Battlefront: Twilight Company

Twilight Company (Star Wars: Battlefront, #1)Twilight Company by Alexander Freed

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I struggled to finish this book, and now that I have, I feel conflicted about it. By book’s end, I appreciated more what author Alexander Freed was trying to do. But I don’t think that that purpose especially resonated with me.

Twilight Company is a novel adaptation of a video game remake of a first-person shooter in the world’s largest space opera franchise. If it had been a simple guns-and-glory spinoff, perhaps packed with heroes from the films who must show up in almost every Star Wars game to ever appear, then it would have been sufficient. But Freed delivers so much more than that. This reads like a true wartime novel: the soldier protagonists are constantly fatigued and overexerted, stretched thin on supplies and morale as part of a mobile unit always on the front lines of the war against the Empire, coping with long stretches of anxiety-tinged boredom that are punctuated by manic fits of bloody violence. Characters are not bulletproof like most of the core saga’s cast, and even relatively minor engagements could see the deaths of some of the most eccentric and entertaining personalities.

It’s still Star Wars, and so the protagonist, a mercenary who joined on with the Rebel Alliance after bouncing from war to war as a child soldier on his home planet, eventually reaches an epitome about how his unit’s leadership was able to find victory even through sacrifice, and hope even in the darkest of hours. Besides this central protagonist (who goes by Namir, only the most recent in a string of aliases), there is a large cast of characters with fairly well-developed personalities: idealistic Captain Howl, cold-blooded and indiscernible yet loyal ex-bounty hunter Brand, hulking alien warrior-poet Gadren, “fresh meat” drug-addicted Roach, callous veteran Ajax, vulgar and mumbling Twitch, scarred and stammering Charmer, and defecting Imperial governor (and artist, and logistics expert) Everi Chalis. Not all of the above survive, and there are many more characters who fill out the ranks of Twilight Company, some more prominently than others. Many of the characters are women and people of color, and there is a mix of alien soldiers as well, so the Rebellion in particular appears quite diverse in this book.

On the Imperial side, we have one stereotypical sadist: Prelate Verge, who believes that he can indulge an absolutely decadent life so long as he is absolutely loyal to the Emperor–and who believes that failure is tantamount to treason. He brings an old Imperial officer, Tabor Seitaron, out of semi-retirement to hunt down the traitor Chalis. Our view of Verge is always through Tabor’s viewpoint. Tabor is a no-nonsense military man who wants to see the crew working under him make it through the mission, and more importantly, he just wants to get back to his cushy Academy job. Tabor is not a good man; he is completely willing to accept the cruelty of Verge and stays in line for most of the story like a good soldier. But he is an honorable man. We also get the separate viewpoint of Thara Nyende, a stormtrooper on Sullust, whose story only intercepts with the others fairly late on. She probably is a good person, or would be if out of the Empire, but she genuinely believes that the Empire offers stability, order, and safety. Even by the end of the book, after all that happens, while she is no longer an active combatant, she is not “reformed” and still wants to serve the Empire. In short, while we have one more comic-book-evil villain, the Imperials in the story are typically more complex characters, and some normal humans are shown serving the Empire without any intention of defecting.

Major franchise characters are referenced but used sparingly. Darth Vader is a terrifying force of nature when he briefly appears, but his concerns are focused on Skywalker, not the small fries who get in his way. Leia and General Rieekan are name-dropped, and Namir has a heart-to-heart scene with a smuggler on Hoth who may or may not be Han Solo. Nien Nunb is a secondary character in the last third of the novel. And there are many small nods to larger new-canon Star Wars continuity: Count Vidian, Tseebo, the Crymorah, and so on.

So why didn’t I quite love it? Part of it was the language and pacing, I think. It was often stripped-to-the bone, efficient, clinical. An appropriate voice for a gritty war novel, but hard to stay engaged. And the sense of boredom and hopelessness, the long passages where characters are confused and fail to see the bigger picture–that sort of stuff works for a war novel, too, but it’s not the most entertaining read. I think bigger-picture, though, I just disagree with the tone of the book. A gritty and dark Star Wars book that is space opera’s answer to real contemporary accounts of war seems like just the sort of thing I would have asked for as a young college student, someone edgier and contrarian and determined to see this franchise grow up and deal with Real Issues (despite already being over a decade older than I was). I’ve mellowed since then, and while I think Star Wars is big enough to tell a wide variety of stories, there’s something a little bit hollow about trying to convey the real horrors of war via space conflict. Star Wars can be serious, but it’s for kids too. And it’s escapist, even when it does wrestle with Real Issues (as it always has, at least on a metaphoric level). There are plenty of good war novels out there, written by participants of actual wars, that show the horrors and boredom and honor and antisocial behavior and suffering and confusion and moral complexity better than this book does, simply because they are by real soldiers (or real journalists/observers) about real wars.

At the very least, this exceeded my expectations for what a video game adaptation could be (especially given that the first of the new Battlefront games didn’t even have a plot). But it’s not really what I’m looking for in this franchise, not anymore.

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