Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron is the third book in the new canon by author Alexander Freed, having previously written the Rogue One novelization and the first Battlefront-tie in novel, Battlefront: Twilight Company. Having greatly enjoyed the first two novels of his, I was beyond excited to dive into his newest work knowing how well he can handle a gritty war story.
Alphabet Squadron is the first in a new trilogy of novels, and not only that, it is tied in closely with a new comic series being released by Marvel: TIE Fighter. While the book mainly tells the side of the “Good Guys” (the newly formed New Republic), the comic will portray the story from the side of the “Bad Guys” (the Empire).
We are first introduced to the main characters of the book through a series of posts by Del Rey on their social media accounts. They give us the names of each of the pilots, a picture of them (as shown above), and a little bit of information about each pilot, like how Chass enjoys listening to music while she’s in a fight.
As you can tell about these books, like their spiritual predecessors (the Legends universe X-Wing novels), these books are focused on a set of unknown characters. This is something we haven’t often received in the new canon. Usually the books are focused on one or more of the main characters from any of the movies, often the newest movie, or one of the cartoon series. In very few exceptions are we asked to dive into a new novel with completely new characters (the Aftermath trilogy being a notable exception).
Let’s first take the title of the novel, Alphabet Squadron. I have seen many people complain about the title being too “Earthly” and not “Star Warsy enough, because it wasn’t Aurebesh Squadron or something like that. But what they don’t realize is that:
- This isn’t Aurebesh. Aurebesh is the letters typically seen in the Star Wars Universe, but they don’t resemble an “A” as in A-Wing or an “X” as in X-Wing. So it can’t be that. The language to which these letters belong in the Star Wars Universe is the “High Galactic” language (as even mentioned in the novel).
- And an alphabet is not the letters in the English language, or the letters in most Latin languages, an alphabet is the letters in any language. That is its definition:
- Alphabet: a set of letters or symbols in a fixed order, used to represent the basic sounds of a language.
- So an alphabet is not a unique feature to Earth, it is just a word to describe the letters of an language, regardless of what those letters look like or what the language that is being spoken is.
OK, enough semantics, on to the story. The story of Alphabet Squadron takes place approximately two to four months after Return of the Jedi and most importantly, one month after Operation: Cinder, which is a pivotal event seen in the Shattered Empire comic series. For those who don’t know, Operation Cinder was a directive sent out by Emperor Palpatine upon his death. There were these droids with glass domes for faces, and projected on these glass domes was the face of the Emperor, telling various military leaders to destroy various planets across the galaxy, including Naboo (which was portrayed in the comic series).
It is this event that ripples through the book, and rightfully so. It is an event that has so far played a very minor footnote within the new canon storytelling and one that deserves more attention than it has gotten. What were the implications of Operation: Cinder? Why did the Emperor conduct the operation? What about the people who carried out the operation? What happens to them? How do they feel about it? This is a major cleansing operation going on, conducted by the Empire, and there HAVE to be some ramifications of those actions. Alphabet Squadron begins to look at those ramifications.
Although, portrayed as the spiritual successor to the 10 book X-Wing series by Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston, this is clearly it’s own stand alone novel, not having anything to do with the pilots shown in those earlier Legends books. The X-Wing series started off as a series of books showing us the pilots of Rogue Squadron (as seen in the Original Trilogy), starring Wedge Antilles as leader of the Rogues. These pilots were lovable, great flyers, and great characters. They were definitely poster children for the New Republic.
But then the X-Wing series took a turn and switched the pilot makeup to a new squadron, this one called Wraith Squadron. These pilots were not poster children. They were the undesirables, the rogues, the more gritty characters. These were the characters who more closely resemble the makeup of our new Alphabet Squadron. But unlike the X-Wing books, the Alphabet Squadron is far smaller, coming in at only five total pilots, each one taking a different lettered ship:
- Yrica Quell – Leader and X-Wing pilot
- Wyl Lark – A-Wing pilot
- Chass na Chadic – B-Wing pilot
- Nath Tensent – Y-Wing pilot
- Kairos – U-Wing pilot
The story of Alphabet Squadron follows Yrica Quell as she defects from the Empire and tries to join the fledgling New Republic. She was a pilot from the 204th Imperial Fighting Wing, also known as Shadow Wing of the Empire, a group that New Republic intelligence agent Caern Adan was hell-bent on hunting down. So he recruited anyone and everyone who would hold a grudge against them, forming this rag-tag group of pilots. All the pilots recruited were the sole survivors of their squadrons, and for that reason they were generally a grumpy lot with one or two chips on their shoulders. They were generally, not likable characters.
And that’s where this story runs into some problems for me. Like I said before, I greatly enjoyed the previous novels by Freed for his ability to capture the wartime feeling of those stories. However, this novel felt different. For one, it was a much slower book. Not as much was happening and there were not as many dog-fighting scenes that you would expect if this truly was an X-Wing novel. The novel delves deeply into each of the pilot’s backgrounds, which would not normally be a problem except for the next issue: The characters, for the most part, were just unlikable.
Out of all of the characters in the story my favorite was easily Hera Syndulla, a throwback to the Rebels TV series. Also Chass na Chadic and Yrica Quell were excellent additions to the Star Wars universe (although the end of the novel had me questioning how much I really even liked Quell). Without a good lead character like Quell, the whole novel would have fallen apart. But she can only hold the story together so much. She was well written and generally one I could follow along with in the story. I liked Chass a lot as well. Her demeanor after being her squadron’s sole survivor made sense, as did her coping mechanisms. They all made me like her.
Two of the other pilots took up major chunks of the story and were downright intolerable. Nath Tensent was an arrogant SOB who was only out for himself and had a very punchable demeanor. Every time he did anything or spoke it was just grating on my nerves. Wyl Lark, on the other hand, was someone who had no place being a pilot, but for some reason he seemed to be good at it. He acted too green to be a war veteran and the whininess of his character got old real quick. The last pilot, Kairos, was a complete blank slate through the whole novel, who we learned next to nothing about. I’m hopeful that her character gets expanded upon more in the following books. But as of right now, I got nothing for her.
The writing style also felt a bit off for me. It felt excessively wordy. Like, why write five words when 30 would suffice to explain the same scene? I got lost in the story because I was trying to follow the text but it kept jumbling me all up. When I finished the novel I wasn’t sure if I wasn’t as hot on it as I hoped because I got lost or the writing style kept me from getting deeper into it.
My preferred method of listening to the book was as an audiobook, this time read by Saskia Maarleveld, a voice I readily recognized from her previous recordings within the Star Wars universe. She has a nice smooth voice and one that it is apparently very easy to fall asleep to. I had several instances when I had to go back in the story because I realized I had dozed off listening to her read through the books. The audio additions were more spartan in this book as well, but well placed. Not as many special effects or musical intros, but where they were used, they worked. As with all of the recent audiobooks, this is one I can endorse if you wish to delve into this book.
Overall, the book had things that I loved about it as well. We had callbacks to the original novelization of Star Wars, to Rogue One, to Rebels, and even a reference to The Avengers. It had the makings of a great story, but it just didn’t click for me. The aftermath of Operation: Cinder is a story I felt needed to be told, but it didn’t work. I’m hoping the next two novels in the series can bounce back from this, especially since I know how great an author Freed can be in the Star Wars universe.