Author: Alexander Freed
Publisher: Del Rey
Length: 320 pages
EE Critic Score: 10/10
Alphabet Squadron is a novel by Alexander Freed, a new author for Star Wars, who didn’t write any books for the old EU (though he did write several Old Republic comics). This is the first of his books I’ve read, and I’m very impressed. I’ll get into why later, but this is the best book in the new Canon that I’ve read so far, and in the top ranks of all Star Wars books I’ve read.
The book centers around a group of pilots for the New Republic, in the post-Endor war against the Empire. The pilots are not part of a typical squad, rather, they have been thrown together by an intelligence agent seeking a more refined way to wage a war. A heroic young A-Wing pilot, a B-Wing pilot with a dream of martyrdom, an enigmatic U-Wing pilot, and a mercenary Y-Wing pilot are led by a recent Imperial defector, a TIE pilot who now flies an X-Wing, in a battle against the fallen Empire’s greatest starfighter force, the 204th “Shadow Wing”. Their eclectic roster of starfighters leads them to being called “Alphabet Squadron”.
The Synopsis and Analysis sections discuss plot points of the book. If you haven’t read it yet, please skip ahead to the Recommendation & Rating section.
The novel opens up introducing Yrica Quell, the most main of the book’s main characters. She is a former Imperial TIE pilot who defected to the Rebels as Operation Cinder began. Operation Cinder, we learn as the book goes on, was a scorched-earth contingency plan devised by Palpatine to destroy valuable Imperial world’s, often by destabilizing their ecosystems. Quell and her squadron, the formidable 204th Fighter Wing, aka the Shadow Wing, had been a key part of the destruction of Nacronis via runaway dust storms. Unsatisfied in waging pointless destruction on behalf of a losing side, Quell deserted at Nacronis and eventually arrived at Traitor’s Remorse, a New Republic POW camp for high-risk, low-value defectors.
Quell has regular sessions with a repurposed IT-O interrogator droid, which ostensibly is providing counsel through her transition into the New Republic. The droid reports to Caern Adan, an intelligence officer with an interest in Shadow Wing. Adan is eyeing Quell to be a part of his new task group, which will be dedicated to finding Shadow Wing’s hidden base. He hopes that his bringing down the 204th will help shift attitudes away from broad military action and toward a more sophisticated approach to warring against the Empire.
Adan does eventually recruit Quell, first tasking her with finding and recruiting another potential member of his nascent band of TIE hunters. Quell and a mysterious, silent U-Wing pilot known as Kairos seek out Nath Tensent, a former Imperial bomber pilot who had, after he and his squadron had been dismissed from the Empire’s military for piracy, had joined up with the Rebellion. Tensent and his comrades had flown Y-Wings until all but he had been killed in a battle with the 204th., and Tensent had quietly exited the war.
Quell finds Tensent and his Y-Wing working as security at a backwater spice trading station, ostensibly still as a New Republic asset but in reality just as himself. Tensent refuses to come back when Quell offers him a chance to take down the 204th; he doesn’t care anything for the New Republic, and says that there is no profit in revenge. An off-page visit from Kairos changes his mind.
Away from all this are two other main characters: A-Wing pilot Wyl Lark and B-Wing pilot Chas na Chadic, of Riot and Hound Squadrons, respectively. Both squadrons are deployed aboard the same New Republic long-range scouting warship, the Hellion’s Dare, which encounters part of Shadow Wing in the middle of cleaning up witnesses of their most recent strike. The Imperial aces pursue the Dare into the densely star-packed Oridol Cluster, picking off B-Wing after A-Wing in a series of skirmishes.
After the adventure to collect Tensent, Adan tasks Quell with combing through intercepted Imperial communications. Quell yearns to be able to fly again, and initially finds little of use in the hours of audio logs. What she does find is that Operation Cinder had come about from the final orders of the Emperor himself. She is confused why Palpatine arranged to destroy so much of his own Empire, and shares her questions with IT-O. The droid has little in the way of answers.
