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Yrica Quell’s Defector Shields: How Alphabet Squadron Plays With Expectations

The introduction of this piece is spoiler-free. If you don’t want details of Alphabet Squadron a warning will let you know when to stop.

We think we’ve seen this story before. But we haven’t.

There are certain types of stories in Star Wars that seem to recur again and again. Stories of Imperial defectors joining the Rebellion / New Republic tend to be among the most common of them. Even since the continuity reboot of 2014, we’ve seen stories of defectors more than once. Zare Leonis, Thane Kyrell, Sinjir Rath Velus, Alexandr Kallus, and Iden Versio were all Imperial defectors. It’s a type of story we know well: a character believes in the Empire and its mission, comes to a realization or crisis of conscience (often during an atrocity), and joins the good guys with their past seemingly forgotten and behind them. The stories play out a bit differently each time and the specific details vary – but the broad strokes are the same.

Those small differences do matter. In a galaxy-wide Empire, we would figure (or hope) that it’s a common thing for people in the Emperor’s service to recognize the error of their ways and defect. The details affect how the story is told, and even why it’s told. Famously, Battlefront II’s promotional materials led us to believe that Iden Versio and her Inferno Squad were helping to establish the die-hard First Order. When the predecessor novel Inferno Squad underscored the idea that Iden and her group were Imperial loyalists, we were surprised that Battlefront II would end up being a story about defection from the Empire. Rather than being “gotcha” subversion for the sake of a twist, it invited the reader to look again at the novel and look at the seeds that had been planted; it turned out that the story was less about defection and more about the whys and the hows and the what-nexts of defection.

Alexander Freed’s Alphabet Squadron examines all of this – the ideas and expectations we have for Imperial defectors and the idea of subversion of expectations less for its own sake and more for telling a more interesting story. Beyond that, Freed does what Freed does best – he grounds the story in reality and causes painful realizations through the characters’ emotional journeys. Sure, defection is common – but what does that mean in a post-Endor, post-Operation Cinder galaxy where the Empire really has outstayed its welcome? And just how trusted would an Imperial defector be by those who the Empire has harmed not just once, but many times? Is there such a thing as too little, too late?

Former Imperial pilot Yrica Quell is our window into all of this – we see things from her perspective, and from outside her perspective. She’s the leader of a fighter group, but she’s not the unifying squad leader that we’re used to in pilot stories. She holds herself apart – both because of her past and because of her actions, and that what makes her interesting. Alphabet Squadron is a story about many things – but I want to dig most deeply into Yrica Quell and the topic of Imperial defectors.

Article will contain spoilers after this point! If you have not yet finished the novel and do not wish to be spoiled, come back to the rest of the article later!

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Twenty Years in the Making, Padmé Gets Her Due

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The intro, first section, and conclusion are spoiler-free. The second section will discuss spoilers and will have a separate spoiler warning. 

We have been waiting a very, very long time to get a Padmé book. She’s been in plenty of books, comics, and TV shows — including a plethora of Phantom Menace-era books that a whole generation of fangirls has seemingly grown up on. But she’s never gotten the central billing in a book before. In situations like this, we usually end up with a typical “too little, too late” entry. Well, it’s definitely late — but the twentieth anniversary of The Phantom Menace‘s theatrical release isn’t a half-bad time to celebrate Padmé, given that the people who grew up with her never forgot about her. As for too little? Oh no — Queen’s Shadow is far from too little. In fact, it might be the perfect book for Padmé to finally get her due. 

There are a lot of parts of this book that read like a love letter to Padmé fandom, handmaiden fandom, and the women who grew up as part of both. I’m not the best person to speak to that aspect of the book, although I can definitely see parts of it. There’s probably more there that I haven’t even noticed: things like how Padmé interacts with her friends and handmaidens (for they are both), things about female comradeship and navigating situations that I just couldn’t know anything about. You’ll hear plenty about that from people who are better equipped to discuss it than I am — in fact, check back here tomorrow for a piece on the handmaidens and what they mean to their fans. But what I can tell you is that anyone who is a fan of Padmé as a character, a fan of her faith in political idealism and willingness to get her hands dirty despite of it, and heck, even just a fan of Naboo, will love what E.K. Johnston did for Padmé in this book. 

A lot of times it felt like the films after The Phantom Menace weren’t quite sure what to do with Padmé. She had a lot of potential that was sidelined in the other two films. But despite that, she was still a key part of the prequel trilogy and she had great development in Clone Wars-era books, comics, and TV despite rarely getting to headline stories. Queen’s Shadow recognizes both these things: the unrealized potential and the potency of the character, and does them justice. It’s set like a bridge novel between Episodes I and II, giving her the post-TPM development that Anakin and Obi-Wan received almost twenty years ago. But Queen’s Shadow isn’t just “Padmé’s turn” — it’s a genuinely incisive look at her character. Despite taking place between I and II, the novel also engages with ideas the audience knows will come up in The Clone Wars and in Episode III. E.K. Johnston just gave us a well-rounded portrayal that does everything it should have, and exceeded my already high expectations. 

