death, Operation Cinder, has done some damage but is beginning to lose its luster.
Pockets of splinter groups and Imperial hard-liners are sprinkled throughout the systems and the Rebels are sweeping through, cleaning as they go. As they liberate one planet and system at a time, they are beginning to face some hard truths. As the Rebel Alliance shape shifts into the New Republic, many are questioning whether they are equipped to even govern.
This book examines one of those dilemmas facing the New Republic; exactly what do you do with thousands upon thousands of refugees, harbingers of violence, and former Imperialists? You can’t simply imprison them all and execution isn’t in their mandate, so what’s the solution?
For starters, thousands of defectors and conscientious objectors are placed in camps awaiting judgement or reassignment from New Republic Intelligence. And this is where our story begins, at one such place, an outpost called “Traitor’s Remorse”.
“This was what her Empire had become in the days after Endor. She saw it now…”
-Yrica Quell, Imperial Pilot, 204th Squadron
One of those defectors is former Imperial pilot Yrica Quell, once a member of the Imperial Navy’s 204th Squadron, aka Squadron Five, aka “Shadow Wing”. And when she finds herself at Traitor’s Remorse, she is recruited by Caern Adan, a New Republic agent, and sets forth on a path perhaps even more dangerous than her time with the Empire.
Caern Adan, a former journalist, is cunning, righteous, but mostly ambitious. He has zero love for the Empire and if taking down what’s left of them means a little career boost as well then so be it. He’s opportunistic and sees just that in Quell, who he thinks can lead him straight to the diminished, but still effective Shadow Wing. Having been part of this deadly group, Adan is hoping Quell’s expertise and intimate knowledge of their operations will aid them in the hunt.
Because of this fact, the story parallels the shenanigans of the 204th Squadron, and one or two of its members. Led by Colonel Shakara Nuress aka “Grandmother”, Shadow Wing has lost much of its headcount and bluster but is still causing problems for the New Republic. But with fires to put out all over the place and the 204th ability to cover their tracks, Shadow Wing hasn’t exactly caught the eye of the Rebels upper brass.
Adan is joined by a former IT-O Imperial interrogation droid, or the more commonly used and much more sinister term, “torture droid”. Ito has been reprogrammed by Adan to serve several roles, chief among them, provide psychological profiles of Yrica and future team members. This relationship between Ito and Yrica in particular, is vital when beginning to understand certain aspects of this book and what Freed is hoping to convey.
Being a product of the Imperial machine, Quell doesn’t have much use for droids outside of their predetermined use. She certainly doesn’t trust them or view them as sentient like the Rebels so often do. So, their relationship is a constant game of back and forth, with Quell not believing droids are capable of good intentions and us sympathizing with Ito who often bears the brunt of Yrica’s hostility.
Like many droids, you’re never quite sure if Ito is employing genuine empathy or is just programmed to do so. Even by the end of this first act and of her own admission, Quell isn’t quite sure herself. But, without any real bonds formed yet, this one seems to be the most genuine.
And while we don’t know all the details yet, we do know that Adan and Ito met at an Imperial prison where the former was being held, and Ito was likely his interrogator droid (or worse) at some point. The details of their escape and eventual kinship are murky but as time moves on, I’m sure we’ll learn more.
Quell doesn’t trust Adan, or Ito, but has a very strong desire to leave Traitor’s Remorse and be a pilot in this New Republic. Adan has other ideas and it’s left to her to prove herself all over again, become the agent he wants her to be, not necessarily who she is inside.
Quell’s first assignment is to recruit a new member to the team, a former Imperial, turned Rebel, turned buccaneer, Nath Tensant. Picture Jim Raynor from StarCraft, only flying a Y-Wing instead of a Vulture Hover bike.
Nath is less complicated than the others and has adapted to these complex times by navigating through life with a moral ambiguity that most find off putting. But, like the others, has a score to settle with Shadow Wing and is highly skilled as a pilot so Adan naturally sees a place for him. There are also some dirty deeds Adan needs done and Nath isn’t above those types of things, especially when credits are involved.
Joining Quell on this recruitment trip is another member of Adan’s inner circle, a mysterious humanoid U-Wing pilot named Kairos. I say humanoid because we’re not entirely sure what species she is at this point, as she’s covered from head to toe. Part of this disturbing ensemble includes an ominous mask which houses a single red light, very HAL 9000.
