Victory’s Price: Deromanticizing the War Hero

The intro is spoiler-free, but there will be MAJOR SPOILERS after the cut.

When Alphabet Squadron was first announced, we expected it to be like the old X-Wing series from the Expanded Universe. We quickly learned that while Alexander Freed was inspired by those novels, his story would not follow the familiar pilot story arc that we had come to expect. The third and final novel in the trilogy, Victory’s Price, completes the arc of the trilogy and shows that Alexander Freed is not afraid to deromanticize the type of military sci-fi that has been part of the Star Wars DNA since the very beginning.

Though Star Wars is largely space fantasy, World War II-inspired flight sequences and especially the books and comics have drawn on swashbuckling military sci-fi themes too. Pilots are heroic rule-breakers and soldiers are valorous and noble. Even the bad guys are heroic and noble, but they’re just too darn loyal to evil politicians and wizards who misuse their talents. Freed engages with these ideas and does something different, but not just because his story subverts our expectations for the sake of surprise. No, instead, his books – especially Victory’s Price – expose traditional war story ideals to critique, delivering a more nuanced vision of war.

There are still heroes and villains, but war is brutal and traumatic. As the title makes clear: victory in war has a price, and the price is borne not just by those who didn’t make it, but by those who did. Freed isn’t the first Star Wars author to focus on the human element of warfare: the late Aaron Allston (it still hurts to write that) was exceptional at showing how characters cope with the traumas of war and deal with the personal costs of a lifetime of fighting, albeit interlaced with his trademark humor and kind storytelling. But Victory’s Price really eschews the triumphalism of space adventure, or exposes it as hollow. Many of us read the Wilfred Owen poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” in school, contrasting the “noble” language of Horace’s pro-war ode with the empty horror of the first World War – Victory’s Price reminded me strongly of that poem.

As for the Empire? The honorable soldiers, long suffering under a regime unworthy of them, no longer exist. Victory’s Price is an incredibly timely novel about what it means to sell your soul in service to evil, what brings people to do these things, and what society should do about it afterwards. Alexander Freed writes about Imperials with nuance but without getting stuck in the rut of grey moral relativism. This novel doesn’t spoon-feed or preach to the reader, but instead asks them to think and engage with deep questions. There aren’t any easy answers, but the reader who engages with Victory’s Price will find that it shines with moral clarity even underneath the blood and muck of war.

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Better Heroes, or Simpler Problems? – Taking Stock of The High Republic So Far

While this site has a content tag named “Reviews” and articles are regularly added to it, I try not to publish actual book reviews here. There’s value in being able to present our immediate reactions to a new work—often but not always the same week it’s released, when interest is at its peak—and if you’re among the people who might specifically seek out those reactions, well, who am I to disappoint you?

But what I try to do here, rather than just jump at every sudden noise, is to always keep the big picture in mind. There are plenty of fans out there whose judgment is at least as good as ours and will gladly tell you whether a new book is good or not, so if we’re going to build an entire piece around one particular story the ideal is to discuss what it says about the franchise as a whole, or its real-life context, or where it falls in the history of stories like it, or the previous work of that author, or something beyond just “is it good?”

This goes extra for stories by authors who have already proven themselves to more or less know what they’re doing, which is where The High Republic comes in. Before we knew anything else about it, we knew it was being shaped and guided by Charles Soule, Claudia Gray, Justina Ireland, Daniel José Older, and Cavan Scott, and for me at least, that came with a certain degree of trust. So I’m not going to be reviewing any of the High Republic books that were released over the last couple months—Light of the Jedi by Soule, A Test of Courage by Ireland, and Into the Dark by Gray—because for my money those author credits speak for themselves. What I’d like to talk about here is, how well does this first wave of stories set itself apart from existing “Old Republic” content, and how might things develop from here?

To that end I’m going to revisit some of the creators’ own words over the last year and see how things are shaping up not on the books’ own terms (they’re good, if you were still wondering) but on how they stack up to those early promises and mission statements.

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How Lucasfilm Games Can Be a New Era For Everyone

After eight years and five new games, the divisive era of EA Star Wars exclusivity has come to its conclusion. On January 11th, Disney signaled a change, launching the “Lucasfilm Games” brand, and promising “a new and unprecedented era of creativity”. Two days later Ubisoft announced a new open-world Star Wars game was in development, confirming that EA’s grip on Star Wars gaming had ended. The death of EA’s monopoly was long awaited and long called for by fans and prominent gaming personalities. The EA era wasn’t necessarily awful, or even a failure, but it was limited in its offerings. 

