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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On The Front Lines: Extra Notes

In my review of Star Wars: On The Front Lines, I mostly talked about the narrative, but I really loved the art too. Writer Dan Wallace and artists Adrián Rodriguez, Thomas Wievegg, Aaron Riley, and Fares Maese (and of course the associated editorial/publishing team) produced an excellent product. The image at the top of this post is an example of some of that beautiful artwork; I’ll abstain from sharing any other images because you should check the book out for yourself.

If you haven’t looked through the book yet, though, you should probably stop reading here. While the book recounts major battles from the films and from The Clone Wars show, it does actually include a number of potential spoilers when it fleshes out additional details. And I want to talk about some of those details!

First, the level of diversity in these pages is great, with the focus on characters like Jedi Knight Bultar Swan, Jedi Master Mace Windu, Coruscant Home Fleet Commander Honor Salima (a woman of color and Republic officer who appears to have been invented for this book), Grand Moff Randd, and Resistance pilot Jess Pava. We also get a spotlight on a lot more aliens: Gungan General Ceel; separatists like Geonosian Archduke Poggle the Lesser, Kerkoiden General Whorm Loathsom, Techno Union Emir Wat Tambor, and cyborg General Grievous; Twi’lek freedom fighter Cham Syndulla and Twi’lek refugee Numa; Ewok chief Chirpa; Mon Cal Admirals Raddus and Ackbar; Sullustan smuggler Nien Nunb; Resistance pilot Ello Asty; and a new personal favorite of mine, Ranat commando Musmuris Reetgeet. With the addition of perspectives of droids and clones, this feels to me like a highlight of meaningful diversity in Star Wars, with diverse characters in diverse roles that don’t (to me, at least) come off as mere tokenism. This is truly a whole galaxy involved in war. Of course, there are plenty of perspectives from white characters, especially white men–and honestly, some of those perspectives are my favorite (I’ll touch on a couple examples later).

Okay, so the next thing I want to bring up is that it’s great to have Bultar Swan show up. Aside from her brief appearance in Episode II, I think this represents her first new canon appearance, and it confirms that she survived Geonosis! I’d like to see more stories with her. I’ve been somewhat fascinated by Bultar Swan ever since she showed up in the Wizards of the Coast Star Wars Roleplaying Game supplement, Power of the Jedi Sourcebook.

20171001_150537 Instead of just another background Jedi, she had a deeper story. I thought that was cool. Most of the alien Jedi in the Battle of Geonosis have gone on to have stories told about them. Not all of the humans have more than a name and likeness. I don’t think there were ever that many stories about Bultar Swan, but she’s basically a complete enigma in the new canon.

That’s all to say that the character remains rather intriguing to me because of the mysteriousness of her background. I’d enjoy seeing her explored more. The brief excerpt in On The Front Lines that is written from her perspective seems reflective of her older personality, but there’s plenty of room for this character to grow.

 

 

I liked the reexamination of more well-known characters, as well. For example: I’ve always had a soft spot for Rebel fighter ace and Rogue Squadron pilot Wedge Antilles, the man who survived both Death Stars, and reading the section in his perspective was brutal. Wedge reflects,

I survived the Battle of Yavin, and for a long time, a part of me wished I hadn’t.

. . .

When a laser blast from one of [the TIEs] melted my micromaneuvering controls, I was done. I couldn’t continue the run. I had to get out of the trench. If I had stayed, I would have fishtailed into Biggs and taken us both out.

I apologized over the comm and pulled out of the trench. For just a moment I felt my fear turn into relief. That’s the moment I always think about. That’s the moment that hardened into guilt.

Poor Wedge! What a real emotion, what a sincere experience in this fantasy galaxy. And I think it gives Wedge a clearly defined narrative arc in the films, one that would not otherwise be there (at least explicitly). Wedge keeps trying to make up for that moment, and maybe he finally does when he helps to take down the second Death Star. At least, I sure hope he found some peace of mind in doing so (here I am, talking about this fictional character like he’s a real person–what can I say, the writing here worked really well).

And Nien Nunb, who got to have more of an interesting story and personality in the new canon’s Princess Leia comic, has a pretty funny and sassy section in which he cheers the superiority of smugglers in the Rebellion.

One character revision that certainly stood out to me, though I didn’t necessarily like it, involves Hobbie Klivian (the image at the top is from this section). As you may know, in the novelization of The Empire Strikes Back, Hobbie is dying in a crippled snowspeeder and directs it into General Veers’s AT-AT, apparently killing them both. The novelization concludes the scene as follows, from the perspective of General Veers:

At that instant, Hobbie’s burning ship crashed through the walker cockpit like a manned bomb, its fuel igniting into a cascade of flame and debris. For a second there were human screams, then fragments, and the entire machine crashed to the ground.

This death scene does not appear in the film. It could not happen offscreen exactly as written, either. In the novelization, Hobbie appears to interrupt Veers’s attack on the shield generator. But in the film, Veers survives at least long enough to personally destroy the shield generator.

In the old canon, a version of the crash did occur. In this version, Hobbie and his gunner ejected in time, and he went on to become an important figure in the X-Wing franchise of comics and novels (confession: as beloved by fans as the series is, I never read the books and only saw maybe a couple issues of the comics). Veers, meanwhile, was left disabled by the attack, although he continued to serve in the military as well.

Hobbie’s kamikaze death has been restored–and there’s no way he got pulled from the wreckage this time. The first sentence of Hobbie’s section notes his “heroic death.”

What I’m worried about now is the fate of General Veers. Apparently Hobbie crashed into Blizzard One, the lead AT-AT, just as in the old canon. As I’ve previously mentioned, General Veers is my favorite Imperial of the films and one of the few Imperial officers who is actually competent. Dan Wallace recognizes this competence, writing of Veers that he was a “brilliant tactician” whom “Darth Vader respected . . . for his eerily calm demeanor under fire.” I saw nothing definitive about what happened to Veers in the book. It certainly seems likely that he is dead. But he could have survived, evacuating the AT-AT in time. Maybe he was badly injured in this new canon version and will once again return to active military service. I hope so. It’s always more interesting when the Rebellion actually has a challenging and recurring foe. And I suppose I don’t love the idea of Veers dying in a nearly identical way to Piett, killed by a damaged kamikaze craft when his forces are overextended.

At this point, I could go on and on, but I’ve covered the things that most fascinated me about the book (though I have to name-drop Musmuris Reetgeet again, because he’s a cool guy). It’s a great Star Wars reference book, and it’s also a lovely art book. I hope there are more guides like this released for the new canon!