Audiobook Review: “Doctor Aphra” and “Shadow Fall” Are Summer Escapes for Star Wars Fans

Audiobook Review: “Doctor Aphra” and “Shadow Fall” Are Summer Escapes for Star Wars Fans

It could be worse: you could be trying to escape the clutches of a Dark Lord of the Sith, or you could be trapped outside your B-wing, watching it float away as your oxygen ebbs. In that spirit, two new Star Wars audiobooks are providing fans with listening material for nervous road trips or solo sunbathing.

Alexander Freed’s Shadow Fall is the bleaker listen, resuming the saga of Alphabet Squadron as they continue their attempt to scrape up the dregs of the Galactic Empire in the post-Endor period when the New Republic is so new, its denizens still slip up from time to time and call themselves “rebels.”

We first met this squad a 2019 Freed novel billed as a “crossover event” with the TIE Fighter comic book miniseries. Shadow Fall doesn’t cross over, which means Freed’s tasked with following both the motley pilots who spell freedom ABXYU and with their nemeses, a Shadow Wing of elite TIE pilots who’ve been laying low since the events of Alphabet Squadron.

Now, General Hera Syndulla and intelligence agent Caern Aden, who’s sort of the squad’s Bosley, have come up with a plan to trap Shadow Wing into showing themselves. Needless to say the trap’s springs get a little rusty; it’s up to X-wing pilot Yrica Quell to apply some WD-40 as she reckons with the shadow of her own Imperial past.

As with the Battlefront novels, Freed’s Alphabet stories focus on the grunts who get the work done while the Skywalkers resolve their family drama. Narrator Carol Monda sounds like she smoked a pack of death sticks before taking the mic, giving the audiobook an appropriately world-weary vibe.

As with Alphabet Squadron, Shadow Fall makes extensive use of stock music with just a smattering of John Williams; again, it’s not the same, but the Random House Audio producers understand that as they continue to publish several Star Wars titles a year, they need to start limiting their trips to that well.

(It does, once again, seem a missed opportunity not to explore the galactic funk Chass na Chadic likes to rock when going into battle. What, exactly, does “high-pitched scatterbop” sound like?)

By contrast, the audio original Doctor Aphra feels like a throwback to the early days of tie-ins, when every major character got to make an appearance in every story. As with the previous audio original Dooku: Jedi Lost, Sarah Kuhn’s story shines some light on a character who doesn’t get a lot of merch in the Disney Store.

My favorite thing about Dr. Chelli Lona Aphra is that she’s not a physician, she’s a Ph.D. — or whatever the equivalent was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. She describes herself as a “rogue archaeologist,” zipping across the galaxy in search of rare artifacts she can use to make war or make money. Once, though, she also made love, as we learn in flashbacks to her student days and an affair that started in the stacks.

GLAAD just named Aphra’s eponymous series Outstanding Comic Book; the title character translates to audio with spitfire to spare courtesy of voice actor Emily Woo Zeller. As the cover art suggests, Doctor Aphra pairs the resourceful rogue with Darth Vader himself, who’s searching for clues about the identity and location of that remarkable boy who just blew up the (first) Death Star.

Have you ever wondered exactly how Vader learned the things about Luke he’s picked up by the time things start popping on Hoth? I guess I can’t say I had, but now I know he had help from Aphra and a mirror-universe duo of a protocol droid (who delights in torture) and an astromech (who’s actually a war machine).

Aphra is as incident-packed as Dooku, but considerably easier to follow. In fact, the story is appropriate for YA listeners — and, like Shadow Fall, it’s suited for a new generation of Star Wars fans who’ve learned to love a world where diversity doesn’t just mean aliens in the cantina.

“As a little Asian American girl who loved Star Wars,” said Kuhn in a press release, “I didn’t really see myself in it. Aphra’s face looks like mine. I could cosplay as her and I wouldn’t get, ‘Oh, you’re the Asian version of that character,’ I would just be Aphra.”

Jay Gabler