6 Thoughts on Star Wars Alphabet Squadron (Review)
Let’s talk some Star Wars! Specifically, let’s talk about the series of novels about Alphabet Squadron, the hip new starfighter squadron that’s roaring into our hopes and dreams. Even more specifically, let’s talk about how Alphabet Squadron is definitely not a replacement for the classic Rogue and Wraith squadron books of my youth.
Book Rating: 5/10 – Alright.
This might be my first ever book review on Henchman-4-Hire. I haven’t read any real novels or books for many years. But I’ve decided to pick it up again during the pandemic. Since Star Wars Expanded Universe novels were one of my favorites as a teen, I decided to scratch that itch once again with Alphabet Squadron, the first of three planned novels set in the new Disney continuity. Could it live up to my fond memories of the original X-Wing novels, a concept this new series was clearly trying to copy?
No, it could not. But I read it anyway and now I’m going to give you my thoughts on the Star Wars novel Alphabet Squadron! Join me after the jump for my review. Expect FULL SPOILERS for Alphabet Squadron.
Premise: In the wake of Return of the Jedi, while the New Republic works to mop up what remains of the Empire, a TIE Fighter squadron called “Shadow Wing” has been causing all sorts of trouble throughout the galaxy. An intelligence officer dedicated to wiping out Shadow Wing brings together a small team — largely through happenstance — wherein each member of the team is a pilot of one of the various letter-named Rebel starfighters.
Yrica Quell, the series lead, is a recent Imperial defector and former member of Shadow Wing. She pilots an X-Wing. Nath Tencent is a scoundrel and part-time pirate who defected to the Rebels years ago and commanded a Y-Wing squadron that recently got wiped out by Shadow Wing. Wyl Lark is a hopeful farm boy. He pilots an A-Wing. Chass na Chadic is a rebellious party girl. She pilots a B-Wing. Kairos is a strong, silent and very mysterious muscle. She pilots a U-Wing.
And that’s Alphabet Squadron. The first novel was released last year, which is the one I read. The second novel in the series, Shadow Fall, came out earlier this summer. I haven’t read it yet. The third novel, Victory’s Price, will come out next year.
6. It’s alright
I can’t in good faith recommend Alphabet Squadron to anyone but the most ardent Star Wars fan or supporter. It’s just not a good book. If anything, I would classify the novel as a straight forward recitation of events. There’s no charm, no real energy, nothing that makes it feel particularly “Star Warsy”. It’s just a simple, low energy telling of a story. The characters are fine, but have a number of problems that I will get to in a bit. The novel doesn’t come close to embracing the very concept of the squadron in any meaningful way. The story and plot are not particularly exciting, let alone creative. The scope is weak. The action scenes are few and far between, and they lack energy. The villains don’t amount to much of anything. I could go on.
Alphabet Squadron is just not an engaging book. There’s no real charm to the writing style. It just exists. And the story is not very creative. The squad comes together fairly matter-of-factly. The story of how Lark and Chass join the team is a good one, I’ll grant the book that. They’re part of a slow moving space chase, acting as guards for a larger capital ship, slowly getting picked apart by the pursuing Shadow Wing, which was also getting slowly picked apart themselves. It was this tense story about how their respective fighter squads were getting whittled down, and how the survivors dealt with that, until finally only Lark and Chass remained and escaped. That was good. But the other team members aren’t nearly as interesting. Kairos already works for Intelligence, Tencent is simply recruited and Quell is just picked up as well. There’s supposed to be some mystery about Quell’s background…but it’s not a very interesting mystery, and the resolution is hardly all that crazy. She simply fudged the truth a bit about her history with Shadow Wing.
After their first mission, which was OK, the book sends them on a team-building errand that didn’t nearly connect as deeply as it should have — and I’ll go into more detail as to why further on down this list. Then the book glosses over and montages their next couple of missions before leading to the grand finale — which isn’t all that interesting. Alphabet Squad assaults an Imperial starbase in the most basic and simple way imaginable. No creativity. No cleverness. No missions that require the various different ships they bring to the table. The book does an OK job describing what it’s like to pilot the various ships — especially the weirdly shaped B-Wing — but the story never comes up with a good reason why the squadron should have the different ships. It’s sheer coincidence that each of the squadron members pilots a different type of ship and everybody just shrugs their shoulders and lets it happen.
