Reviews and entertainment articles by Dave Simpson
The biggest event on this year’s Star Wars calendar may be the release of The Last Jedi in December, but that doesn’t mean that fans have been starved of new stories set in a galaxy far, far away since the arrival of Rogue One last Christmas. 2017 has seen a significant expansion of the continuity beyond the boundaries of the big screen, with a plethora of new comics, books and other associated media being unleashed to bridge the gaps between the episodes and document events not touched upon in theatres.
Marvel’s main Star Wars series has continued to captivate by chronicling the post-Episode IV adventures of Han, Luke and Leia, while the Poe Dameron comics have been providing a consistently compelling account of the eponymous pilot’s life pre-Episode VII and a brand new Darth Vader title taking place in the immediate aftermath of Episode III is demonstrating a lot of potential at the moment, even if it’s yet to surpass James Luceno’s Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader novel when it comes to recounting the iconic antagonist’s emotional state in the wake of his renouncing the Jedi Order. Then there’s also been the fast-paced and engaging five-part Darth Maul comic and the entertaining, if terse, Cassian & K-2SO standalone one-shot.
Perhaps the most riveting recent contribution to the continuity by Marvel, though, is the ongoing Doctor Aphra series. Revolving around a renegade archaeologist who was originally introduced as a supporting player in the company’s previous Darth Vader title, it offers an enthrallingly unique and informative look into the history and cultures of the Star Wars universe while doing a fantastic job of fleshing out its feisty protagonist. The fact that it also features the delightfully demented droid duo BT-1 and Triple-Zero only makes it all the more enjoyable.
Away from the pages of Marvel comics, this year also saw the arrival of the long-awaited conclusion to Chuck Wendig’s much-discussed Aftermath trilogy. Despite not being as exciting as its immediate predecessor and raising almost as many questions as it answered, Empire’s End was still an extremely arresting novel that finally revealed the full extent of what went on at the Battle of Jakku. Although, admittedly it was a little disappointing to discover that – minor spoiler alert! – the big three of the original trilogy didn’t play a pivotal part in what was supposedly the last large-scale engagement of the Galactic Civil War.
Other than that, Smuggler’s Run author Greg Rucka gave us a glimpse into the pre-Rogue One lives of Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus in a fun but largely uninformative novella entitled Guardians of the Whills; Timothy Zahn re-imagined the backstory of his beloved Chiss grand admiral in the incredibly comprehensive but occasionally laborious Thrawn; and Beth Revis treated us to an absolutely superlative relating of Jyn Erso’s experiences during the period extending from her rescue by Saw Gerrera in the prologue of Rogue One to the moment the Rebels broke her out of the Imperial prison on Wobani.
Having become increasingly enamoured with Felicity Jones’s scrappy insurgent upon repeat viewings of Rogue One, it was the latter addition to the new EU, dubbed Rebel Rising, that I was most excited about sinking my teeth into this year and it definitely did not disappoint. Exploring Jyn’s existence and mind-set over the course of thirteen years in a tremendous amount of detail, it added intriguing new dimensions to the Rogue One heroine while also offering a lot of fascinating insight into the inner workings of Saw Gerrera’s partisans.
Even though it came out relatively early in the year, once I’d finished reading it, I was sure that Rebel Rising would remain my favourite EU offering of 2017. But then I started to peruse Christie Golden’s latest Star Wars novel at the start of August and suddenly that assumption began to change.
Serving as a set-up to the upcoming Battlefront II video game, Inferno Squad follows an elite Imperial espionage unit as they’re tasked with taking down what remains of Saw Gerrera’s partisans in the wake of the Death Star’s destruction at Yavin.
While the previous Battlefront game’s tie-in novel, Twilight Company, provided an intriguingly unique perspective on the Galactic Civil War by being told from the point of view of Rebels in the trenches, unfortunately it also suffered from a plot that was overly convoluted as well as from a protagonist with whom it was difficult to connect. Inferno Squad, on the other hand, is engrossing from the get-go and remains so for the entirety of its 336 pages.
It begins by introducing us to proficient TIE fighter pilot Iden Versio during the final moments of the Battle of Yavin as she attempts to thwart the Alliance’s assault on the Death Star. The decision to start the story by recounting a critical occurrence from the Star Wars mythos through non-malevolent Imperial eyes makes the narrative immediately compelling and, similar to Claudia Gray’s exemplary Lost Stars, throws the notion of all Imperial troops being unambiguous bad guys to the wind by demonstrating that many of them are just soldiers doing their jobs and not deserving of death as a result.
