Audiobook Review: “Alphabet Squadron” Spells Out a New Kind of Star Wars Story

Audiobook Review: “Alphabet Squadron” Spells Out a New Kind of Star Wars Story

X-wing? Sure, you can see that. The wings make an X. Y-wing? Yep, that makes sense too. A-wing? Kiiiinda. B-wing…you’ve lost me. U-wing? Wait, did Kenner even make one of those?

That’s a lot of alphabet, and there are still 21 letters left. Alphabet Squadron is the first novel in a trilogy, but Alexander Freed could keep going for a lot longer if the Lucasfilm Story Group really lets him use his imagination. Would the accented Imperials call a Z-wing a “zed wing”?

The New Republic’s Alphabet Squadron is named for its mixed assortment of starfighter styles, and Freed’s new book will be red meat for the Star Wars fans who harbor a fascination with the workings of the kind of ships that only got cameos onscreen in Return of the Jedi.

The novel comes billed as “a Marvel and Del Rey crossover event,” since its story overlaps with the ongoing Star Wars: TIE Fighter comic book miniseries. That series chronicles the doings of Shadow Wing, a crack squad of holdouts in the period immediately after the Battle of Endor: with their government gone, surviving Imperial forces are fragmenting as various commanders try to consolidate power in the face of the ascendant New Republic.

Freed, whose books include the 2016 Rogue One novelization, leaves the inner workings of Shadow Wing shrouded in mystery, ceding that territory to Marvel. Alphabet Squadron details the process by which the eponymous quintet come together under the aegis of an intelligence operative who thinks he can crack the cockpits of the menacing enemies.

The pilot who becomes the squadron’s operative leader has a unique insight into Shadow Wing: Yrica Quell used to be among its members, defecting in an exciting opening scene set inside a storm. It goes without saying that she’s haunted by her past, particularly her participation in Operation Cinder: a gratuitously genocidal enterprise prompted by an ominous droid messenger delivering the Emperor’s dying wish. (In a nice touch, her therapist is a reprogrammed Imperial torture droid.)

As did Claudia Gray’s superb Lost Stars (2015), Alphabet Squadron plumbs the psyche of a proud Imperial pilot who joins the Rebels (or, in this case, the fledgling New Republic) but has a hard time shaking years of indoctrination. Initially frustrated by her predictably rebellious colleagues and the clunky hardware they’re flying, Quell needs to unite her fractious fivesome and get a grip on her X-wing’s abilities if she’s going to bring an end to the carnage.

While editing the original Star Wars, George Lucas famously used footage of aerial dogfights to stand in for the starfighter combat sequences being created by his pioneering effects team. Alphabet Squadron evokes that spirit; you could easily imagine swapping Warhawks and Thunderbolts in for the book’s starfighters, and you’d have a story about battle-scarred Allies mopping up in the South Pacific after V-J Day.

If Jeff Langevin’s stunning cover illustration prompts you to pick Alphabet Squadron up, or hit play on the audiobook, you won’t be sad about it. It’s a gritty tale set close enough to the original trilogy that you can easily imagine being in those cockpits, but exploring new narrative and thematic territory. General Skywalker is already a near-mythical figure for these pilots, but General Hera Syndulla (a protagonist of the Rebels TV series) is very real.

Narrator Saskia Maarleveld capably handles her duties without overplaying, largely ensuring the squadron’s three-dimensional maneuvers remain legible and the characters remain distinct. The audiobook is a marked departure from other Star Wars, titles, though: it has noticeably fewer effects, which might be disappointing if Del Rey’s typically rich productions appeal to you but also comes as something of a relief after the near-chaotic soundscape of the audio exclusive Dooku: Jedi Lost.

Even more significantly, John Williams’s iconic music is largely relegated to the mandatory opening and closing cues. Though Williams is the only composer credited, the bulk of the audiobook’s music is significantly different than his sweeping classical style, with a more contemporary flavor and none of the franchise’s established themes.

(“The rest of the music came from various sound/music libraries that we have licenses for,” explained a Penguin Random House Audio publicist via e-mail.)

It takes some getting used to, but it was inevitable that eventually Star Wars audiobooks would move away from recycling Williams’s movie music; while that music unmistakably evokes the cinematic universe, it’s also distracting to have themes specifically associated with particular characters and events soundtracking stories that travel increasingly far afield.

It does seem a missed opportunity not to explore the sounds of pilot Chass na Chadic’s combat playlist, which Freed describes in some detail. Who knew B-wings had onboard stereo systems? The audiobook could have been a sort of Galactic Graffiti.

Alphabet Squadron ends on a cliffhanger, enticing readers (or listeners) to anticipate the next installment. That book hasn’t yet been announced; first, the franchise has to resolve some unfinished business with Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Jay Gabler