Now, to say Kairos is enigmatic is understating the matter as she communicates mostly through head nods and says very little. In fact, the only words she mutters are, “make it right” and “Wyl Lark, the Emperors shadow is long”. While neither are much to go on it does provide a clue to the overall story, but more on that later.
We get the strong impression that Kairos is experiencing a transmogrification and her swaddle and mask serve as a type of cocoon. Whatever emerges after her chrysalis stage, we’ll have to wait for, but should prove to be highly dramatic. Is there a monster hiding underneath or simply a broken person looking to exact some revenge? Time will tell.
Like Ito, Adan and Kairos have a history together having met in prison, and they seem to be the only two who trust each other so far. Kairos slips into ferocious states with ease indicating she’s no stranger to violence and like Nath and Adan, has nothing but contempt for the Empire. In fact, her aversion to the Empire borders on abhorrence and seems more personal than the others.
Freed periodically breaks away from this main thread to introduce us to the final two members, Wyl Lark in his A-Wing and Chass na Chadic piloting a B-Wing. How they come to join the squad is more or less in line with the state of the group overall, disordered and frenzied.
Chass and Wyl are from different Rebel squadrons who each lost all its members to the 204th, save themselves. They arrive with a lot of guilt and anguish over what has happened with Chass holding Wyl partially responsible for some of it. Wyl is your eternal optimist who longs for the war to be over so he can return home; Chass is the opposite and wears resentment and anger on her sleeve. She doesn’t suffer fools, has a tough exterior, and Wyl’s trusting nature rubs her the wrong way.
So, the team is assembled and as the title suggests, each member skillfully pilots a different class starfighter. Other than Quell who is still getting used to her adopted X-Wing, the rest are piloting ships familiar to them. This proves not only convenient for the hamstrung Alliance, but in a very real way, is an extension of their individuality as well.
Each member’s complicated backstory and personality strongly match the times in which they exist. Just as there is uncertainty regarding the state of the galaxy, there is also distrust within the squad itself. And each of these members has suffered great personal loss and been in the game long enough that doubt is something they wrestle with daily. Who are they if not members of a rebellion? Who are they if not pilots fighting in this crazy war?
At the center of this is the firebrand Quell, whose backstory and emerging boldness is causing Adan to drink and regret his decision to recruit her. For her part, she’s programmed to work hard and do her best; she’s just having a hard time letting go of her Imperial conditioning. Additionally, she finds Adan’s style of civilian command less than desirable and doesn’t respect his authority in the same way she did her former employer.
Much of the book is spent conveying Quell’s mental and physical challenges as the pressure mounts and the stakes get higher. What’s interesting is that Freed plays his cards very close to the chest with Yrica; in fact, she doesn’t tip her hand once, even to the reader. When you do find out some details surrounding her defection, it’s not from her own admission but from a more unlikely source.
But with Adan, Ito, and even Nath digging into her past, it was only a matter of time before the truth was revealed. This is the ticking time bomb aspect of this first book, we know it will go off, the question is, who will survive.
But she’s a tragic figure as well and deserves our sympathy. Her reason’s for joining the Imperial Navy are complicated and years of overtly harsh training and indoctrination have taken their toll. In many ways, she’s simply a product of the rigid discipline the Empire deploys.
But, she’s also a human being, capable of making human connections and forming relationships, which she did during her time with Shadow Wing. To think these old allegiances won’t come into play down the line is near sided, especially in a war won and lost on the slimmest of margins.
But whatever her original intentions were, she’s having a hard time connecting, and its showing in her demeanor and well-being. She’s a coiled spring who is completely stressed out and on edge all the time, in other words, she’s a total wreck.
What’s also up for grabs is her soul, and there are two people currently fighting for it. In one corner is Caern, who holds her fate in the palm of his hands, something she’s keenly aware of and something he never lets her forget. And, in the other corner, is war hero and everyone’s favorite Twi’lek, General Hera Syndulla.
The squadron crosses paths with Hera who has a fleet of her own aboard the Lodestar, an old Acclamator-class battleship that probably doesn’t have any original parts left. Among a multitude of duties, the Lodestar is moving across the galaxy putting out fires and mopping up. Adan asks if his squadron can borrow some hangar space while they gather intelligence and carry out missions. Hera agrees, but reminds him…her ship, her rules.