To expand on that a little, the existence of Alphabet Squadron leaves a lot to be desired. It all starts with a guy named Adan, who is a grouchy old spy with a desire to take down Shadow Wing — but the New Republic military doesn’t particularly care about Shadow Wing specifically. Adan already has Kairos on his team, then he recruits Quell and Tencent, and then Lark and Chass fall into his lap after their harrowing incident. So the Squadron is some sort of Intelligence-based working group…but they immediately attach themselves to a larger New Republic fleet, complete with its own starfighter squads and missions. I don’t think the book does a good enough job to explain why the squad members aren’t just absorbed into the general military and how Adan is allowed to have this little team. Especially when the larger fleet joins Alphabet Squad on most of their missions.
What makes this team so unique and special other than just an Intelligence officer requesting a couple of pilots for his working group?
In the book itself, Alphabet Squadron sounds like more trouble than its worth. There’s a line that specifically points out that the pilots will have no idea what their squadmates are capable of in their different ships. A squadron of all X-Wing pilots is going to know what their wingmates are capable of. But someone like Quell, who has never flown an X-Wing before now, is not going to know what an A-Wing or a B-Wing or a Y-Wing is capable of, even though they’re supposed to have her back. Seems reckless.
The villains aren’t particularly interesting either. For one thing, we never get to know the individual members of Shadow Wing. The only Imperial villain we get to know is the team leader, Shakara Nuress, and she’s in charge of a lot more than just Shadow Wing. She’s rather removed from the direct actions of Alphabet Squadron. In fact, Shadow Wing is huge. There are dozens of TIEs in the whole wing, so it’s not like the small Alphabet Squadron is taking on a small opposing force. As such, we never get to know any individual Imperial pilots. Lark and Chass give nicknames to some of the fighters they go up against in their opening scenes, but they never show up again in any meaningful way. There’s a great scene where Lark, tired of the constant running and death, reaches out on an open radio to try to talk with the TIE pilots. Both groups are “stuck in the mud” of the solar system they’re in, so they have time to just sit and wait each other out. It’s a neat conversation…but we never learn which pilot he was talking to, and the pilot is just an asshole in the end. So that goes nowhere.
As a whole, the book is just this quaint little team of pilots going on a couple of generic missions, all while the New Republic shrugs and lets them do what they want. I feel like a lot more could have been done to enhance why this motley crew exists, what their different ships bring to the table, why their enemy requires such a crew and then throw in some really creative and clever missions that only this crew could pull off.
5. It’s definitely not Rogue Squadron
Sadly, Alphabet Squadron doesn’t come close to capturing the excitement, the humor, the charm and the sheer fun of the original X-Wing novels, based around Rogue and Wraith Squadrons. Those books were full of fascinating and fun characters going on creative and innovative missions. The books were about the camaraderie between the squadmates and their place in the mop up of the Empire and the formation of the New Republic. Alphabet Squadron doesn’t hold a candle to those older books. Not in writing, not in characters, not in action, not in story; there’s just no comparison to make other than basic concept. So don’t go in, like I did, expecting a return to form.
Here’s an example of the creativity I’m talking about, a space mission that has always stuck with me: Wraith Squadron needs to infiltrate some pirates, so they’ve decided to take over a pirate ship to use as cover. In order to seize their ship, they send their Gammorrean pilot, Voort saBinring. Gammorreans are those big, ugly pig guards outside Jabba’s palace.
Voort was experimented on to make him super intelligent, and then Wraith Squadron crams him into the cockpit of an X-Wing. Anyway, on this missions, the team arms the large, burly Voort with one of the turbolasers they pulled off the wing of an X-Wing. They launch him into space for a couple of seconds, his Gammorrean physiology allowing him to survive a few seconds, and he uses the turbo laser to blast his way into the belly of the ship and onto the bridge, since the inside of spaceships isn’t built to handle turbo laser fire. And with that, Wraith Squadron has taken over a pirate vessel…and that’s just one of the early book missions!
