"You know your squadron will fight, but will they fight for you?...Do they know you'll fight for them?"
While the opinions exhibited in this review are primarily those of the writer, input was provided by the entirety of the Youtini staff.
Mild spoilers for Alphabet Squadron below.
An elite squadron of TIE Fighter pilots have begun to fortify the planet of Pandem Nai in an effort to rejuvenate the fallen Empire. The only hope for the burgeoning New Republic is a squadron of pilots who have already lost everything they hold dear.
They are strangers.
They are survivors.
They are Alphabet Squadron.
From the mind of Battlefront: Twilight Company’s Alexander Freed, Alphabet Squadron (the first book in a planned trilogy) brings us into the lives of the newly minted titular squad of ace fighter pilots led by recent Imperial defector, Yrica Quell. Under the watchful eye and tutelage of both New Republic Intelligence Agent Caern Adan and the illustrious General Hera Syndulla, Quell’s team attempts to coalesce in pursuit of a singular, crucial objective: the eradication of the 204th Imperial Fighter Wing more commonly known as Shadow Wing.
Driven by its magnificent cast of characters, Alphabet Squadron is an exemplary addition to the Star Wars Canon. Freed’s dedication to the creation of his characters shines brightest throughout the novel, and while some may find themselves wanting a few more details in the overall plot, every reader won’t be able to help the burning desire to know what happens to each member of Alphabet as you turn the next page.
Writing out the individual story beats of Alphabet Squadron is akin to serving up all of my favorite genre tropes on a silver platter. We get a villain turned hero trying to prove herself. We get a squad that doesn’t know each other trying to get along. We get the team bonding through defeat and hardship. We get the unbeatable enemy defending the impregnable fortress with the odds stacked against us.
Ultimately, it’s meat and potatoes Star Wars.
Admittedly, Freed spends the vast majority of his time developing the relationships between the characters, and while I find this to be a magnificent strength of the novel, it does necessitate a slightly less involved plot than some other writers like Timothy Zahn or James Luceno may favor. However, this tip of the scales in no way creates crucial plot holes or unresolved story lines; the audience is simply presented with a different focus.
From the start of the novel, the basic mission of the (as yet unnamed) squadron is laid out: Shadow Wing must be stopped. The 204th has been a key part of a number of planetary destructions that have been the product of Operation Cinder, first introduced in Battlefront II, and the New Republic military finds itself stretched too thin to focus on such a specific attack.
Enter the previously mentioned Caern Adan and Yrica Quell. Quell is recruited based on her past activity in Shadow Wing, and after a number of opportunities and disasters, she finds herself in charge of four additional pilots and their ships.
Wyl Lark flies an A-Wing.
Nath Tensent flies a Y-Wing.
Chass na Chadic flies a B-Wing.
The mysterious Kairos flies a U-Wing.
Add in Yrica’s X-Wing, and while their chosen moniker may seem obvious at first glance, the way it’s acquired will make you swell with just as much pride as their commander.
The rest of the novel takes us along with the team as they discover their strengths, their weaknesses, their fears, and ultimately, what it will take to bring them together to become the squadron that will take down Shadow Wing. Interspersed with the story of Alphabet Squadron are the occasional glances at the Imperial side of things through the eyes of Colonel Shakara Nuress as well as another storyline featuring the mysterious Devon, and that’s all I’ll say about that.
Putting together a cohesive, interesting plot while creating an entirely new cast of memorable characters can be an intense challenge for an author in any genre, but Freed succeeds in creating scenes of action that get my blood pumping as well as scenes around the fire that simply make me wish I was there.
Amongst his characters. Where this book truly shines.
Whenever we think of our favorite fighter squadrons in the history of Star Wars, it’s pretty easy to isolate our favorite pilots from the rest of the crowd. We may love Red Squadron, but we have a soft spot for Wedge. General Merrick’s magnificent moustache left the rest of Blue Squadron in the dust. And while I love me some Snap Wexley, there’s only one Poe Dameron when it comes to Black Squadron.
So naturally, when I started Alphabet Squadron, I assumed that I would have a character or two that left the rest in the dust. And while I definitely had one character that slightly rose above the others, I fell in love with every single member of Freed’s team, and I couldn’t help but feel like I was getting to know a group of truly dear friends as I made my way through the book. The character development within Alphabet Squadron is amongst the best of the Canon with each character bringing a unique skill set, point of view, and life experience to the table.
As stated above, Freed really takes his time to let us get inside the minds of every one of our main pilots, and the results are breathtaking. From the very first page, I intrinsically empathized with Yrica Quell’s desire to lead effectively while desperately wishing to avoid the slaughter of her former family. Every time that Wyl Lark spoke words of comfort to his ship, I felt myself being calmed by his soothing reasurrence. Whenever Nath Tensent threw in a perfectly timed quip, I smirked at his wit along with his compatriots. The horrors of Chass na Chadic’s past struck me as deeply as the trusted confession of a confidant. And when Kairos (the badass of all badasses who subscribe to badassery, according to Charles) told her story...I sat in stunned silence and reverence.
Every character was afforded the respect and weight that they deserved, and that extends to characters far outside the page count of our protagonists. In the opening chapters, we witness the methodical destruction of Riot and Hound Squadrons, and whether a character had spoken for five pages or twenty, their deaths grabbed me unapologetically and forced me to reckon with the reality of the conflict.
Every person in Alphabet Squadron was losing friends and family; who was I to let them suffer alone?
However, the brilliance of Freed’s character writing also allowed members of the team to continuously ride the line of levity and tragedy. Games, drinks, and stories litter the pages of Alphabet Squadron and even lead to questions of love and relationships without resorting to immediate romantic tropes between team members.