Things progress quickly from there and Syndulla starts to take more of an interest in the group, seeing a little bit of her old crew in this new scrappy family. There are a few very on the nose comments from Hera, referencing the Spectres, although never by name. And no mention of Jacen in case anyone is wondering.
Syndulla has the street cred that Adan lacks so the team bonds with her quickly as she dishes out sage advice and shares war stories. Hera takes it upon herself to turn Alphabet Squadron into a tight knit group, knowing it will serve them better in the end. She especially takes an interest in Quell, knowing the group is only as strong as its leader, offering up some of that Hera coaching that we’ve come to know and love.
This is happening in plain view of Adan who certainly isn’t happy about it, but is conceding to her experience and leadership skills, seeing the obvious results. Besides, to accomplish his immediate goals, he needs Hera and her fleet. But there’s a reason he got to where he is so I wouldn’t expect him to sit back and be completely usurped, not without a fight.
It’s aboard the Lodestar where we get into the meat of the “team-building” story as they are now forced to interact with each other and others in somewhat claustrophobic quarters. A uniquely pilot characteristic is that they are all much more comfortable strapped inside a tiny pressurized cabin, hurling through the vacuum of space, rather than socialize with others aboard a larger ship.
But they make the best of it and slowly, bit by bit, bonds begin to form within the group, apart from Yrica. Even by the end of this first book she remains standoffish and chooses to spend her free time with Ito. An odd companion choice to be sure, but one of the personal journeys Freed takes Quell on is her developing affinity towards droids, Ito in particular.
So, as the missions begin to take on a more serious tone, with actual consequences, the team encounters both tactical and personal hardships. The already delicate squad hits a low-point and the balance is shifting away from Quell who is barely hanging on.
Seeing how this fissure could turn into a canyon quickly, Hera takes them off combat missions and instead, sends them to Harkrova I to gather supplies from an old Rebel hideout. The hideout turns out to be an old Jedi temple and the book momentarily shifts to a more spiritual structure.
Always meant to be an overnight trip, and an isolated one, the group finds themselves huddled around a campfire with nothing to do but share stories. It’s Hera’s version of a corporate retreat and it has the desired effect. It’s also worth noting that while she plays coy when they return, Hera does have some experience with these types of things, and what they experience on the moon was clearly the expected outcome.
When Quell is inexplicably drawn away by a phantom scouting ship, the others experience what could only be referred to as a moment of spiritual awakening. Call it the will of the Force, but whatever phenomenon they think they encountered gave each person for the first time, some clarity, and some truth. Even Kairos felt the mojo as she used the opportunity to reveal herself to the squad, albeit in her own weird little way.
Whatever was responsible for the manifestation, the team left the moon more united then when they arrived. But the divide between Quell and her squad remains, and whether she can find some way to connect with them will be one of her greatest challenges.
The choice by Freed to not have Quell experience this “enlightening” is purposeful and prolongs the divide within the group, it also raises doubt. And by the end of the book you’re even less certain of who will survive, the team, or Quell.
“We’re old hands at losing. We’re still learning how to win.”
-General Hera Syndulla
There’s so much that hangs in the balance, so much at stake. And as you take a step back and look at the larger picture, it becomes clear how fragile the galaxy is at this point in the timeline. Chaos reigns supreme and disarray is the order of the day.
Take the books climatic sequence at Pandem Nai, a planet rich in Tibanna Gas and protected by a deadly minefield. Nuress and the 204th are using it as regrouping point, hoping to draw remaining Imperial forces there and stage a bit of a comeback. The literally explosive final battle there is a great example of what this new Republic calls a win.
To the squad members, but mostly Quell, it’s a disaster that in her old Imperial days would have led to serious consequences. But now, so close to the end, so close to victory, the Rebels call it a victory, despite the losses.
That’s why a portion of this book deals with the cynical and insecure state of the former Rebel Alliance who is facing an uncertain future. They’ve been so busy fighting against tyranny and the forces of evil; they never concerned themselves with what would happen if they won.
But Freed wisely stays away from the politics of the galaxy and the hegemony of Coruscant. Instead he gives us a much narrower point of view making his character work much easier to digest. Besides, if you believe every act is inherently a political one, then the choices his characters make are intriguing enough doctrinally that we don’t need another boring trip to the galactic senate.
