What are the ethics involved in humanizing the Empire? Does Star Wars need to be a more nuanced universe, or are the black-and-white morals of the original and prequel trilogies preferable? And is now the right moment for that nuance? These were the questions that plagued me as I listened to the latest Star Wars novel: Christie Golden’s Battlefront II tie-in, Inferno Squad.
Inferno Squad serves as a prequel to the single-player campaign of the new Battlefront II video game coming out for consoles and PC in November. It concerns Iden Versio, a gifted TIE pilot, the daughter of an Imperial Admiral, and one of the few Imperial survivors of the original Death Star. Following that crushing defeat, Admiral Versio assembles Inferno Squad, a small team led by Iden to “troubleshoot” problems that pop up in the Empire, with an eye towards making sure nothing like the Death Star’s destruction ever happens again. After a series of successful missions, Inferno Squad is tasked with going undercover to eliminate the last remnants of Saw Gerrera’s Partisans.
Inferno Squad is Christie Golden’s second novel in the new canon, and like 2015’s Dark Disciple, it’s extremely well-written. The language is colorful and descriptive without becoming florid, the character voices all feel authentic, and the plot–simple though it may be–is well-constructed. My only gripes about the writing itself would be that some of the Partisans tended to blur together for me, and there’s a strange sci-fi subplot that doesn’t really go anywhere satisfying. For the most part, though, the writing is extremely solid.
I do appreciate that the new canon is attempting to humanize the people of the Empire. Not only because shades of grey when it comes to morality are far more interesting than notions of good and evil, black and white, but also because simply from a storytelling standpoint, it never made much sense that the Empire was populated exclusively by moustache-twirling villains. Lost Stars, though beloved by the fandom, didn’t do a terribly good job with this–the Imperial point of view there was represented by a character who actually did not agree with what the Empire was doing, but remained loyal to them out of a misguided sense of duty which the book failed to justify. Thrawn and the Aftermath trilogy did a much better job of illustrating why people would willingly serve the Empire, and Inferno Squad continues to explore that subject very effectively.
I just wonder if now is really the right moment for this novel. Obviously, book release schedules are set well in advance of actual release dates, and real-world events can evolve faster than publishing timelines. Take the Buffy episode “Earshot,” for instance, pulled from broadcast at the last moment due to uncomfortable similarities to the then-recent Columbine school shootings. Or the scores of feature films shot in New York which were suddenly tasked with editing around any shots of the World Trade Center, after the 9/11 attacks. Granted, book release schedules are harder to shift than films or TV, but again I ask: is now really the right moment for Inferno Squad? The current political climate makes reading a book which basically asks us to emphasize with space fascists extremely difficult. The fact that it’s well-written makes it all the worse. To be fair, this is an ethnically diverse group (the new canon has been much better about that than the old EU was, especially with regards to the Empire) who aren’t interested in the elimination of a particular race or religion. Their only interest is maintaining their hegemony, and defending their way of life against terrorists and freedom fighters. In that view, I suppose the entire history of the United States makes the book problematic.
I don’t have any answers to the questions I’m posing, I’m sorry to say. But I wanted to raise the question. People who claim science-fiction or fantasy are purely escapist genres that have no bearing on what’s happening in the real world–and therefore no responsibility to comment on it–are misguided at best and disingenuous at worst. We can enjoy things like Inferno Squad–and I did–but we also have a responsibility to examine what we enjoyed (or didn’t), and why current events or our political and moral beliefs might have influenced our opinion on a work.
As for the narration, it is top-notch. The book is read by Janina Gavankar, an actor who’s appeared in genre shows like Arrow, True Blood, and Sleepy Hollow. She portrays Iden in the Battlefront II video game, and Inferno Squad would appear to be her first audiobook. You can’t tell; Gavankar is a natural narrator, never straying into the histrionics that my buddy Marc Thompson (Aftermath, Thrawn) engages in. She’s not a professional voice actor, so her range of character voices isn’t as strong as it might have been, but neither do her male voices veer into comedy the way Ashley Eckstein (Ahsoka) or Rebecca Soler’s (Rebel Rising). There are a couple goofy alien voices, but thankfully the producer stayed hands-off with those, and refrained from filtering them all to hell the way certain alien voices were in earlier Star Wars audiobooks. The production in general feels more restrained than it has been in the past, actually, and those who’ve read my other audiobook reviews will know I consider that a good thing. We still get sound effects, atmospheric effects, and musical stings for scenes, but it’s all well-balanced and considered (with the possible exception of a couple annoyingly echoey cave scenes). It’s also strange hearing the heroic John Williams score applied to Imperial deeds, but it’s a nice ironic twist that serves the novel and its themes well. This may be Penguin Random House’s best Star Wars audiobook yet.
Despite some of my reservations about the book’s themes and characters clashing with real-life current events, I was impressed by Inferno Squad, both the book and the audio production thereof. It’s a well-written, well-structured book that continues the current push towards not only humanizing the Empire but shading the Rebels in darker shades of grey as well. And though those ideas may make me uncomfortable in this particular moment, sometimes fiction is best when it’s making us uncomfortable.