With their Star Wars titles, EA chased trends and the lowest common denominator. Their flagship entry was Battlefront, which chased the success of Call of Duty, and attempted to revive the glory of Pandemic Studios’ beloved LucasArts-era shooters of the same name. Instead they became mired in controversy over loot boxes and season passes. Battlefront 2 finally found a true audience years later, only to have support cut off shortly after the release of The Rise of Skywalker. Many fans had called for more story from their Star Wars games, so EA responded with Jedi: Fallen Order, a Dark Souls/Tomb Raider hybrid. Fallen Order received acclaim, and with the following year’s Squadrons, EA responded by attempting to serve another audience: fans who love flying.

Fallen Order and Squadrons were steps in the right direction. Attempting to appeal to more than just the most mainstream shooter fans, EA realized there were other audiences out there. Yet both were bound by the paradigms of mainstream, Triple-A studio gaming. With a new frontier on the horizon and the opening up of the Star Wars license, perhaps there is the potential for more?

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Why We Need to Talk About War Crimes in Star Wars

I want to say up front what this piece is and what it isn’t. I think it’s about time we had a conversation about how war crimes are depicted in Star Wars, and why it’s worth talking about. I don’t plan on making this a listicle of war crimes and I don’t intend to make this piece inaccessible or hyper-technical, either. I think it should be the opposite. Star Wars is, among other things, a fairy tale with a strong moral element: there are heroes and there are villains. It includes political commentary based on real history and real life: most obviously with the fall of the Republic and rise of the Empire. As part of that framework, I think it’s very important how certain acts of war are portrayed in Star Wars – especially when those acts are performed by heroes rather than villains.

I first started thinking about this idea at a convention a few years back, when a Star Wars creative mentioned to another creative that “you know, technically Obi-Wan’s fake surrender in The Clone Wars is a war crime.” I don’t know how that person felt about it, but that comment stuck with me because it would be so easy to read it as an amusing bit of trivia. Oh, that dastardly Obi-Wan, committing war crimes.  When several years later, the final arc of the revived Clone Wars made a call-back to the false surrender by having Anakin pull the same stunt, I actually needed to stop and think about that for a while. At this point, I am sure the people behind Star Wars know that false surrender – also known as perfidy – is a war crime. It’s possible they may not have known the first time (I certainly didn’t, since I hadn’t studied the law of war yet in 2008), but they decided a callback was important enough that it had to happen again. Now, maybe it was on purpose – maybe Anakin and Obi-Wan were meant to be acting in morally-questionable ways during wartime as part of the portrayal of the Jedi and Republic in decline. But I hardly think so, because the show doesn’t communicate at all that there’s anything wrong with what Anakin and Obi-Wan did with their false-surrender gambits.

This bothered me. A lot. Why? Surely Star Wars – as a fictional setting – doesn’t have the same laws as the real world? They may not have the equivalent of the Rome Statute, Geneva Conventions, or the Hague Conventions. Why get wound up over something technical, like sound in space or lasers moving slower than light speed? It’s just fun! But that’s the thing – I don’t think it’s just harmless fun. Not if we see Star Wars as a fairy tale with any sort of moral purpose.

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This is the Way: Anti-War and Anti-Colonial Lessons to Learn from The Mandalorian

Star Wars has always been known for strong anti-imperial themes, and these powerful political messages are particularly apparent in The Mandalorian. In this piece, I’ll explain how Din Djarin’s interactions with the Tusken Raiders, an Indigenous alien race, could provide important lessons to consider regarding the treatment of native communities. Even though Star Wars has tended to depict the Tuskens as being dangerous and monster-like, The Mandalorian shows they are actually a complex, dynamic and even vulnerable species. I’ll go on to explore how the show demonstrates the importance of coalition building, and shows the dangers of imperialism and war as embodied by those who lead the Empire.

Last year, I touched on the mistakes of the Republic as depicted in The Clone Wars – how its indifference to the suffering of ordinary people, and insidious expansion of imperialism, helped to create the Empire. Before that, another piece on colonialism by Abigail Dillon (that every fan should read) discussed why the role of Ezra in Star Wars Rebels was so powerful because he served as one of the first main heroes to firmly position themselves against the dangerous colonial points of views embodied by other characters. Like Ezra, I think Din is a continuation of fan-favorite characters representing a more recent tradition of Star Wars, particularly under the direction of Dave Filoni, that critically engages with themes of colonization at the narrative’s core in ways we haven’t seen before.

The first main interaction with Indigenous communities in The Mandalorian is in the fifth episode of season one, “The Gunslinger”, where Din works with Toro Calican, a young, naïve bounty hunter on Tatooine. In their trek the characters come across the native Tusken Raiders, whom Toro describes as “filth” that were standing in their way. Din, on the other hand, explains that they are Indigenous locals and the two of them are considered trespassers in the view of the Tuskens. Rather than engaging with them in a way that would antagonize the native race of aliens who had resided on the land for thousands of years, Din negotiates their passage using sign language and trades safe passage in return for equipment.

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