This was a difficult book to review. Aiming high, it landed in the middle, with deep characterization and a strong stance about the morality of Star Wars muddled by drawn-out scenes and dry prose. Alphabet Squadron is the first in a buzzy series, reminiscent of the beloved X-Wing novels, and it just almost succeeds as a thoughtful ensemble story.
The titular squadron is tasked with finding and defeating Shadow Wing, an elite TIE Fighter squad. (For what it’s worth, the name “Alphabet Squadron” is as much of a joke among characters in-universe as it might sound as a title.) In order to do that, squad leader Yrica Quell needs to make sure five people in five different starfighters can work together. It’s a daunting task, especially since she’s only ever served in the Empire before this, and used to fly in Shadow Wing.
Author Alexander Freed’s Battlefront:Twilight Company set a high bar for military fiction in Star Wars, as well as the less pulpy tone of the new Expanded Universe. It starred a soldier who didn’t really want to be part of the Rebellion, but learned why a galactic war might be worth fighting. Its memorable characters and take on classic movie scenes were blisteringly stark and beautifully empathetic. Alphabet Squadron’s protagonist is even further removed from the hero mold: Quell worked for the Empire for the entire Galactic Civil War, until shortly after the destruction of the second Death Star.
At the core of Alphabet Squadron is the story of why readers would even want to root for a person who stuck around the genocidal state that long. Quell switches between lukewarm and boiling, guilt-ridden and twitchy with trauma. She exudes “a sort of glasslike sharpness, equally likely to injure or shatter,” and is “simultaneously hypervigilant and unfocused.” Freed’s portrayal of her trauma is unflinching; Quell is awkward and stiff and possibly even cruel, and that’s part of what makes this such a crunchy character study. She’s one step removed from her own emotions. “She wondered how sincere she sounded—she’d never been any good at conveying empathy, no mater how real.”
I love that Quell isn’t a Jedi, isn’t even a fighter ace. She, like Luke Skywalker, is thrown into her story, but she isn’t greeted warmly in the New Republic. Hers would be an uphill battle even without the Empire. She also arrived at a time when the New Republic is going through growing pains, learning how to win. People who joined because they wanted an anarchic system now have to deal with being the ruling government. Quell is feeling those growing pains on a personal level as she deals with everyone from self-interested spies to the unflappable General Hera Syndulla.
The first volume of the three-book series focuses on bringing the Alphabet team together, and succeeds at making them all unique and fun people. Quell is joined by roguish Nath, farm boy Wyl, angry Chass, and mysterious Kairos. Between them is a web of mistrust and frustrations: Wyl and Chass bump heads because Wyl once forced Chass to live instead of dying with the rest of her squad. Many of them are hiding something from one another. The novel’s most interesting stylistic choice comes from an emphasis on characters telling stories to one another, and an agnostic uncertainty about how much of those stories are true.
Unfortunately, individual scenes and the arc of the book as a whole are paced slowly and stretched too thin. The three-book format seems to have given permission for the first volume to be dry at times. Its character arcs are loose, its set pieces, especially in the latter half of the book, are less heart-pounding than most Star Wars stories. It’s just too long. The best combat scenes in the book happen toward the beginning, in a moving space siege reminiscent of the slow fleet chase in The Last Jedi.
Maybe that’s because, later in the book, the largest threat seems to come from inside the squadron. The loosely sketched pilots of Shadow Wing never quite feel like people, even though I’m also reading the comic book tie-in featuring them. They aren’t particularly frightening either, except perhaps for Grandmother, the Imperial commander who still believes in fighting the Old Republic’s enemies. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the ending seems flat even with a dramatic location and plenty of space dogfights.
Freed’s prose is solid with moments of insight. A distant third person point of view becomes nearly omniscient at times, which isn’t unusual in tie-in books but becomes particularly buoyant when contrasted with Freed’s sharp prose elsewhere. It has a good awareness of space, though, with vivid scenes and an emphasis on the rough-and-tumble physicality of flying in a one- or two-person spaceship. A starfighter-focused book needs to have strong action scenes, and the ones here are good but not great, with tension coming more from the character relationships than from the threat of attack.
Between the prickly protagonists and muted story, this one might not be for everyone. It drags in the middle, and omits some scenes in strange places. Why don’t we see more of Alphabet’s very early days together? The reader also needs to be ready to accept that they won’t know everything about the characters: some reveals feel artificial, since the characters know the answers when the reader does not.
This book asks great questions: What is the meaning of making a moral choice only after all of the moral lines have been crossed? Is Quell a good leader or just a war criminal hanging on to a purpose by the skin of her teeth? What exactly is Quell’s moral code? What does it mean to have fallen into galactic war without fully deciding either one side or the other? I love to have a Star Wars book that sits with its protagonist like this. Considering that it’s the first in a series, a conclusion isn’t expected. Instead, I think Quell will be a great conversation-starter in the fandom for a while, and I look forward to sitting with her a little longer … even if the novel’s answers were always going to struggle to live up to the questions it asks.
Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron is available to purchase June 11th from Amazon or your local independent bookstore.
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