Review – Alphabet Squadron Reborn in Alexander Freed’s Shadow Fall.
Every trilogy needs a middle-act to heighten the drama and shatter whatever security the players in the story think they may possess. No, the complicated pilots of Alphabet Squadron didn’t get a triumphant medal ceremony akin to A New Hope at the end of their titular first novel but we did have a sense they’d found a sort-of cohesion. Their nemesis, the Empire’s Shadow Wing, remained out in the galaxy and the last remnants of the tyrannical regime retained plenty of ways to inflict damage on the fledgling New Republic. Author Alexander Freed throws the lettered squadron right back into the conflict in Shadow Fall. In this story the pilots must figure out how to draw their enemy out from the hidden corners of the galaxy while keeping their fragile unit together in every sense. Little do they know, Shadow Wing is under the command of someone prepared hurt the New Republic at all costs, and this person also has a past with Alphabet Squadron’s commander, former Imperial (and Shadow Wing pilot) Yrica Quell.
I’ll be keeping this review mostly spoiler-free. What you should know is this book is DENSE and don’t even try to read it without having read Alphabet Squadron. If you are feeling bold or short on time and just can’t wait to dive into Shadow Fall, our spoiler review of Alphabet Squadron might help you. Freed doesn’t spend very much time going over the events and characters established in the predecessor so just be warned. There’s a lot happening in every chapter.
Shadow Fall is the perfect title for this novel because it is a much darker story than its predecessor. As mentioned, the tone is very much “second act” as we know Freed will be completing his story of Alphabet Squadron with one more novel to round out a trilogy. Nothing at the end of Alphabet Squadron suggested these pilots would go flying off into the sunset in a peaceful galaxy but I really didn’t expect them to be thrown into some of the nightmare chapters so quickly. Freed doesn’t spare any character in Shadow Fall. It doesn’t feel like anyone is safe and there is a sense of dread embedded in many scenes. The most palpable tension comes from the internal conflicts many of the characters as they are once again thrust into the meat grinder of a seemingly never ending conflict with the last gasp of the Empire’s desperate warlords. And desperation is what makes Shadow Wing so dangerous, not to mention their new commander Soran Keize.
Keize has already cast a shadow over the other stories involving Shadow Wing and Alphabet Squadron. He appeared in the comic Tie Fighter, the Marvel tie-in and prequel to Alphabet Squadron, and we learned at the end of the previous book he’d been in hiding under the alias Devon. After his alias was revealed we learned Keize would be returning to Shadow Wing, believed to have been killed during an Operation Cinder attack on the planet Nacronis. Keize has a unique connection to Alphabet Squadron, specifically to their commander, Yrica Quell, who he mentored in her days as an Imperial pilot. Quell believed Keize to be dead, like the rest of the galaxy, so throughout a good portion of this novel you’ll find yourself holding your breath as their paths seem to be heading for a collision course. Whereas Alphabet Squadron didn’t necessarily have a clear villain, Soran Keize is most definitely the antagonist of Shadow Fall and it certainly raises the stakes. Trying to walk the line of not spoiling anything but let’s just say Keize is prepared to fight as dirty and ruthlessly as he can with the singular purpose: hurt the New Republic and really hurt General Hera Syndulla. In fact, Keize’s fixation with hurting the New Republic general seem to eclipse every other priority during critical moments of the story. He doesn’t care about restoring the glory of the Empire, he just wants to watch the galaxy burn.
A rough, spoiler-free summary of the plot: The New Republic know Shadow Wing have gone into hiding. They’ve come to a planet called Troithe, which is divided by a governor who remains loyal to the Empire and a civilian population determined to take back control of the planet. Shadow Wing is believed to be in the vicinity of this planet, so General Syndulla begins to hatch a trap for Shadow Wing. Not sure how long you’ve been watching Star Wars for but perfectly planned “traps” don’t often go off as planned. That’s about as much as I should say without getting into too many specifics. Emphasis on the “don’t often go as planned” if you want a hint about when the drama picks up.
Alphabet Squadron haven’t necessarily come into their own but when we meet them at the beginning of Shadow Fall though they are a functional unit. Where Alphabet Squadron dedicated much of its chapters to the story of Yrica Quell’s defection from the Empire and integration into this squadron, Shadow Fall definitely shifts more focus to other characters in the book. Yrica is still there but Shadow Fall doesn’t focus on her story as much. Her Imperial past and connection to Soran Keize are definitely important to the story but Shadow Fall is Alphabet Squadron’s story. I hate to say this but at times that shared story felt to me the book’s greatest weakness. It’s frustrating because I got the sense Freed wanted to give each character their due portion of writing. The only problem is not all these characters are equally compelling and some of the chapters dedicated to certain characters feel confusing and pretty dry. There were many points I was taken out of the story, confused about who was where and doing what and why that was important. I’d flip back through pages and found myself doing a lot more work trying to understand the role of a certain pilot which distracted from my enjoyment of the story. Though I say it felt like a great weakness, when Freed hits the mark it’s also the biggest strength of the book.
