Author Christie Golden returns to the dark side of Star Wars with an enjoyable, morally ambiguous tale.
The best parts of Battlefront II: Inferno Squad read like good fanfiction. The characters think of their friends as their real family; two Imperial agents have to go undercover as a couple at a fancy wedding; and emotional relationships are heightened. Those are common subjects in the fanfic world, and I was delighted and amused to see them here. After the first half is over, the tie-in novel loses some steam, but fans who are ready to become invested in this elite Imperial team will probably be satisfied by the majority of the story.
Let’s get this out of the way first: that title is goofy. Inferno Squad they are indeed, but most of the novel takes place while the four Imperial agents are undercover, trying to blend in with what remains of Saw Gerrera’s partisans after the Rebel extremist’s death on Jedha. As a tie-in to both both Star Wars Battlefront II and the Star Wars universe as a whole, the book has a lot of ground to cover, and it does it pretty neatly. Iden Versio, the only daughter of a high-ranking Imperial family, is placed in charge of the tean of elite high-ranking Imperials. Their mission is to go undercover, find out how the Partisans are targeting key Imperial leaders, and destroy the Rebel cell.
From there, it’s a case of the Empire’s best and cruelest against the Rebellion’s messiest and most desperate. Most of the book is set at the Partisan base. After the galaxy-spanning events of Battlefront: Twilight Company, I was surprised that the team travels so little in Inferno Squad, but that isn’t a problem. Instead, it feels like a puzzle, in which the reader works along with Iden to figure out the relationships and secrets among the Partisans. Unfortunately, some plot points are glossed over, or perhaps left for the game to tell – I was hoping for more resolution between Iden and Gideon Hask, who has both a deep friendship and a slight rivalry with Iden. Although it was suspenseful to wonder whether someone would blow their cover, the fact that the squad couldn’t spend much time together for risk of revealing their plan meant that the amount of character development possible between them was limited in the second half of the book.
The four members of the undercover squadron are easily distinguishable and have complex internal lives, even if the dialogue is a bit stiff. The beginning of their missions against the Partisans is a bit rushed, and there are times where the characters are clearly explaining themselves to forestall readers’ questions. But I generally found them engaging, especially Iden.
Iden never thinks of herself as cartoonishly evil, even though she and her team sometimes display the proud viciousness of a cat dropping a dead animal on the doorstep. She tends to blurt things out even when she doesn’t mean to, but that isn’t her only negative trait. Although fellow Imperial officers think that she gained her rank due to her father’s prominence, the book shows that Garrick’s emotionally manipulative attitude toward his daughter hurt her as much as it helped. This is shown in a few notable moments. In one, Garrick refuses to honor Iden’s survival after the Death Star explosion, saying that she probably only fought drunken revelers. This clearly effects Iden’s own internal monologue: she is always waiting for her father to punish her, waiting for him to say that she isn’t good enough. Often, directly or indirectly, he does.
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Iden’s relationship with her father and her attitude in general were both decently well-drawn. She is clearly both strong-willed and utterly shaped by her father, even to an extent that she doesn’t realize. The Empire runs on hate and the Rebels run on hope – this is true even of noble Iden and the cut-throat Partisans. “If hope is all you have, then you already are nothing,” Iden thinks, and the fact that she believes this informs a lot of her decisions. Author Christie Golden never forgets to bring Iden’s situation back to her personal history.
Iden’s second-in-command and best friend, Gideon Hask, gets less consistent character development, as I mentioned before. He both admires and competes with her, and the balance tips toward the latter near the end of the book without much resolution. He’s an enjoyable character, though, an “elegant” Imperial who reminded me a bit of Sinjir Rath Velus. The engineer Del Meeko and intelligence expert Seyn Marana are also characterized well enough, in part through their relationships with members of the Partisans. Both have some qualms about what they have to do not for the Empire, but for the Partisans.
On the other side of the war are characters like Staven, the Mentor, and Dahna of the Partisans. Staven follows in Saw’s footsteps, and Gray continues the characterization that was set down for him in Rebel Rising by making him an organized leader with an undertone of macho sliminess. The Mentor’s mystique felt a bit unearned, but it wouldn’t be Star Wars without an old mentor figure. Similarly is the planet the Partisans inhabit: its perpetual twilight seems like an easy metaphor, but sometimes Star Wars needs those.
The Sequel Trilogy era has introduced a lot of sympathetic characters from the Imperial ranks. Rae Sloane is perhaps the character who recurs the most and has grown the most in the new book canon. Grand Admiral Thrawn starred in an enormously popular novel of his own in the new canon. Later this year, we’ll get a novel about Captain Phasma. When I started Inferno Squad, I was concerned about how any author might be able to balance writing an Imperial character with the generally black and white morality of Star Wars. Iden is not a Force user compelled by a dark master, but it’s still important to show that what she’s doing is wrong. She is a young person shaped in large part by her family. The book portrays her actions as villainous, but prevents some of the bigger questions by pitting Inferno Squad against the Partisans instead of the larger Rebellion. Many Rebels would agree with her assessment of the Partisans, and her squad members have a variety of opinions beyond Imperial writ.
It could have been easy to make these characters blind followers of the Empire, but they aren’t that, and they aren’t misunderstood heroes either. It’ll take Battlefront II to show exactly what story Inferno Squad will tell, but my main takeaway from the novel was that it portrays them as people. Iden’s drive to be the best – her belief that hope is a desperate resort by people who don’t have the skill to outmatch their enemies – makes her characterization clear. The novel wasn’t perfect, but definitely made me look forward to the campaign.
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