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Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron introduces five crack pilots to the galaxy

Book review: Alexander Freed's novel kicks off a new trilogy, but flings its unfamiliar characters into action too quickly and makes their first adventure an uneven one.

The pilots of Alphabet Squadron all fly different ships -- an A-Wing, a B-Wing, a U-Wing, an X-Wing and a Y-Wing. Thus the book's name.
Penguin Random House

When long-term fans of Star Wars novels see "Squadron" in a title, we immediately think of Michael A. Stackpole's beloved 1996 novel Rogue Squadron. It kicked off an iconic 10-book X-Wing series that introduced dozens of amazing characters before ending in 2012.

These books were declared non-canon when Lucasfilm wiped much of the Star Wars slate clean in 2014 to make way for The Force Awakens the following year.

So there's a sense that Alexander Freed's Alphabet Squadron, the first book in a new trilogy set in the fascinating period after the evil Galactic Empire's defeat in Return of the Jedi, has to live up to Rogue Squadron's legacy. Out now, it kicks off with TIE pilot Yrica Quell defecting from the Empire to the nascent New Republic but finding herself mistrusted as she's recruited by a morally questionable intelligence agent.

We also meet pilots Chass na Chadic, Nath Tencent and Wyl Lark, all of whom have grudges against Shadow Wing, an elite TIE squadron Quell used to be a part of. They're joined by New Republic agent Kairos, one of those mysterious masked Star Wars characters we're all fascinated by.

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Even hard-core fans will think "I don't know any of these names" -- and herein lies the problem with the first part of the novel. Freed jumps frantically between all of these characters' perspectives, so we don't have a chance to get to know them or have any reason to care about their fates, much like the squad in his 2015 novel Battlefront: Twilight Company.

The author's setting the scene for these characters coming together to form the titular squadron so they can hunt down Shadow Wing, but it's a slog to read because you aren't given a chance to become emotionally attached to anyone.

The middle section, however, wisely slows things down as squadron leader Quell struggles to get her unit working together. This gives us a chance to get to know the pilots' motivations and see their group dynamic form -- it's by far the best part of the novel and doesn't go on long enough.

Freed previously proved his talent for getting into characters' heads by fleshing out Rogue One heroine Jyn Erso in that movie's excellent novelization, so it's nice to see this more psychological approach here too. Each of their backstories proves unique and memorable.

This section is helped massively by the occasional presence of General Hera Syndulla, whom fans of the Rebels CGI animated series will know and love. We meet her here at a later point in her career (Rebels was set before A New Hope). Her charisma anchors this part of the novel and gives our new heroes a sense of purpose, like Wedge Antilles did in Rogue Squadron.

Unfortunately, the final third suffers from many of the same issues as the first as the squadron jumps into conflict with some Imperial holdouts. We care about the characters more at this point, but the constantly shifting perspectives, changing objectives and poorly developed villains make for confusing and unsatisfying reading -- it's easy to forget why we started to care about them.

Alphabet Squadron rushes into action without establishing its characters first, then throws them into a confusing battle against a mostly faceless enemy. We learn virtually nothing about Shadow Wing; those characters being fleshed out in a separate Marvel Comics series). Rogue Squadron, by contrast, had a wonderful villain in Ysanne Isard.

At least this 408-page novel tantalizes us with the possibility of a fascinating sequel -- which will presumably come out next year -- with more personal stakes. Hopefully Freed will take the time to develop these characters more before throwing them into action again.

Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron, from Del Rey, hits shelves June 11.