Chass, my favorite of the squad, definitely gets more attention in this book. We learn about her past, her feelings toward other members of the squad, and get a hint of where we may find her in the future. Her story takes a little bit of time to get going but once it does you really get inside her head. I’m a sucker for any New Republic pilot who collects rare music and blasts it at insane decibels while taking on adversaries, so Chass was always going to win me over. There are several points where she is in the most perilous and vulnerable situations, yet she stays true to herself. There’s also an unexpected spiritual dilemma Chass is faced with when she encounters a group who remind her of how religion or the promise of spiritual fulfillment can be used for control. We learn why she’s skeptical but more importantly Freed presents Chass as someone who grows. Yes, when we meet her in the early part of this story she’s presented as a bit of a mess, which sets the stage very nicely for where she ends up by the end of the story.
The dynamics between Quell and her superiors, Caern Adan and General Hera Syndulla, are also equally compelling but far too few and fleeting. There’s a huge plot point which focuses on Adan’s overall mistrust of Quell that really changes everything for her. The ripple effects from this mistrust throw everyone else’s perception of Quell for a spin and ultimately have consequences I suspect will last until the conclusion of this trilogy. Again, I understand Freed wanted to give more characters a moment in the spotlight but I don’t think it should’ve come at the sacrifice of Quell’s presence. Her chapters and the ones featuring Chass are the most readable, not filled with technobabble of ship designations, rather human and relatable conflicts.
Kairos is also a character seen far too seldom in Shadow Fall. What little we do get from her we learn a bit more about her backstory and how she came to join the New Republic. Her relationship to Adan and their history was one of the most memorable parts of the story for me. Freed does a great job of sprinkling in moments and flashbacks with each character but Kairos stuck with me. It’s intuitive to want more story about a character as mysterious as Kairos is but Freed doesn’t treat it like low-hanging fruit and I found myself routing for the masked pilot when she’s faced with her own peril.
The two characters who have the lion share of time in the second half of the story, Wyl and Nath, were the least compelling to me. Their shared story was also the most confusing. It’s hard to explain the confusion without spoiling a lot of the story but again, I found myself working very hard to establish their location and intention during many chapters. For as great a writer as Freed is when it comes to conveying technical capabilities of ships sometimes his descriptions and transitions are hard to visualize, as well as follow. I’ve read a lot of Star Wars books (and I’m sure YOU have, too) and I haven’t had as much trouble following along as I did with many chapters in Shadow Fall, especially these Wyl and Nath chapters. Sometimes the reader needs to work but in my opinion it shouldn’t be this often.
As choppy as Shadow Fall can be when trying to establish settings, the backdrop of Troithe is well fleshed out. Instead of orbiting a sun it orbits a black hole. The above image is a NASA rendering but Freed describes the behemoth force in a manner which suggests he had something similar in his head. It adds a very mysterious and ominous layer to every predicament the pilots of Alphabet Squadron find themselves in. There’s also a mystical quality to the planet and some of its inhabitants which became an intriguing subplot. There were points where I almost wished Freed had broken some of the different plot points into novels or novellas of their own.
There’s also a element of spiritual side to this story, specifically to how others in the galaxy view the Force. Again, keeping this spoiler free, but the light and dark side are felt in this story and I wonder if this will be a through line to the end. I’m partial to stories exploring the more mystical elements of the galaxy far, far away, so I’m really hoping Freed was planting some seeds for these elements to grow in the conclusion.
While I enjoyed Shadow Fall I did feel like I was putting together a very complicated jigsaw puzzle. You know the type, where much of the time you’re cursing the pieces to fit the way they seem intended to. What should be a corner piece ends up going smack in the middle and vice versa. With any great puzzle though, by the end when you can see the whole and its parts, you feel satisfied (yet exhausted). That’s very much how I felt by the end of Shadow Fall. Perhaps its the grinding from so many battles (there are a lot!) or the very dark tone of the novel; or, a combination of Freed’s writing, make me work harder while trying to navigate the techno-terms. Whatever my difficulties were, Shadow Fall was ultimately a very satisfying story and I certainly felt like my work was rewarded during the incredible climax of the novel. Even if this were a spoiler-review there is NO WAY I would ruin the end of this novel and I guarantee you I will be the first in line to read the conclusion of this trilogy.
*NOTE ON RATINGS: Starting with this review, I’m changing up how my rating system works. I only wanted to note this because by the old metric a ‘6’ would not be a solid score. Basically my reviews swung between 7-9 most of the time and that doesn’t do a lot of good for readers trying to discern whether a novel or comic is worth their time. So: 1= terrible, 2 = pretty bad, 3 = probably not worth most people’s time, 4 = slightly below average, 5 = average, 6 = good, 7 = very good, 8 = Wow!, 9 = Excellent, 10 = I have become one with the Force after reading this.
Special thanks to Del Rey for the advanced copy used for this review.