Eventually, Quell gives up trying to find Shadow Wing in a sea of phone calls, going instead to seek them out in the sea of stars. Stealing an X-Wing, and an astromech to go with it, Quell sets out to personally examine the sites of the 204th’s recent strikes. She finds evidence of the first encounter between Shadow Wing and the Hellion’s Dare. Returning to a very angry Caern Adan, she convinces him that Shadow Wing had pursued the scout ship into the nearby Oridol Cluster and that, because they had not returned to the scene of the first encounter to destroy other witnesses, they must still be in the Oridol Cluster.
By the time Quell, Tensent, and Kairos get there, the Hellion’s Dare has been destroyed. Only Lark and Chadic are found as survivors drifting in their fighters. Adan sweeps them both up into his working group before they can be re-assigned.
At Adan’s request, his working group is given a place aboard the Lodestar, also the home to starfighter general and hero of the Rebellion Hera Syndulla. General Syndulla agrees to allow Adan to set the group’s objectives, though she says that day-to-day operations should be handled by a squadron commander with actual flight experience. Adan agrees to make Quell the commander, his only other option being Tensent, whom he trusts even less.
The working group’s field operators are dubbed “Alphabet Squadron” by others aboard the Lodestar due to their wide selection of _-Wing spacecraft. Quell struggles to keep her pilots together as a fighting unit. Tensent’s improvisational combat style interrupts Quell’s well-laid plans. Chadic fosters open contempt for Lark, and constantly bucks against Quell’s leadership. Kairos never speaks. A mostly failed mission to recover a platoon of captured stormtroopers, with knowledge of Shadow Wing, from a band of slavers leaves Quell deeply upset, so much so that she assault’s Adan as he berates her for losing so many potential leads. Without a viable alternative, Adan leaves her in charge of Alphabet Squadron, though Quell’s spiralling series of mishaps and outbursts does attract the attention of General Syndulla. She advises Quell that her squadron will fight for her if she makes it clear that she will fight for them.
Alphabet Squadron is given a series of non-combat missions as Adan works on finding Shadow Wing’s base. One mission takes them to an old Rebel supply cache on a wilderness world. Over the course of their hiking weekend, the squadron share stories of their past; even Kairos tells a story, in her own odd way. Quell notes that her team seems to finally be coming together. The cache is recovered without incident, and following missions are also successful.
Quell, inspired by the matching livery of the other squadrons aboard the Lodestar, has a particularly artistic mechanic repaint the squadron’s starfighters as a surprise. Nath is uncomfortable with his Y-Wing being so changed, but he and the others appreciate the gesture.
Eventually Adan and Quell are able to put together a plan. Shadow Wing is operating out of a gas city garrison on a world called Pandem Nai, protecting a source of the Tibanna gas used as ammunition for starship weapons. Adan has been gathering intelligence on the facility for some time, searching for a way to take it quickly, as the New Republic cannot afford to wage a lengthy siege.
Quell leads a series of precision strikes against the Imperial low-orbit platforms. The unrefined Tibanna gas in the world’s atmosphere makes attacks by capital ships too risky to attempt. Shadow Wing’s commander, Colonel Shakara Nurress, oversees the Imperial defense personally from aboard one of the platforms. Adan and Syndulla remain on the Lodestar, leading the New Republic fleet in blockading Pandem Nai.
Alphabet Squadron successfully disable Shadow Wing’s hangar bays before any great number of TIEs can launch. In the middle of the attack, unbeknownst to the others, Tensent sneaks aboard the main orbital station, leaving his astromech to perform the looping bombing runs. He had secretly been tasked by Adan to retrieve Quell’s Imperial personnel file, and takes advantage of the chaos of the battle to infiltrate the 204th’s base.
Once the hangar bays have been destroyed, Alphabet Squadron begins to strike against the external Tibanna gas tanks, destroying vital Imperial supplies and compromising large parts of the station in a single move. Nurress, desperate to scramble her fighters to defend the station, directs them to blast through the walls of the ruined hangars. As hundreds of the Empire’s most deadly starfighters pour out into the battle, Quell is forced to improvise. She directs a bombardment of the main station’s reactor. As the reactor explodes, if ignites the Tibanna gas in Pandem Nai’s atmosphere; soon, the whole sky is on fire. With dark memories of Operation Cinder flashing in her mind, Quell calls off the attack, saying that they are now on a rescue mission.