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Thrawn and the Clone Wars – Making Old Feel New Again

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Often, I feel like reactions to more Thrawn content roughly parallel the reactions to more Clone Wars or prequel-era content. Those who are big fans say ”yes, more of what I like please!” while those who are not either express dismay, boredom, or the exact opposite sentiment of the fans: “ugh, more of what I don’t like.”

At first blush, it’s easy to see Thrawn: Alliances as an attempt to capture a bigger audience than just fans of Thrawn or fans of The Clone Wars. I think that’s a little too simple though – for one thing, there are people who are fans of both and see the whole thing as a false dichotomy. For another, cynicism doesn’t write books (at least not good ones) – interest in telling a story does. And if there was thought put into what the fans wanted, it was probably with the intent of delivering a story people would like as opposed to thinking of ways to make people open their wallets.  

So why did I bring up a false fandom dichotomy and a cynical sales theory in the first place? Well, I think there’s something there – but it’s not about fanservice or personal storytelling preferences. It’s about the idea of “more of the same” and how the combination of more Thrawn and more Clone Wars produced something new. This story is strongest when the Clone Wars setting and the character of Thrawn are put together – with the result that we also get a pretty good portrayal of Padmé Amidala and Anakin Skywalker in a storyline that wouldn’t feel out of place as a mini-arc in The Clone Wars. Maybe you bought the book for Anakin or for Thrawn, but you may end up enjoying how the rest of the book sheds insight on those characters. Personally, I went in excited about both Imperial intrigues and Padmé — but I ended up appreciating how it all came together. 

I avoid major plot spoilers below — but the Padmé section (“The Senator of Naboo”) has plot details you may not want to read until you’ve finished the novel.

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Solo Shoots in a New Direction

This image is called 'sologroup' and that makes me laugh

Like many people, I kept my expectations low going into Solo. I thought it was a movie that I wasn’t sure needed to exist, but the trailers looked pretty cool and I hoped to get a good Star Wars movie out of it. So when people asked me what I thought of the movie after watching it, I was surprised to realize that I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It wasn’t like The Last Jedi, which needed a few viewings to process what was happening. Solo was pretty straightforward – I was sure that I liked it, but I wasn’t sure how much. I told a few people that I thought it was “just fine” but even as the words came out of my mouth, I thought that I was damning the movie by faint praise and that just didn’t seem right. The movie was different from the previous episodic films and even from Rogue One, but it wasn’t a bad movie. I liked it.

After a while, I realized that Solo felt a little different to me than other Star Wars movies. I would almost say less cinematic, except Solo is clearly a movie made by moviemakers conscious of cinema tradition in general (the movie has echoes of Lucas’s oeuvre, noir, crime dramas, etc.). But despite its cinematic trappings, it felt more like a season of TV or an Expanded Universe novel condensed down into two hours. This isn’t a negative – I like Star Wars TV and I like SW books, both Legends and canon. But something about the story – more than just assorted lore namedrops – reminded me of the type of Star Wars story telling that isn’t “necessary” (you don’t have to read every book) but tells us a little more about the Star Wars universe by providing texture and character. That’s what Solo is, I think – it’s a story that’s available if you want it, but not mandatory if you just don’t have any interest in the subject matter or era.

Spoilers beneath the cut! I’m avoiding major plot points on purpose, but I always advocate being as spoiler free as possible! 

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Last Shot’s Ewok Codebreaker Peekpa and How Your Stereotypes Should Make Like a Tree

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Last Shot is a zany Han and Lando novel, but among all the fun there were moments that covered some pretty weighty issues. The presence alone of an Ewok slicer, Peekpa, makes us question some of the assumptions we’ve had about Star Wars aliens in and out of universe. In another scene (details below the spoiler cut), Older has an alien character discuss how their species is still stereotyped and discriminated against by humans, even though they’re all supposed to be equal. Finally, Lando’s droid, L3-37, is an advocate for droid rights and while I don’t know how much of that will show up in the Solo movie (it’s enough to warrant a mention on L3’s StarWars.com databank page), the relationship between droid and organic sentience is a major theme of the book. These are the sorts of topics that Star Wars really papers over or treats superficially, if at all.   

Before I get into the topic in full, I did want to briefly give Last Shot a straightforward review. I greatly enjoyed it. The book felt like coming back home to the old-school EU with its take on the post-Endor New Republic and the adventures of Lando and Han, or the relationship between Han and Leia (my favorite part of the book aside from the scenes below). There are some great lines and hilarious scenes, especially featuring certain droids near the beginning of the book.  

But as much as I quite enjoyed all of that, I want to focus on aliens and droids—populations in Star Wars that have to live by humanity’s rules, and who might defy human expectations if given a chance. This book does just that—it’s the little things, but Daniel José Older gives us things we have not seen in Star Wars before by treating aliens and droids with respect. They’re involved in jokes, but they are not the butt of jokes. Minor spoilers beneath the cut. 

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