—major Phasma spoilers ahead—
It’s interesting that both of these books have come out in close proximity to each other. Each exists to promote a different item – Phasma is a Journey to the Last Jedi book, while Battlefront II: Inferno Squad tells you exactly what it is about. Both give an Imperial viewpoint, but they do so in very different ways.
Inferno Squad puts us in the position of four highly skilled Imperials – fighter pilots, military mechanic, and intelligence officer – and shows us how they view the world. Phasma is a biographical tale of its enigmatic lead, but is wrapped up in a far more interesting story of conflict with a First Order true believer. Of the two books I found Phasma the easier read. Both books sketch a very unpleasant picture, but only Inferno Squad attempts to give the reader an inside perspective of the Empire. The equivalent picture for the First Order and Phasma’s view of it is never covered in Phasma, instead it’s a story of how others perceive her.
It comes down to brutal honesty versus salesmanship. Inferno Squad seems to want to sell the reader on the worth of Imperial ideals. Phasma does not care about that, she does not care about you. You don’t like how she does things? Phasma says fuck you. She’s too harsh? Phasma says fuck you. Can’t she look out for anyone other than number one? Phasma says fuck you. The reader still gets a very clear picture of who and what Phasma is all about, but there is a lack of justification offered. There is character in Phasma who is all about justified belief and that’s Cardinal, the red stormtrooper who wants to know her origin.
Inferno Squad gives the most extreme, hardcore Imperial viewpoint there has ever been. There have been Imperial characters before – Legends’ Jahan Cross in Agent of the Empire, Baron Fel in X-Wing, more recently Rae Sloane in A New Dawn / Aftermath, however, in all three cases, it was either very clear they did not care for superweaponry as represented by the Death Star or they were ambiguous in their support of it. Inferno Squad dispenses with this and gives us Iden Versio, who we first encounter defending the Death Star at the Battle of Yavin while she still exults in the destruction of Alderaan by it. Just to hammer the point home further, if this first impression was not sufficient, the squad later drinks a bottle of Alderaanian wine as a celebration.
Inferno Squad’s premise is the Empire versus disavowed extremist rebels, evil versus evil. The problem is it sets the marker for the Empire too far from the start. Whatever Saw Gerrera’s remnant partisans do, they are not going to match the use of a Death Star nor revel in the use of it – which Iden does. At the same time the book wants the reader to believe Iden has a moral compass, a moral code, but if this is in place at all, it is as a very smashed and dysfunctional one. Iden only tends to invoke morality when it suits her. She refuses to refer to those she fights as warriors while liking the greater latitude of action a state of war permits. The Death Star was not lost, it was destroyed by an act of terrorism, thus she allows herself a fiction of never being defeated.
There is an entire PhD thesis yet to be written on the psychology of the damaged individual that is Iden Versio. She was being fitted to the military life by her admiral father from childhood, so there is a large question mark over whether Iden truly chose her life. She would certainly lays claim to having done so, but Admiral Versio is a very manipulative individual who would do all manner of damage to a person, daughter or no, and then just file it under ‘for the Empire’. In this respect Iden has much in common with Cardinal. Both were taken for the military life when young, both responded well to it, both are evangelical about the benefits of their organization for everyone else, regardless of what everyone else might think. Cardinal does not seek the reader’s understanding in the way Iden tends to though.
The picture of the First Order painted in Phasma is a very bleak and cold one. Cardinal puts as positive spin on it, that his existence is defined by training the young cadets before they get transferred to Phasma for the next stage of their training. Only later does he start to consider what he is training them for. For some the military life is what they have been looking for, it directs and gives their life a sense of purpose. I doubt, however, most real life military organizations go to the extremes of the First Order, who detail the correct way to shave and clean teeth! Phasma is the story of what happens when Phasma comes into conflict with someone who is absolutely what she is not, a believer in the First Order. Unlike Cardinal, the reader is not at all surprised that Armitage Hux is every bit the equal of his piece of shit father Brendol Hux, including amorality.
It is this revelation, combined with the fact that Hux and Phasma teamed up to murder Hux’s father, which utterly destroys Cardinal’s faith in the First Order. His fate at the end of the story is ambiguous, but he is a character for whom I would like to see what happens next. His only real option is to join the Resistance but does he have it in him to be able to do that? If he does, will he end becoming an evangelist for them as he once was for the First Order? Could he do that without all the manipulation his former masters used? It is all left wide open.
I found Inferno Squad a hard read because I found the leads so repellent. It can be argued that that is as it should be, that a book that shows the Imperial perspective should repel the reader. There is an aspect of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’, that under different circumstances we could end up becoming Iden or Cardinal, though I find the latter the more effective example. Only Phasma really chooses to be who she is and would do so only any circumstances.
In this respect, both books are very good for provoking discussion, with Inferno Squad being the better. Sure, Phasma has Cardinal’s viewpoint, but Inferno Squad supplies four distinct Imperial outlooks. You might not like what you find, but there is far more to engage with compared to the disinterest exhibited from Phasma.
What is also of note is how the picture of the Empire and First Order sketched in these books holds a cracked mirror up to the world today. Both desire their soldiers to only be rational in the direction they set, beyond that they favor a more emotional outlook in them. Why is this? Because if their minds start wandering, they might start to notice things, they might start to see through the illusions that surround them. Both Trump and Brexit are premised on primarily emotional grounds, neither wants the facts; if it was to their benefit, proponents of either would probably try to claim the world is flat. It is all about emotional ideology.