War Did Not Make Them Great: Conflict’s Toll on the Characters of Shadow Fall

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

Anyone who’s read an Alexander Freed Star Wars novel has some idea of how Shadow Fall is going to go. We expect a gritty, realistic look at war with some hefty emotional pain for the characters (and the readers!). Underscoring that expectation, Del Rey promoted this second book in the Alphabet Squadron trilogy with the phrase “victory has a price”. It certainly does.

War changes people. Though the Empire falls relatively quickly in comparison to the Expanded Universe’s version of the story, we know from stories like Shattered Empire, Battlefront II, and the Aftermath trilogy that a lot of traumatic things can happen in the year of warfare after Return of the Jedi.

Shadow Fall continues the action from the first book in the trilogy, beginning in medias res with a campaign to take a single Deep Core star system from the remnants of the Empire in order to bait Alphabet Squadron’s nemesis, Shadow Wing. The bulk of the action takes place on the urban world of Troithe, something like Coruscant’s forgotten sibling. The conflict is narrow and intense, and allows us to focus on our core cast of characters who were introduced in the past novel: the members of Alphabet Squadron, and their antagonists in Shadow Wing.

The fighting in this book isn’t pretty. What our characters go through – and have to do in order to win – is not pretty. Victory has a price, and this applies to the heroes as much as the villains. If they want to win, they’ll have to do things that they’d scarcely imagined doing in the earlier days of the war. Don’t expect a fun pilot romp interspersed with tragedy the way an Aaron Allston X-Wing novel might make us laugh and cry. There is precious little laughter in this book – which isn’t to say that it’s all darkness and tragedy. But it is definitely intense, and our characters go through hell – and it’s partly a hell of their own making.

That’s the real strength of this book. It’s not just a deromanticized version of Star Wars action and a look at the cost of war. It’s a story about how the traumas of war – both external/military and internal/personal – change people, and what they do when confronted with those traumas. Shadow Fall isn’t an easy read – I had to take my time with it – but it’s worth the investment of time and emotional/mental energy.

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

Setting the Scene

Shadow Fall takes place during the New Republic campaign to capture the Cerberon system, a set of planets orbiting a black hole in the Deep Core. It is a striking setting for the story, and the city-world of Troithe in particular has enough personality to practically be a character itself. It’s an old world that used to rival Coruscant, but time and the galaxy have moved on.

The old X-Wing series also featured a Coruscant-like planet.

Early on, we see our characters battling through the spires, households, and cultural centers of Troithe where lasers and explosives casually demolish centuries of history and untold stories. We get glimpses of it from time to time as characters muse on what they know about Troithe: old grandiose towers from the heyday when the Republic’s aristocracy were resident replaced with Imperialized military facilities. It’s no glittering jewel like Coruscant, but Troithe’s story is important to the people that live there. Unfortunately, they’re just in the background – bystanders and collateral damage to Alphabet Squadron’s plan – or more specifically, Yrica Quell’s plan, approved by General Hera Syndulla. Like Rogue One’s Jedha, Troithe is a setting that has many stories behind it but we mostly get to see it torn apart by war. Troithe is another pawn in the chessboard of galactic war, much like the lives of the civilians and soldiers that inhabit the story.

The Empire Strikes Back Lashes Out

Yrica Quell’s old mentor in Imperial service, quondam Major Soran Keize, is a “new” protagonist for Shadow Fall. We already met him in the first book in the series, but we didn’t really get to know him until now. But the Soran Keize we get to know isn’t the character we met in the last book, nor even the mentor that Quell remembers. He’s someone else.

The Imperial perspective in this book is very interesting. Early on, the members of Shadow Wing argue over what their objectives should be: do they rescue Coruscant? Try to reestablish the Empire? Strike out for power on their own? Seek revenge? They lack purpose. Keize, the man who abandoned them, lacks credibility but he’s driven by guilt over abandoning his people once and is sworn not to do so again. He wants to save them from themselves. But he can’t do that until they trust him, and they don’t trust him until he gives them purpose.

What does that look like? Well, it looks a lot like revenge. Shadow Wing ends up on Troithe and instead of being the planet’s saviors, Keize gleefully uses it as part of his own scheme to get revenge on Alphabet Squadron and specifically, to destroy Hera Syndulla, who caused his comrades such pain in the last book. He may have wanted something else for them – but this bargain was the price to be paid in order to win his wing over to his side, and he’s convinced that’s what it’ll take to save them. A different Soran Keize may have told Yrica Quell to abandon the dying Empire before its atrocities destroyed her, but this Keize will do what it takes.

