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Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron is a thrilling examination of the cost of war

When I was in high school, I read through the entire back catalog of Star Wars novels, one after the other, and finished with Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston’s X-Wing series. I loved that nine-book sub-series. It presented a different angle on the Star Wars universe, following a new crop of non-film characters as they worked to take the galaxy back from the Empire.

Fast-forward a quarter of a century, and the finale of a new Star Wars trilogy is about to hit theaters. There’s a standalone film that lines up perfectly with the spirit of the X-Wing series. And now, there’s a new novel about another squadron of Rebel pilots taking the galaxy back — Alphabet Squadron by Alexander Freed. Star Wars has grown up in the last two decades, and that’s a good thing.

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Alphabet Squadron is the first of a new trilogy from Freed, the author of Battlefront: Twilight Company and the Rogue One novelization. It’s part of a cross-medium publisher effort between Random House and Marvel Comics, which released the five-issue miniseries TIE Fighter earlier this spring.

Set in the aftermath of the Battle of Endor, Alphabet Squadron is about an Imperial defector named Yrica Quell who finds herself leading an effort to track down and destroy Shadow Wing, a particularly skilled TIE fighter squadron that’s a thorn in the side of the Rebel Alliance.

Quell herself was a member of Shadow Wing, and she’s facing a hefty amount of suspicion from Rebel commanders. But even though the Alliance struck a major blow against the Empire over Endor, it’s stretched thin as the Imperial Navy launches its own genocidal campaign of retaliation. Quell is one of the few people who knows enough about the unit to track them down.

Along the way, Freed introduces Rebel pilots from all corners of the galaxy, recruited by intelligence agent Caern Adan. There’s Kairos, a mysterious U-Wing pilot; Wyl, a skilled A-Wing pilot who lost his entire squadron; Nath, a bitter veteran and Y-Wing pilot; and Chass, a B-Wing pilot who feels she has nothing to live for after her squadron was destroyed. (Quell herself ends up in an X-Wing fighter.) The squad members each have their own reasons for wanting to strike back at the Empire — sometimes it’s revenge, sometimes it’s a sense of duty, and sometimes they simply can’t think of anything else to do with their lives.

On its face, Alphabet Squadron feels like a refreshed version of Stackpole and Allston’s X-Wing novels. They all feature a cast not seen in the main series (with the exception of General Hera Syndulla from the animated series Star Wars Rebels), they’re set in the aftermath of the Battle of Endor, and they’re about a squadron just holding itself together while going through mission after mission.

But since Disney essentially relaunched the Star Wars franchise, it’s emphasized the sense of realism in its stories, especially the cost that would accompany a massive galactic war. The Original and Prequel trilogies have their share of nuance, but they largely draw a line between an empirical good and bad, with both sides fighting against one another accordingly.

The standalone film Rogue One is a particularly good example of how that’s changed. It’s a gritty war film that leaves no survivors, showing off a darker side to the Rebel Alliance — as characters like Cassian Andor and Saw Gerrera talk about the lengths that they’ll go to ensure victory, even if it means assassinating, killing, or torturing imperial personnel and civilians. Christie Golden, author of the Star Wars novel Inferno Squad, told The Verge that this reflects how our world has changed since the original trilogy. “We now have a better chance than ever to know the people who aren’t like us,” she said. “It’s not as easy to demonize people and make them one-dimensional any longer, because you can look at them as people.”

That approach is on display here, through Quell’s eyes. The book opens with her defecting from the Imperial Navy, going through a Rebellion camp and eventually being processed back into their service. This isn’t a straightforward change of heart — while Quell wasn’t a fanatical believer in the Imperial cause, she rationalized her service as an Imperial pilot by deciding that the Emperor was at least keeping the galaxy from dissolving into chaos. She’s frustrated by the Alliance’s way of doing things, and as a result, it takes her a while to get a handle on organizing the squadron into an effective fighting unit.

The older X-Wing series was an early test of Lucasfilm’s multimedia synergy between books, comics, and video games — something that’s pretty much standard practice these days for the company. But while Stackpole and Allston injected a bit of grit into Lucas’s galaxy far, far away, it still harkened back to an era where the Empire was Bad and the Alliance was Good. The various Imperial adversaries that Rogue Squadron went up against — like Ysanne Isard, Kirtan Loor, or Warlord Zsinj — essentially had their motivations tied up in the quest to restore the Empire to something resembling its former glory, or to amass power for themselves.

Alphabet Squadron is informed by a more nuanced outlook of the world. The Star Wars Extended Universe often highlighted how the Empire prized efficiency amongst its forces, doing things like stripping its TIE fighters of shields and hyperdrives to save weight and cost. But Alphabet Squadron shows how much that approach cost its soldiers and the way that Quell struggles with it.

“Quell wondered if the detachment the Empire had inculcated in her would make it easier for her to shoot her comrades in the 204th. If learning to treat pilots as disposable made it easier to defect. If she could fire her cannons and not think of the names and faces she’d learned over the course of years. She suspected so.”

But Freed doesn’t mistake war’s fuzzy grey areas for equality of viewpoints. Sure, we see the motivations that drive Imperial pilots and officers on display — but they still partake in genocidal acts, as a misplaced sense of fighting for the less-wrong side, or because they live in a world where their worldview is heavily shaped by Imperial censors and media. And while the Rebellion is less organized and efficient, they’re still fighting against a fascist ruler bend on controlling everyone in the galaxy.

Alphabet Squadron does what few stories in the Star Wars universe actually do: show off impact of war on the galaxy and on the people who wage it. Military science fiction has a long tradition within the genre that explores this concept, but Star Wars itself has largely steered clear of those tropes.

In many ways, books like Alphabet Squadron and games like Battlefront II have had the cumulative cultural experience of recent, real-world conflicts bubble in around the edges. As the book — and presumably its sequels — look at the experiences of their characters, they represent a good opportunity to reinforce a key lesson: war is horrible for everyone involved, even for the victors.

When authors or filmmakers have dipped their toes in those proverbial, the results can be spectacular: Karen Traviss’s Republic Commando novels are excellent looks at the cost of war on its combatants (in this case, the elite Republic commando troopers), Freed’s prior Star Wars novel Battlefield: Twilight Company, and the aforementioned X-Wing novels. Alphabet Squadron joins that tradition, telling a character-driven story that brings nuance and depth to the conflict that drives the entire franchise. Rather than taking away from the fight of good verses evil, it shows that while the line is blurry, it’s still there.

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