This is no proxy war, and these are not un-aggressive parties, but conflict is about more than just violence and death. It’s about personal battles, personal struggles, and Freed offers up plenty of dense, thoughtful character work to balance the scales.
And speaking of death, Colonel Nuress receives a surprise visit from a “Messenger”. For those who are unaware, “Messengers” are sentinel droids who carried the late Emperor's posthumous messages to Imperial commanders before, during, and after Operation Cinder. I won’t spoil it but Nuress receives this visit at a very inopportune time and is meant to give Kairos’s earlier statement some weight. The Emperor’s shadow, in life and in death, is indeed long.
Freed makes several smart decisions in this book but one of them is something I usually frown upon; he makes the universe a little bit smaller. He does so by taking this large conflict and focuses our attention on a select few, not unlike Star War Rebels. Freed understands wars are won and lost by the thinnest of margins, and it’s those that have something to fight for are the ones who emerge victorious.
That’s the number one lesson Hera is trying to teach Quell. If she can somehow get Yrica to show the Alphabets that she’s willing to fight and die for them, she’ll have their undying loyalty for the rest of time. That’s the kind of leader Hera was, and that’s the kind of leader she wants Yrica to be.
Like Claudia Gray’s “Lost Stars” and so many others, this book does a great job of putting a human face to both sides of the conflict. After all, it is a shared universe and with the war raging for 10+ years, paths are likely to cross multiple times.
The best example of this, and one of the best passages in the book, has Wyl Lark conversing with a TIE Fighter pilot “Blink” across enemy lines. What they discuss isn’t as important as the fact that they are discussing it and says quite a bit about Wyl’s disposition.
It’s in these moments that Freed breaks down those traditional walls and plays with our perceptions, especially when it comes to doctrines of war. This is in line with so much of the great Star Wars content we’ve gotten the last few years, exploring both sides of the conflict in a more personable and meaningful way.
In between frantic dog fights, slave trading, and massive explosions, he pauses and gives us a high level of introspective rhapsody. The calm in this case is just as effective as the storm and if this first book is the kind of writing we can expect, we’re in for something very special.
And precisely because it’s only the first act, there’s plenty more to come as things are set in motion now which will drastically alter the outcomes for the Alphabets who are, after all, uniquely fallible.
These people aren’t royalty, born into wealth, aristocrats, or even Jedi. They are regular folks who have experienced chronic suffering, ached through the pain of tremendous loss, and have all lost their way. This mission, this path they find themselves on and the people they share it with, this is their chance to make things right, to fix what was once broken.
And because it’s Star Wars, it’s important to recognize the catharsis they experience as not only self-fulfilling but also part of a cosmic chain of events.
Freeds writing, like his previous work, is airtight and not at all careless or extravagant. His words are precise and his language, while certainly espousing a Star Wars vernacular, feels like it’s coming from someone who’s invented their own etymology. He’s clearly quite comfortable writing in this prose, and in this galaxy.
He never once belabors the point and uses just as many words as he needs to get his message across. The book is just over 400 pages, not one of them is wasted.
The book is a tale of reprisal and a story of trans formative states where real world fears, anxieties, and xenophobia most definitely come into play. And I don’t believe Freed is purposely providing commentary on the current state of the world, rather simply applying smart, learned methods for how to craft a modern tale.
But he does go deep, and, in many ways, the Kairos character is the perfect embodiment of what questions this book looks to answer. Her change, her metamorphosis, isn’t simply shedding her skin or outer layer. She’s experiencing, like this galaxy and so many people in it, a deeper state of trans-formative evolution both physically and metaphysically.
The bottom line is this, Alphabet Squadron is an extremely dense, exposition heavy, team-building revelation…and it’s only Act One! So, stay the course, strap in, and stick with your squad…it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Rogue One (film/novel)
Star Wars Rebels (TV series)
Battlefront 2: Inferno Squadron (novel)
Battlefront 2 (Video Game)
Star Wars: Shattered Empire (Marvel Comics)
Star Wars: Tie Fighter (Marvel Comics)
"Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron" is published by Del Rey/Penguin Random House and is available now! Click HERE to get yours today!
*Art by Jeff Langevin
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