Along the way, Keize encounters the person who might be my favorite character in the book – acting Governor Fara Yadeez. She’s a minor civil servant elevated to a position of leadership by the demise of so many of Troithe’s Imperial-aligned government officials. She’s a local daughter, proud of her planet and trying to maintain a sense of dignity even while desperately hoping Shadow Wing will be her planet’s salvation. She has a sense of duty to her people and even to the larger Empire that Keize completely lacks. Keize at first wants to manipulate her but she’s on to his game, and willing to help him: for what she thinks is the greater good. Keize respects her – especially when he learns that Yadeez is far from a fancy aristocrat born to office: she worked her way up through grit and merit. I think it’s nice to find a relatively well-meaning civil servant in Star Wars, even on the Imperial side. She’s probably no hero, but she’s enough to make Keize realize how far he’s fallen.

Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Lest I conclude my Alphabet Squadron piece without actually talking about a single member of Alphabet Squadron, let’s talk about our protagonists. I almost called them the heroes and then reversed course: because if we learn one thing, it’s that uncomplicated heroes are preciously hard to come by in this meatgrinder of a war.

We knew from the ending of the last book that Yrica Quell embroidered the story of her defection to the New Republic. She’s no saint – in fact, she only defected at the prodding of her Imperial mentor because there was no telling how far she’d continue to fall if she continued serving the Empire. This lie comes back to haunt her in a big way in this book – and she’s completely unable to defend herself. How can she? She’s a war criminal, and that revelation shatters the hard-won unity of Alphabet Squadron that took a whole novel to establish.

Quell has to wrestle with her guilt and trauma in a very visceral, disturbing way in this book. I almost don’t even want to write about it, because these were among the toughest scenes in the book to read. I’m still processing what happened to her but suffice it to say that her internal trauma and PTSD became reflected in the external setting of the story in one of the darkest versions of the pathetic fallacy I’ve ever seen. The degradation and decay of the Cerberon system itself, with the all-consuming black hole in the center, reflects Quell’s own moral and emotional collapse in a stark way. She punishes herself for her sins and backslides and makes mistakes – Alphabet Squadron showed us how Quell is unique among Imperial defectors in facing actual consequences for her actions, and this continues through to this book. I’m not even sure that she’s an “admirable” protagonist (though she’s definitely compelling) – and that is one of the bravest, most interesting things I’ve seen done in Star Wars in a long time.

The rest of Alphabet Squadron doesn’t take too well to the revelation about who Quell really is. The person hit hardest after Quell herself is Chass – who takes refuge in her rage against the Empire and her desire to be a true hero like Jyn Erso. She backslides at times too, and gets caught up in her own family past with interesting consequences for her. In the end, we’re not certain if she changes or learns lessons – but she might have, and that becomes reified by the fate of her precious music collection (and it truly is precious! Some of it belongs in a museum).

Wyl and Nath get paired up in this story, and it’s interesting to see the bond between the most idealistic and most cynical member of the group. Wyl wants to be a hero, and Nath just wants to do well by Wyl. What’s perhaps even more interesting is the “relationship” between Wyl and the Imperial pilot whom he calls Blink, a relationship that may well be imaginary. Characters cope in different ways, and Wyl’s is to imagine something good coming out of this war, and imagining that even Imperials have some good in them.

What a Middle Chapter

We know this is just the middle chapter of the trilogy. There’s still story left to be told. I barely even touched on Kairos in my discussion, but we unveiled just a little bit of her mystery in this book and I suspect we’ll learn more in the final book in the trilogy. But if Shadow Fall is anything to judge by, secrets have their consequences.

This book was a lot – and many of the characters in the book made mistakes or had misunderstandings that disappoint us. Sometimes I just wanted to yell at the characters or tell them to talk to each other. But war is a high-stress environment that eats away at you, and slowly destroys your humanity. Some characters, like Governor Yadeez or Wyl Lark, show glimmers of goodness that remind us that there are things worth fighting for. Others show us the terrible cost of fighting and how we can be led awry. Soran Keize showed us that some goals are selfish, even if we think we’re saving others, because we make choices on who to sacrifice and who to save. And Yrica Quell shows us that our past is not an easy thing to bury or walk away from.