Nothing in Alphabet Squadron comes close to the fun and creativity of a good Rogue or Wraith squadron mission.
4. Clearly, the idea came first
The concept of Alphabet Squadron clearly came first, from someone somewhere in the Disney/Star Wars brand empire. The Rebel Alliance has all of these ships named after letters…what if there was a squad comprised of one of each ship? And then we could be cute and call it “Alphabet Squad”. Someone clearly had these exact thoughts. Then it was passed through the production machine until they settled on a writer and a plot and then the rest came together. This wasn’t a story that needed to be told, or a story with any particular importance. It was just a neat idea someone had once and they decided to figure out how to make it work.
Granted, it’s a neat concept.
3. The characters seem specifically designed to resist one another
Some of the best parts of the earlier X-Wing books was the camaraderie between the pilots. They were a team, they were a family; whether it was the classic characters like Wedge Antilles or the ones new for the novel like Gavin Darklighter. There was a real sense of teamwork and team bonding in the squadrons.
There’s a little of that in Alphabet Squadron, but not nearly enough to be enjoyable. And some of the characters are specifically designed to resist team bonding. Quell, the lead character in the series, is very stand-offish. I’ll grant that it totally works for her character, as a former Imperial struggling to get by in the more casual mood of the New Republic. But as a lead character in a book about a squadron of fighter pilots, it’s off-putting. She specifically avoids interacting with her teammates socially, despite numerous chances in the book. And without that central leadership figure, the teammates are left to awkwardly start conversations among themselves, none of which got much depth beyond casual smalltalk. One of the other characters, Kairos, is purposefully designed as the strong and silent type. She barely speaks, never to the group, and is just supposed to be this mystery team member. That immediately and quite effectively cuts her off from any real bonding.
Perhaps I was expecting too much from the novel, and it’s obviously not fair to judge a story based on what I expected/wanted to happen, but being able to like and enjoy the characters is a large part of any story’s success.
2. The best character is not even in the squadron
Hero Syndulla, star of the TV show Rebels, was the most interesting character in Alphabet Squadron. While the cartoon was all about Hera and her team in the early months/years of the Rebellion, this book offered a look at Hera after years of war. In the book, she’s a famous general commanding an entire fleet of ships, and Alphabet Squadron just happens to get attached to her fleet. We get to see Hera as this wise leader, with more than enough spirit and wisdom to go around. She’s just plain interesting, and I wouldn’t mind a deeper exploration of Hera in this time period. She was just a more likable, engaging and active character in Alphabet Squadron than any of the pilots.
To talk characters briefly, I liked Quell the best. Even if she was stand-offish, I liked her struggle to adhere her lifetime of Imperial order to the chaos of the New Republic command structure. Tencent was a dime-a-dozen scoundrel character. Lark was a dime-a-dozen farm boy character. Chass always seemed to be placed at odds against everyone else. And Kairos was more mystery than character. None of them could hold a candle to the awesomeness of Hera Syndulla.
1. I’m still gonna read the rest
Once they are available as mass market paperbacks, I’m probably definitely going to read Shadow Fall and Victory’s Price. As much as I was put off by the first book in the series, I did like some of the characters, and the concept is still fun, and I wouldn’t mind having a quiet little corner of the Star Wars Universe to attach to again. I used to be a pretty big fan of the Expanded Universe. I read a bunch of novels. But I haven’t had anything particularly personal in Star Wars for a good, long while. Having this motley crew and their neat idea to call my own might be nice.
Posted on August 26, 2020, in Books, Lists of Six!, Reviews, Star Wars and tagged A-Win, Alphabet Squadron, B-Wing, Chass na Chadic, Hera Syndulla, Kairos, Nath Tencent, U-Wing, Wyl Lark, X-Wing, Yrica Quell. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.