Through the chaos, Tensent travels to Nuress’s command center. Holding Shadow Wing’s commander at blasterpoint, he demands the names of the pilots who had killed his old squadron, only to discover that they had all long since died in the war. With Nuress apparently the only living person involved in that attack, Tensent kills her, before finding Quell’s records and transmitting them to Adan.
Chadic doesn’t want to switch over to a rescue mission. She flies after a starfighter carrier, determined to die a hero. Lark is the first to find her in the burning sky, calling her back to aid in the evacuation of a city on the planet’s surface below. He is joined by Tensent as the bomber returns to the battle. Tensent says that the Battle of Pandem Nai will have no heroes if the New Republic destroys the world.
Having been separated from the rest of Alphabet Squadron, Quell frantically flies through the shower of debris raining down on the city, blasting apart the larger chunks before they can crush any bystanders. Eventually, the wreckage and fire overwhelms her X-Wing, and she crashes onto the plains surrounding the city. Rescue comes in the form of a U-Wing, bearing Caern Adan.
Adan confronts her about inconsistencies between the account she had given of herself and that recorded in her official file. Quell admits that she hadn’t done anything to stop the destruction of Nacronis, that she had not fought against her fellow 204th pilots, and that she had been essentially ordered to desert by her superior, who had seen the futility of further war more clearly than she had. She maintains that, from her time in Traitor’s Remorse onward, she had been a loyal soldier for the New Republic. Adan tells her of the escape of the bulk of Shadow Wing, saying that her work for him isn’t done, and stressing the leverage he now has over her.
Despite the near destruction of the world, Pandem Nai is considered a victory by the New Republic. Alphabet Squadron celebrates surviving the battle, along with General Syndulla and others aboard the Lodestar. Quell isn’t there, instead spending the night recovering from the crash in a bacta tank. Once she returns to the Lodestar, she i approached by IT-O, who strikes up a conversation. They speak of the battle, of Quell’s ill-fated attempt to use desperate, spur-of-the-moment tactics: Rebel tactics. They speak too, or the dead Emperor, and of how they can move beyond his dark legacy, and their own.
Additionally, scattered throughout the book are stories about a drifter named Devan, who wanders the galaxy, organizing a militia against a street gang here, working on a starship repair crew there, until he hears of Pandem Nai and of the death of Shakara Nuress. Then, the book reveals that he is actually Major Sora Keize, Yrica Quell’s former superior, the one who had told her to defect before the horrors of Operation Cinder destroyed her. He had deserted himself shortly after, attempting to disappear into the Galaxy and forget the war. Seeing the New Republic almost destroy a world by accident gives his abandoned convictions to provide order to the Galaxy a second wind. He resolves to return to Shadow Wing and set things right.
Overall, this book shines in characterization. The plot is a bit fuzzy for the first half, and not particularly thrilling in the second half. But this book is still an engaging read from beginning to end, because of the characters. Freed writes each one vividly, even the pilots of Riot and Hound squadrons, who die early in the book. It goes a long way toward drawing the reader in.
Yrica Quell is, of course, the most developed character. Imperial defectors have been a character type we’ve seen before, but Quell stands out. Usually, what we get is some person joins the Empire, is ordered to do something evil, then immediately defects. Quell isn’t that. She remained with the Empire all through the Palpatine years, and would have stayed still if it hadn’t been for Kieze. She was a firm believer, if not in the Empire’s reality, in their ideals. She’s not a rebel, but, by the time of her defection, the Empire are the rebels, in a lot of ways.
Quell’s character shows best in comparison to the other ex-Imperial characters: Tensent and IT-O. In Tensent, we see Quell’s problems with the Empire and the Rebels all in one. A greedy, piratical man who exploited the Empire’s authority for his own gain, he embodies the petty oppressions inflicted on the Galaxy by countless Imperial stooges. A disgraced soldier taken in by a desperate insurgency which gave his life of looting a second wind, he embodies the Rebels’ inability to maintain standards of legitimate conduct. He’s a bad man, just barely too bad for the Empire, still good enough for the Rebellion.