This leads to the revelations that both Wyl Lark and Yrica Quell are members of the LGBTQ+ community, and while their sexualities (gay and bisexual, respectively) were met with beautiful casual acceptance among the crew, this level of inclusion is still unfortunately rare across this medium and is to be commended.
Ultimately, you leave Alphabet Squadron feeling like a member of the squad, itself, and I have rarely been more thankful for guaranteed sequels than I was after reading the last page of this volume. Without spoiling the magnificent ending, there are more adventures to be had with this crew, and I’ll be counting the days until I get to read them.
Alphabet Squadron’s originality comes not necessarily from the beats of its plot (as stated above), but from the additions it makes to Star Wars Canon and new takes on the familiarities of the genre. Fans of the beloved Legends X-Wing series will undoubtedly notice thematic similarities between the two stories, but subtle yet crucial alterations make all the difference in this book.
Throwing a mute, vengeful character like Kairos into the mix adds an element of mystery and suspense that keeps you on your toes.
Intel missions to distant planets may not be a revolutionary idea, but a planet that recreates the ghost of past battles in the eyes of its visitors assuredly puts a new spin on that kind of story.
And then there’s the entire sandbox of Canon that Freed can play within nowadays. We witness the direct consequences of Operation Cinder, witness the early foundations of the New Republic government, and of course, get to ride once more alongside Hera freakin’ Syndulla! As someone who clearly has reverence and respect for the stories that came before, Freed excels in honoring the past while creating a vibrant present.
Within a book about starship pilots and espionage, there can be a subtle temptation to overcomplicate the written mechanics of the story. Empathy and drive can be replaced by technical readouts and complex schematics, and at the end of the day, a story of emotion can be mistaken for a manual. Thankfully, Freed avoids this deftly by expertly weaving in just enough specifics about the tech side of things along with the character moments that dominate the book.
Unfortunately, the continuous focus on those character relationships does give way to a slight pacing issue for some of our staff members. Once the first hundred or so pages are conquered, the core drive of Alphabet Squadron is discovered, and the rest of the ride is relatively smooth, but if you find yourself struggling to latch on completely to the momentum of the story before that, you are not alone.
Nonetheless, Freed’s desire to take his time with the evolution of his characters has tremendous payoff, and he employs a number of fascinating writing tricks as he does so. My particular favorite was found within his narration. Alphabet Squadron is loosely separated into sections based on each main character (similar to the A Song of Ice and Fire novels), and depending on how close each character is with their peers, they may use their first or last names within their own minds.
To Yrica Quell, Chass na Chadic is simply Chadic.
To Wyl Lark, she could never be anything but Chass.
These hints and descriptors are littered throughout the book to guide us down a subconscious path that we may never have known existed, but it’s skills and tricks like that which elevate Freed’s writing to an entirely new level.
At its core, Alphabet Squadron is positively thrilling.
This book is quite simply as cinematic as it is intimate. Pairing the ravenous excitement of the Battle of Scariff with the quiet contemplation of the crew’s campfire in Solo, Alphabet Squadron reads like a fully formed Star Wars film.
Particularly in the later chapters, you simply can’t wait to see what happens next to the characters with whom you’ve found yourself falling in love. From the very beginning, the tremendous height of the stakes are established, and every page turn could bring a wondrous revelation or a devastating loss.
And still you keep reading.
At its core, Alphabet Squadron is positively thrilling. The final mission of the book contains an energy so kinetic that you deserve a special commendation if you can put it down once you’ve started, and the wait until the second book will honestly feel akin to a wait between the films.
And that is perhaps the highest praise we could possibly offer.
For the first time in my career, I had the opportunity to listen to the audiobook of a Star Wars directly after finishing the print copy, and after doing so...I imagine this will be my default experience going forward.
Saskia Maarleveld (Leia: Princess of Alderaan, Dooku: Jedi Lost) provided the narration for Alphabet Squadron, and as someone who is admittedly not the biggest fan of audiobooks, I felt as though Saskia transported me directly into the cockpit of every ship in the story. I noted above how thrilling and entertaining the missions of Alphabet Squadron can be when you read them...now imagine them with the roar of the X-Wing’s engines rumbling in your ears.
If you’ve listened to any other Star Wars audiobooks in the past, then you know the level of audio production and design that goes into them, and Alphabet is no different. Music swells as the drama rises, engines roar to life and blasters fire in time with the narrative prose, and if you close your eyes, you can find yourself sitting in your favorite movie theatre surrounded by the action of Star Wars.
While it would be conceivably simple for a single actor’s voice to be lost within the complexity of such wonderful production, Maarleveld is more than capable of bringing an incredible performance to every single character in Alphabet. Her narration provides a smooth air of confidence and strength that mixes seamlessly with vulnerability and unease to create a wonderfully three-dimensional audio experience.
I was never unsure of which character was speaking despite the relatively huge cast contained within the book, and Maarleveld’s performance added even more weight and impact to some of the story’s most important moments.
For someone like me who has occasional trouble drifting in and out of the audio medium, having the initial foundation of the printed word helped me focus even more of the entirety of the audiobook, and even if you’ve already completed Freed’s printed words, I can’t recommend a return journey through the words of Maarleveld any higher.
When Del Rey first announced that their new title, Alphabet Squadron, was going to be the first book in a trilogy featuring all new characters, I have to admit that I was dosed with a healthy amount of skepticism. Banking on a single novel to create the momentum needed for an audience to read two additional books is no small task, and as I closed the cover of this first volume, I was elated to realize that my worries had vanished hundreds of pages earlier.
Alphabet Squadron is a wondrously constructed, character focused adventure that marries high flying thrills with respect and reverence for its subjects, and I can’t wait until we see the next title announcement soaring across our feeds.
Until then, remember...victory has a price.