If someone were to explain Phasma as ‘Mad Max: Fury Road but in Star Wars,’ it would simultaneously be correct but also not quite encompass everything that this book is.
Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson tells two stories: the plight of a captured Resistance agent and also Phasma’s origin story from before she joined the First Order as the aforementioned Resistance fighter recounts it to someone who would see Phasma struck down from her lofty position within the First Order. In neither is Phasma someone to be underestimated.
There are going to be a lot of comparisons made between Inferno Squad and Phasma. There shouldn’t be. On the surface level, yes: they are both novels that focus on some of the “bad guys” in Star Wars and they’re written by women but that’s where the similarities end and where any comparisons and contrasts should stop too. These are two very different types of stories. Whereas Inferno Squad shows us that there are heroes on both sides, Phasma is just plain brutal (both the book and the character) and unapologetically so. The narrative itself makes no apologies for Phasma even as Captain Cardinal seeks to unseat her from her position of power within the First Order because he thinks she’s a danger to it. Phasma is, if nothing else, a fighter who will do what it takes to survive and, if Phasma is anything to go by, there is literally nothing that she won’t do to ensure her own continued presence in the galaxy. (That trash compactor scene is taking on a whole new significance…)
It absolutely must be said that Dawson was the perfect choice for a book like this. Unsurprisingly, it’s a violent book and who better than someone who mentioned Matthew Stover’s Heroes Dies in glowing terms on a Celebration panel? Phasma’s a person who’s gotten to where she is because of her prowess as a warrior who learns quickly and because she uses whatever she can to her advantage. This is a book that, in the hands of a less capable writer, might have felt repetitive as Phasma, Brendol, Siv, and the rest fight their way across Parnassos. Dawson, however, has everything well in hand.
Phasma is, as previously mentioned, actually two stories that are intertwined. Vi Moradi is a Resistance agent captured by the First Order’s Captain Cardinal who’s desperate for anything she might know about Phasma’s past that could take her down. The second story is the one that Vi tells Cardinal as it was relayed to her by Siv, a member of Phasma’s tribe back on Parnassos. While there are no story switches done mid chapter, the verb tense makes it even easier to keep track with Vi and Cardinal’s story being told in present tense while Phasma’s is in past tense. On occasion, the past story has small interjections from Vi that felt a bit jarring. My personal preference would have been for them to have either been eliminated or made more frequently. Vi and Siv serve as a nice balance to Phasma and give readers a variety of fleshed out, capable women to appreciate.
Related, it’s a neat storytelling choice to have a book be entirely about a character but never put us inside her head. Perhaps that’s the point. It’s quite fitting for a character who holds herself apart from others. Phasma is someone who preferred to keep her face behind a mask or a helmet even before she encountered the First Order. She’s not an oversharer or even a sharer. This isn’t like Tarkin where we learned about his history with the Grand Moff or even Thrawn where we got brief insights into the Chiss’s mind. Phasma is untouchable. If you get too close or learn too much, you aren’t much longer for this galaxy.
One of the highlights of the book (for me at least) was getting to see more of the First Order from the inside. Any new insight into the sinister organization tends to be nothing short of fascinating as you look at their structure the philosophy. Of course, the addition of characters like Armitage Hux certainly doesn’t hurt in my book (pun unintended) but that’s another matter entirely.
With Phasma, Dawson reminds us that strong and capable female characters don’t have to just come from the side of heroes. Phasma is an insightful book that lets you really get to know the titular character more without ever putting you inside her head. If you’re thirsty for more of the pre-The Force Awakens era or if you want some fantastically written violence, this is absolutely the book for you.