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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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“This is the beginning” – Hera Syndulla, Alphabet Squadron, and the Road to Jakku

This piece contains minor spoilers for the novel Alphabet Squadron.

For folks who follow me on Twitter or know me from the Jedi Council Forums over at TheForce.Net, one of my obsessions…err…hobbies in the new canon has been trying to make sense of the final year of the war between the Rebel Alliance-turned-New Republic and the faltering remnants of the Galactic Empire. Four years ago this September, I started a discussion on this critical year, the “Endor to Jakku” period. Thanks to the ever-expanding new canon, we are slowly but surely filling in the gaps. We’ve come a long way since Lost Stars and Shattered Empire gave us our first hints at this period. Our first real deep dive was in the Aftermath trilogy, but even that created as many questions as it answered. This week’s release of Alphabet Squadron by Alexander Freed answers many of those questions, by hearkening back to the earlier reference in Shattered Empire of an Imperial counterattack after Endor: Operation Cinder. This galactic atrocity would have far-reaching repercussions, including one that was presumably unintended: the almost overnight growth in power, appeal, and reach of the fledgling government known as the New Republic.

Before jumping into the topic at hand, let’s remember the status quo immediately prior to the Battle of Endor. The Alliance to Restore the Republic was in dire straights. Despite victories at Scarif and Yavin, major losses in the Mid Rim Campaign, at Mako-Ta, and at Hoth had whittled the Alliance down and forced them to flee to the edges of the galaxy. They held no territory—major allied worlds like Chandrila and Mon Cala were under blockade and they were fighting a losing war of attrition against the Empire. The threat of the second Death Star was enough that the Alliance risked everything to take it down. The scattered warships and fighter squadrons were assembled at Sullust, concentrating the entirety (or nearly that) of the Alliance’s fighting strength. We all know the story of the Battle of Endor, so let’s now jump to the day after. The Alliance’s assets are still the same: a roving fleet and a quasi-government-in-exile. Admirals and generals are faced with determining their next military move, while Mon Mothma and her council of former senators are faced with the nearly impossible task of laying the framework for restoring democratic rule to a galaxy oppressed for two decades.

Let that sink in. The Alliance, without solid supply lines, a main base, or actual territory, needed to seemingly overnight start a campaign to liberate the galaxy and start a new Republic. If C-3PO was asked, I’m sure he’d say that the odds of success were almost incalculable. The next subsequent twelve months would be a whirlwind of events. The New Republic, for all it’s heroic ideals and victories, would benefit more from events outside of its control than those it dictated.

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Master & Apprentice: The Tie-In Book The Phantom Menace Always Needed

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This review contains minor spoilers for Claudia Gray’s novel Master & Apprentice

Since the Star Wars “canon” was reset in April 2014, I’ve had a wish list of stories I wanted to see told, all filling gaps in the prequel era. While the first few years following the “reboot” focused mainly on the original trilogy, I held out hope that we would eventually see a novel about Padmé set between Episodes I and II; an origin story for Dooku’s turn to the dark side; and the great missing piece from The Clone Wars, the Siege of Mandalore. Someone must have been listening.

What I wanted more than anything, though, was a novel about my favorite character, Qui-Gon Jinn. And after her incredible short story “Master and Apprentice” in 2017’s From A Certain Point Of View, I knew I wanted Claudia Gray to write it. From the heartbreaking Lost Stars to her work with Leia in Bloodline and Princess of Alderaan, Gray has been one of the shining stars of the new novels. So maybe I was pre-programmed to like this. I can honestly say, though, that Master & Apprentice is everything I wanted it to be, and more: a look inside the mind and beliefs of Qui-Gon Jinn, an unexplored take on his relationship with Obi-Wan, and something of a love letter to fans of The Phantom Menace.

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Queen’s Shadow: The Celebration of Women That Star Wars Deserves

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While there are no major spoilers below, I do discuss the contents of Queen’s Shadow in detail—consider yourself warned.

On May 19, 1999, The Phantom Menace opened in theaters. It was the first new theatrical Star Wars movie in sixteen years and kicked off a new trilogy exploring the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker before he became Darth Vader, a character that had already earned a spot in the pantheon of classic villains. However, rather than opening the movie on Tatooine, where we learn that young Anakin is living as a slave, we instead start on an unknown planet in danger of invasion, ruled by a teenage girl who will do anything to save her people.

And yet, despite a whole movie and a handful of tie-in novels that centered around Queen Amidala, she became increasingly sidelined as the trilogy went on and her character became inextricable from her doomed relationship with Anakin. Her cadre of handmaidens made a brief appearance in Attack of the Clones, but by Revenge of the Sith she was alone and left to watch her world crumble around her without any apparent support. She ends the trilogy by giving birth to the next generation’s heroes and then, at the age of twenty-seven, loses her will to live and dies of a broken heart.

Three years ago I wrote an article advocating for a Padmé novel. For far too long she had only really existed as an extension of Anakin and wasn’t given a chance to shine on her own. As arguably the main character of The Phantom Menace and (inarguably) a key figure in the story of the final days of the Republic, she deserved a better legacy than only being remembered as the object of Anakin’s fears and an indirect reason for his turn to the dark side. More importantly, for a character who started with so strong a story and so interesting a backstory, it was a shame that her movie potential was wasted with bad writing. So to finally have her given a voice after getting the short end of the stick for so long is incredibly meaningful in a way that’s difficult to put into words.

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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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