When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012 casual and diehard Star Wars fans alike wondered what the House of Mouse had in mind for their new galaxy far, far away. New films were a no-brainer, and new shows in the same vein as The Clone Wars were also likely.
Other moves were more surprising but no less rad: the Marvel Star Wars comics are consistently great, Galaxy’s Edge has been a rousing success, and the “anthology films”—Rogue One, Solo, you are magnificent but lonely monuments to what might have been, and are sorely missed—opened new windows into life outside the core films.
Other steps have been more controversial with fans, including the unexpected death of the Expanded Universe (EU). When Disney announced they were pulling the plug on the EU, millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror. What about Thrawn, (who wouldn’t remain a “Legend” for very long) or the Solo twins at Luke’s Jedi Academy? What about Mara Jade? What about the awesome Tales From… anthology books?
For the most part the new canon is full of fun action and high quality stories. Since its launch in 2014 these new books have landed somewhere on a scale between “pretty good” and “Vader-at-the-end-of-Rogue One.”
One of the latest, Alphabet Squadron by Alexander Freed, came out in June of this year. It’s an incredible novel, full stop.
The book tells the story of the titular crew of New Republic pilots in their hunt for the notorious Shadow Wing. Each flies a different type of starfighter, hence the unusual squadron nickname, and each carries an unseen burden. The story gets much more interesting from there, and it’s easy to find online. The story, tremendous though it is, isn’t the purpose of this article. I want to tell you why Alphabet Squadron is both a great book and an important book for Star Wars—the franchise and the fans.
Military Science Fiction At Its Best
The EU had a long, proud history of technical sci-fi. Karen Traviss’ awesome Republic Commando series and the legendary X-wing books by Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston are packed with military jargon, tactics, and gritty details that endeared them to a generation of Star Wars fans. Alphabet Squadron carries on that great tradition.
Freed reveals the inner life of a working New Republic fighter squadron: the daily grind of ship maintenance and droid repair, the camaraderie forged in the companionship of battle, and the shattering, momentary excitement and terror of interstellar dogfighting.
He doesn’t skimp on the details of those combat encounters, either. The Star Wars films lay a thick layer of movie magic sheen on the X-wing and its less famous cousins, but Freed’s sweaty descriptions of flying a T-65 (and trying to stay alive while doing so) convey the hard work and intuition that separate aces like young Wyl Lark and the neurotic Yrica Quell from cannon fodder.
Not Your Average Nerfherders
None of these practical minutiae would matter without characters that matter. Freed fills Alphabet Squadron with fascinating characters and tons of details. Wyl and Yrica are joined by Kairos (a deadly, masked mystery of a woman), Nath Tansent (a manipulative, wannabe Han Solo), and Chass na Chadic (a volatile and proud B-wing pilot).
Supporting characters like the faintly menacing torture/therapy droid IT-0 and a major turn from General Hera Syndulla herself round out the cast of characters.
Each member of Alphabet Squadron packs a spotty past, and all are distinctly unlikeable at various points in the story. These flawed pilots don’t mirror the black-and-white heroics of the core films; their failings fall much closer to the damaged, morally diverse characters of Rogue One.
This is one of the book’s greatest strengths, and Freed does a great job of conveying their inner conflicts—and the larger complications facing the Rebel Alliance as it transforms into the shiny, toe-the-line New Republic—without spiraling into a quagmire of despair.
Speaking of Rogue One, Freed lays down lots of connective issue between the various spheres of Star Wars activity (the episodic films, the anthology films, The Clone Wars, Rebels) and Alphabet Squadron. Whether it’s unexpected stories of Jyn Erso or a mystical experience at a Jedi temple turned Rebel supply cache, the hints and fleeting mentions fly thick and heavy. Well-versed readers will need to keep their heads on a swivel to catch all the references.
Alphabet Squadron: Invigorating and Vital
Alphabet Squadron comes out at a crossroads for the entire franchise. Star Wars fans are experiencing some growing pains—well, more specifically, Star Wars fans are going through an identity crisis. Every day there seems to be a new story about the backlash to the The Last Jedi, the growing belief that the new films “aren’t our Star Wars”, or the conspiracy theory that Disney is purposely ruining the franchise.
Who is Star Wars for? Some fans would say that including people who range across the spectrums of race, sexuality, and gender is needless pandering, a bone thrown to a politically correct culture of SJWs and “the libs.” Alexander Freed answers that question with an emphatic, “Everybody,” and the book is much stronger for it.
Emily Todd VanDerWerff dissects this beautifully in a 2017 article she wrote for Vox titled, “The ‘backlash’ against Star Wars: The Last Jedi, explained”. In writing about the divisiveness of TLJ she approaches a concept embodied in Alphabet Squadron, too (emphasis added is mine):
Whether you love Rey or Luke best, whether you think Jar Jar Binks is hilarious or not, whether you think Han shot first or not — Star Wars is for you, and for everybody who disagrees with you too.
But having that big of a tent (and Star Wars just might be our last big-tent American pop culture thing) means you inevitably have to rub elbows with people who’ve entered the tent thinking something very different from what you think…
The people we were aren’t always the people we become, and that’s both a necessary lesson and a bitter disappointment, but you can’t become yourself without learning to live alongside that discomfort.
That is a near-perfect description of the imperfect cast of Alphabet Squadron, and they have as much right to pursue their dreams in that galaxy far, far away as any other character—or any of us. Freed fleshes out his characters to reflect the diversity of real life and does it with enough skill for it to come off organically. The approach is realistic and refreshing. Star Wars needs that energy as we enter the final countdown for Episode IX.
I can’t stop talking about Alphabet Squadron. I’m recommending it to everybody of nerdish bent in my life and gush about it constantly in our writers’ Slack channel. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this truly excellent novel ASAP!