Iden Versio comes across as likable from the moment we meet her, with her troubled family background endowing her character with a lot of depth, while her justifiable belief that the Rebels are heartless terrorists due to their murder of so many well-meaning Imperial servicemen and women ensures that her motivations are distinct and understandable.
Golden does an equally adept job of making Iden’s old friend and fellow Inferno Squad member Gideon Hask seem intriguing upon his introduction in the second chapter. Like the above protagonist, Hask is presented as an ambitious and respectable Imperial officer whose affiliation with the Empire doesn’t mean he’s immoral.
Golden also succeeded in investing me in Hask and Versio’s friendship before they even interacted by giving a short and identifiable account of how they bonded as Gideon reflects upon his past with Iden. Although, the one major criticism I have about Inferno Squad is that the relationships between the members of its titular team aren’t really explored much following the first few chapters, which is particularly regrettable in relation to Versio and Hask considering how well their friendship is set up at the start.
Instead, Golden chooses to focus on how Iden and her associates view and are affected by the individuals who make up the partisan group that they’re tasked with infiltrating, and while it is a shame that this gets in the way of building up the bonds between the four members of Inferno Squad, it does allow for some excellent individual character development.
This is especially true when it comes to the squad’s youngest member, Seyn Marana. In the beginning, Seyn actually felt extremely inconsequential, fading into the background while Iden, Gideon and Inferno Squad’s fourth and final operative, Del Meeko, – whose characterisation as a capable, self-made every-man endows him with a lot of charm – drove the story forward and completely overshadowed her.
However, as the plot progresses, Seyn slowly becomes more crucial to events and ultimately ends up having the most affecting arc in the novel. Her complicated relationship with adolescent partisan Sadori Vushan packs quite a powerful emotional punch, while her arc’s resolution brings a tremendous amount of tension and suspense to the table. Inferno Squad may mainly centre on Iden Versio, and she is by far the book’s best developed character, but it was undoubtedly Seyn Marana’s storyline that moved me the most.
That being said, I think my favourite thing about this book was how it played around with popular perceptions of the Empire and emphasized the shades of grey that pervaded both sides of the Galactic Civil War. Given how likable and, at times, downright virtuous the four members of Inferno Squad are made to feel, it’s easy to forget that they’re all agents of the “enemy”. None of them are ever portrayed as unscrupulous, they’re simply Imperial citizens doing their duty. As I mentioned earlier, it mirrors Claudia Gray’s depiction of the Empire in Lost Stars and I love how both that novel and Inferno Squad encourage readers to reconsider their opinions about the Imperial infrastructure. People like Palpatine, Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin were undeniably malevolent, but realistically, the vast majority of the soldiers who served the Empire were probably not.
Similarly, the partisans that Inferno Squad are ordered to undermine are arguably just as injurious as the regime against which they are fighting. Like Inferno Squad, the partisans are not portrayed as being unequivocally nefarious, but the brutality of their methods regularly emulates the misdeeds for which they claim the Empire is responsible. Both parties come across as products of their upbringing as well as victims of deceptive propaganda, which only makes each of their respective causes feel all the more tragic.
And on the topic of the partisans, the decision to use the remnants of Saw Gerrera’s extremist cells as Inferno Squad’s main adversary results in a very fluid narrative transition from both Rogue One and Rebel Rising, smoothly fusing the events of A New Hope with Disney’s new continuity while also keeping Rogue One relevant in the wake of the outcome of the original Star Wars film.
Indeed, in many ways, Inferno Squad feels like the conclusion to a three part story that started in Rebel Rising and continued in Rogue One. Staven, the leader of the partisan cell, is even plucked straight out of Rebel Rising and at one point mentions his affection for Saw’s adopted daughter, which is, of course, a veiled reference to Jyn Erso.
For all of its connections to other Star Wars media though, Inferno Squad is also commendable for not depending on renowned characters from the franchise to forge a fascinating narrative. Rather, it’s the originality of its protagonists combined with its superb pacing, concise and accessible storytelling, and compelling mysteries, such as the impetus of the enigmatic “Mentor”, that makes this novel such a treat.
Between the abundance of absorbing comics that Marvel has been churning out, the diverse array of books that has already been released and all of the new literature due to drop under the “Journey to The Last Jedi” banner over the next three months, 2017 is certainly an exciting year for Disney’s rebooted expanded universe, with plenty of enthralling titles for fans to choose from. However, if you read only one EU work this year, as much as I adored Rebel Rising, I reckon Inferno Squad is the way to go.
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