The new Star Wars canon establishes a Rebellion and Empire noticeably different from their Legends counterparts. Instead of aristocratic super villains, the faces of the Empire are often diverse, well-intentioned volunteers, with some slimy cultists thrown in. Instead of a noble few officers and snarking pilots, the Rebels are often ragtag people with nowhere else to go, kept in the dark about the size of their army by their own superiors, unless the information is absolutely critical.
Of course, this is a simplification of over 30 years of stories. However, the changes can be seen everywhere in the last few years of Star Wars content, from the Rebels TV show to the excellent Battlefront: Twilight Company. The book drives home again and again the idea that the Rebels’ fight is a hopeless one, creating a grim, consistent portrait of the Galactic Civil War and establishing new and different characters.
In brief, the Rebels take the fight to the Empire with the help of an Imperial turncoat, the former governor and information expert Evari Chalis. In fact, her help might come with even more danger than Twilight Company is used to expecting. The company travels the galaxy in the ship Thunderstrike, recruiting everyone from mercenaries to backwater brawlers to the more familiar idealists. The man assigned to teach these new recruits is Hazram Namir, who has no love for the cause, but a lot of loyalty to the people around him. His talent isn’t for winning so much as it is for not giving up, and author Alexander Freed portrays that in a stark, no-frills manner that tests the bounds of the normal morality of Star Wars, but never breaks them apart.
Twilight Company’s war isn’t clean, and it doesn’t line up neatly with what might be allowed by gameplay in the Battlefront video game. The former is part of what makes the book work so well, though. Its depiction of war is confusing and messy, giving the book a dark, realistic atmosphere where anything could happen. A wounded soldier is “a pile at the officer’s feet.” In another moment, “During a lull between attacks, Namir saw a body move beside him and moan. In a haze of exhaustion, he didn’t realize the wounded woman was an Imperial until after he had passed her his canteen.”
Twilight Company casually, viciously upends any trope that would make it easy to define its characters as good people or bad people: they are, of course, both.
There’s some discussion to be had about whether being morally ambiguous makes a Star Wars story automatically better than a more optimistic, black-and-white one. I think it doesn’t. Ambiguity can still be poorly written or poorly handled. Legends’ Vestara Khai comes to mind, or the bloody but quickly forgotten violence of Crucible. However, Twilight Company’s moral ambiguity brings it a kind of gentleness. Its stories offer forgiveness, just like the mercy Luke offered Darth Vader. Bad people do bad things. They remain perpetrators of bad things after their story ends. They can also still do good. And with that ambiguity comes realism. The Jedi could have saved some people in this story—but there aren’t any Jedi around.
That realism is really what Twilight Company has going for it. Like Matthew Stover’s Star Wars books, Freed’s novel takes human emotion, human erratic behavior, and even the tendency for self-sabotage into account when building its characters. It steered clear of the jargon that was one of my few complaints about the enjoyable Aftermath. Namir sometimes knows less than the average Star Wars fan about the world around him.
Recurring squad members like Charmer weren’t quite as memorable as they could have been, although we do get a complicated web of relationships between Namir and idealist Gadren, hard-bitten and distant mentor Brand, and young, twitchy Roach. The dialogue is very good at leaving things unsaid, at making the reader keep up, at hinting at backstories we never see. Unfortunately, some of those stories still feel incomplete at the end, the histories of some members of Twilight Company a mystery. An encounter that could have been frightening had strikingly long-lasting consequences, but was written with little poetry. The Imperials, represented by secular military man Tabor and fervent, “messianic” Prelate Verge, fall a bit flat.
However, the Imperials are still effective. A fancy gala turns into a sanctioned beating. Chalis herself is vitally flawed and an unstoppable force for strategy and negotiation at the same time.
Unfortunately, one of the things that makes Namir’s story work is also the very thing that hurts it: Namir’s cynicism is central to his characterization, and indeed to the entire construction of the book, but it also makes him difficult to parse, especially early in the story. The people around him weren’t enough to make his story feel like something worth fighting for when he himself seems determined not to have a stake in it.
The prose is sometimes bland, but never stays so for long: sentences tend to have their own small twists, tend to veer from normalcy into violence in a way that expertly tells the story in miniature. War could be everywhere. War is always a moment away from being present. An early mission takes the Rebels though an “opulent mansion filled with aromatic fruit and busts of murderers.”
Major deaths occur without fanfare, and the end is a moment of critical decision for the characters but not a turning point for the entire galaxy. I found myself comparing Twilight Company to the young adult Star Wars novel Lost Stars, another good, very different war story. Lost Stars hit all the major battles of the Original Trilogy and beyond, inserting its characters into them. Twilight Company is present at the Battle of Hoth, but the climax of the story is a location that will be familiar to gamers, but was not present in the movies. There’s no winning with this: sometimes too much reference to the movies is a let-own, and sometimes too little makes a story seem less important.
But the ending of Twilight Company doesn’t fizzle. Not by far, and it isn’t simply a photo negative of any other Star Wars story. The characters drive it, and although some of them don’t even know what a Jedi is, Twilight Company is one of the greatest Star Wars stories ever about someone doggedly, cynically coming to understand why acting according to the light side is important.
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.