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Star Wars: Shadow Fall is at its best when it's bad

Book review: In Alexander Freed's followup to Alphabet Squadron, the villains and morally ambiguous characters prove the most engaging part.

Sean Keane Former Senior Writer
Sean knows far too much about Marvel, DC and Star Wars, and poured this knowledge into recaps and explainers on CNET. He also worked on breaking news, with a passion for tech, video game and culture.
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Sean Keane
3 min read
shadow-fall

B-Wing pilot Chass na Chadic undergoes some major character development over the course of Shadow Fall.

Penguin Random House

Pretty early on in Star Wars: Shadow Fall, the second book in Alexander Freed's Alphabet Squadron trilogy, I realized I wanted to spend more time with the bad guys. It's just so fascinating to get into the heads of people working for the Galactic Empire and see how they continue to serve a totalitarian regime that blew up an entire planet

These villains are especially engaging at this point in the timeline, in the months following Return of the Jedi, when the Empire is on the run from the nascent New Republic following the Battle of Endor. Imperials have gone from being the galaxy's dominant power to a fractured military force scrambling to survive and figuring out what to do next.

In Freed's colorful adventure Shadow Fall, out Tuesday, we see the Empire through the eyes of calculating TIE fighter pilot Soran Keize. After fleeing the Empire and going into hiding, he returned to his Imperial allies at the end of the previous book, driven by a sense of duty to elite special forces group Shadow Wing rather than a misguided belief that the on-the-run Empire can seize back power.

Through Keize, we get some insight into Shadow Wing as its rivalry with the New Republic's Alphabet Squadron develops -- basically giving the bad guys a sense of humanity missing from last year's trilogy opener.

However, the bulk of this 393-page novel is still spent with good guys Alphabet Squadron, as they try to lure Shadow Wing into a trap. They're led by Imperial defector Yrica Quell, who's the most compelling of the group as she tries to come to terms with guilt over her role in the atrocities committed in her final days with the Empire. That Keize was the one who convinced her to leave adds a layer to the drama, since they're unaware the other has survived.   

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The rest of the squadron -- edgy Chass na Chadic, roguish Nath Tencent, doe-eyed Wyl Lark and the mysterious Kairos -- are likable enough, but I'd pretty much forgotten them all in the year since I read Alphabet Squadron. Since Freed throws us straight back into the action, I felt a bit lost for the first 50 or so pages of this one. This happened again during some of the novel's large-scale battles; I lost interest in the details during those sections.

Thankfully, I got increasingly engaged in the squad's stories over the course of Shadow Fall because Freed's intricate writing is better suited to the examination of his characters' psychological states -- much like his Rogue One novelization -- as they become embroiled in a battle to free a system from the Empire's grip in their quest to wipe out Shadow Wing. Chass, in particular, goes on a compelling, surprising journey that puts her on the path towards fundamental change.

As with the previous novel, charismatic General Hera Syndulla (whom you might know from the Rebels CGI animated series) leads the New Republic war effort and offers guidance to Alphabet Squadron. She's only an occasional presence, but readers who know her will be delighted with the nods to her history and emotional weight that brings to her interactions with the squad.

The author also peppers in a few references to the New Republic's Vanguard Squadron, the heroes of EA's upcoming video game Star Wars: Squadrons. Since the novel and game are set around the same point in the timeline, hopefully the game will complete the circle by making reference to Alphabet Squadron as well.

After a shaky opening, Freed develops his heroes and gives them a compelling villain -- issues I felt weakened the previous book -- and sets us up beautifully for next year's trilogy-ender.

Watch this: EA shows new gameplay footage for Star Wars: Squadrons