In IT-O, we see, in a way, what Quell wishes she could be: an Imperial asset whose dark past is wiped clean. Quell isn’t a droid, so it isn’t that simple. In Quell’s conversations with the ex-torturebot, we see that she is still conflicted about the Empire, particularly about Operation Cinder. Quell never felt that the Emperor was fully righteous in everything he did, but she did believe him to be a rational actor. The question of why Operation Cinder was enacted, why so much destruction was inflicted for so little gain, haunts Quell, as well as the others in the Empire. IT-O, in the last pages, offers this assessment:
The Emperor who ordered Operation Cinder, who built two Death Stars, who oversaw countless genocides and massacres and created an Empire where torture droids were in common use, was not a man of secret brilliance and foresight.
He was a cruel man. Petty and spiteful in the most ordinary of ways; and spiteful men do spiteful things. Whatever else he intended, that is the root of it all.
Where Darth Vader grew up under Palpatine’s particular gaze, Quell grew up in the general haze of Imperial propaganda. Therefore, where Vader could be brought out of Palpatine’s grasp by the actions of a single person, for Quell, it’s more a matter of getting clear of the noise. In Quell’s arc, we see the arc of much of the post-Endor galaxy at large.
On to the other members of the squadron. I already touched on Nath Tensent. He’s a relic from the old days of the Rebellion, when the more respectable anti-Imperials couldn’t be too choosy in their friends. Tensent gets by on charm and pilot skill, but you get the feeling while reading about him that his best opportunities are behind him.
Wyl Lark has an interesting backstory: he’s the product of an idyllic society of bird-riders, who sent him and several other champions to fight against the Empire, despite his world’s relative isolation from the Galactic stage. His stories of Home keep the end goal of the war in focus through an otherwise murky story.
Chass na Chadic initially came off as more quirky than well-developed; for a long while, all we see of her is that she’s a B-wing pilot who’s grouchy and who blasts music in her cockpit during battle. But as the book goes on, we find her to be the Ignatius of Antioch of the group. She is the sole survivor not only of Hound Squadron but of her squadron before that, as well. Survivor’s guilt informs a death wish, a desire to die a hero in battle like those she has loved and admired, thus proving her worth to the Galaxy. In the end, she breaks from this morbid outlook a little, though I’m sure we’ll see more done with all this in coming novels.
Kairos is a mystery box character, and thus gets the least amount of characterization and is the least interesting. What glimpses we do get of her shows that her world, and perhaps the rest of her people, were destroyed by the Empire. She rarely speaks, or does much more that pilot her U-Wing, in the book. Her species is unspecified; at times I wondered if she wasn’t a Sand Person, at others if she was a Gen’Dai, but I suspect she isn’t meant to be either. Hopefully she gets more attention in the future.
Caern Adan reads like an exercise in writing an unlikeable character, which I think is intended. He functions as an antagonist and a supporting character in Quell’s story, all at once. A self-admittedly mediocre finance journalist turned spy (as in actual, sit-at-a-desk-and-read-other-people’s-mail spy, not gadgets-and-kung-fu spy) Adan always seems to be doing the right thing, but in such an underhanded, scheming, indirect way it would be hard to call him heroic. If you could imagine the MCU’s Nick Fury, without the combat prowess, and played with less charisma, maybe by another actor, say…Brad Dourif, you’d get a decent approximation of Caern Adan.
The over-arching antagonist would have to be Shakara Nuress. The bulk of her scenes feature her imploring an Imperial Messenger droid for direction which never comes, and, while she isn’t in the focus of the books, she was a character I’ll remember.
The adventures of the secret Soran Kieze were engaging on their own but didn’t tie in to the book very much, besides setting up a sequel. Overall, I’d say that leaving things for a sequel is the source of most of the book’s weaknesses, especially a rather anticlimactic ending. But there will be a sequel next year, and I’m hoping the entire trilogy, when taken together, will add up to a solid story.
Recommendation and Rating
Again, this is the best book I’ve seen so far from the new Canon. Where the new Thrawn trilogy brought a classic EU character to modern Star Wars, Alphabet Squadron brings the classic EU spirit of expanding the Star Wars universe beyond simply the films and the film tie-ins. It brings the promise of the best Star Wars, that there are many more fine tales to be told. On top of that, it’s very well written, in ways I can’t really convey without just quoting large tracts of it.
Read this book. Not because it explains something or features your favorite character, but because it’s a compelling story, well told.
10/10 — Superior quality. Shows great artistic merit and exceeds the reviewer’s expectations. Sets a new standard for excellence in its field or genre. Recommended to all with the greatest conviction.