**Spoilers for Star Wars: The Alphabet Squadron trilogy**
Something that gets glossed over from the Original Trilogy and the Sequel Trilogy is what becomes of all the Imperial Officers and workers that were left when the second Death Star fell.
The Mandalorian is starting to answer these questions with Imperial remnants that did not surrender and did not escape to the Unknown Regions with Grand Admiral Rae Sloane. But Alexander Freed’s Alphabet Squadron trilogy examines the Imperial mindset between Operation: Cinder and the Battle of Jakku. But while Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy focused on the high-level leadership of both sides, Alphabet Squadron focuses on the pilots in the thick of everyday battles.
Alphabet Squadron is not a perfect trilogy. While the first novel is a breeze of introductions of characters and conflicts, establishing all the key players and dynamics of the title squadron, the second novel (Shadow Fall) drags, and the third novel (Victory’s Price) feels unfocused and rushed to a conclusion.
Too much time is spent with characters like Chass na Chadic and Wyl Lark, who are great in smaller doses but struggle to carry the weight they are given. And, I’m sorry to say, I find the character of Kairos wholly unnecessary. There are also many battles between different squadrons, and most are hard to follow on the page leading to a disconnect with what should be high stakes for these characters.
And yet, it has done the best job of conveying the hesitancy of Imperials to surrender to Republic forces.
Throughout most of the first novel, Alphabet Squadron, we spend in the mind of one of those Imperials, TIE pilot Lieutenant Yrica Quell. We meet her on Traitor’s Remorse, a processing base for Imperial defectors. She is assigned a reprogrammed IT-O torture droid as a therapist and keeps herself sane by maintaining a routine since she can no longer fly. There, Quell makes a poignant observation about the new arrivals long after the Battle of Endor:
The first wave of deserters understood what the death of the Emperor meant, the second wave came after Operation: Cinder (a turning point for many Imperials having to kill billions with no strategic value). But this recent wave is everyone who stayed past all of that, knowing the true face of the Empire.
Still, it is an Imperial defector passing judgment on other defectors. One who has secrets of her own. First, Quell intended to join the Imperial Starfighter Corps, gain valuable skills, then defect to the Republic to use them for good. But then she found out (or perhaps started buying into the propaganda) that the Empire was not that bad, got comfortable, and stayed. Second, she did not decide to defect. Instead, she took an order from her commanding officer, Major Soran Keize of the 204th Imperial Fighter Wing (aka Shadow Wing) who, up until the end of Alphabet Squadron, also tried to leave his past behind.
But Quell feels comfortable enough to distinguish herself from other defectors. She is certainly not viewed differently by other defectors and not by some New Republic officials. Intelligence Agent Caern Adan does not buy Quell’s concern for the safety of the base against Imperial suicide bombers. He also knows that she was a member of Shadow Wing, a merciless TIE squadron that has continued to target New Republic squadrons and ships.
Adan recruits Quell as an X-Wing pilot to use her to help take out her former squadron, but he never completely trusts Quell. He sends Quell to recruit another former Imperial, Y-Wing pilot Nath Tensent, whose squadron was wiped out by Shadow Wing when they defected after taking bribes from pirates. He has her listen to hours of recordings of Operation: Cinder, which she participated in, reliving that trauma. When Alphabet Squadron has rounded out with U-Wing pilot Kairos, B-Wing pilot Chass na Chadic, and A-Wing pilot Wyl Lark, none of them know about Quell’s past.
Quell begins to try and make an effort to connect with the team, even after a horrendous failed first mission. She gets an Alphabet Squadron insignia painted on their ships and a tattoo, showing her commitment and also showing how different the dynamics are between squadrons on both sides. We get some of this in canon games like Battlefront II story, Star Wars Squadrons, and the second season of Star Wars Resistance. But Alphabet Squadron is an adult novel, so there are fewer punches held showing the brutality of the way Shadow Wing operates vs the New Republic squadrons.
Yet, despite all this effort, when Adan learns that Quell fully participated in Operation: Cinder and only defected afterward, he uses it as blackmail to keep her in line. Both sides are empathetic: Quell’s participation in these atrocities is inexcusable, but Adan’s approach (even from an intelligence standpoint) proves the point of people like Keize. That the New Republic will never truly accept former Imperials.
Adan uses that information on Quell to compel her to support a plan to draw out Shadow Wing even though it would cost more lives on the New Republic side. Adan is not positioned as an antagonist in the Alphabet Squadron trilogy because he is on the New Republic side, but he is an antagonist for Yrica Quell. Adan is not wrong in his assertion that Intelligence units are just as important to the New Republic’s efforts because they can prevent war. However, in his quest for validation and more resources, he ignores what is best for Alphabet Squadron, and forces Quell to act in her own best interests.
One step toward meaningful redemption is a bigger villain, and the overall villain in Alphabet Squadron is the system that the Emperor created. A system that kept its members complicit and on a path where they would have to confront a galaxy that no longer needed them.
Darth Vader is often sighted as an example of a redemption story within Star Wars and, looking at the Original Trilogy in isolation, he could be considered a good example. However, looking at canon as a whole, including his time as Anakin Skywalker, throwing Palpatine down a shaft does not quite cut it. Like Quell, he was complicit in horrific events like the destruction of Alderaan and Jedha. Unlike Quell, he was directly responsible for the death of many children in the Coruscant Jedi Temple, and Tusken children. Some things should take a little longer to come back from, and the Prequel Trilogy and other content demand a closer critique of his redemption arc in the Original Trilogy.
Yes, Quell is responsible directly for many deaths, including Imperials when she and Nath rescue Adan in Shadow Fall. She also rescues him to try and protect her involvement in Operation: Cinder, which is futile because Adan had a failsafe, so her squadron found out anyways. The treatment from her team, the death of Adan, and subsequent psychological torture from IT-O send Quell back into Imperial arms.
It comes to a head when Quell has to access a Sith temple to escape the planet her, Adan, and IT-O crashed on. With the others gone, she has to accept her compliance to the atrocities of the Empire to access a ship within the temple:
“She’d stopped resisting after Pandem Nai. Every moment since she’d acutely felt her own guilt, her own complicity and cowardice. She understood all she had done and why. The droid had mistaken an unwillingness to confess with a lack of comprehension.”Freed, Alexander. Shadow Fall (Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron) (p. 405). Random House Publishing Group.
Quell is still not redeemed, but there is a level of empathy that she is trying. And the reaction of her team when they find out the truth about their squadron leader’s background is also realistic and understandable. No one is completely wrong, and no one is completely right. It is the grey space that Star Wars should be operating in for all of their content and not just the novels.
The final novel, Victory’s Price wraps up Quell’s journey to redemption. Quell does not stay with Shadow Wing long as she still is loyal to the New Republic, and ultimately confronts Keize as he is trying to destroy the database of all Imperials on Coruscant. She also gives her reasoning to Keize on why it should not be destroyed:
At that moment, Quell understands that she has no right to expect that the New Republic will judge her and others fairly or that they will offer a path to redemption. But knows that they should be judged for their crimes.
After the Battle of Jakku, she gets her answer as the test subject. Mon Mothma places her under house arrest, and Quell’s decision to stay loyal to the New Republic sets the precedent for other Imperials after Jakku. While Quell cannot participate in the New Republic government, including voting or getting government contracts for work, she is not in prison. And she is in a relationship with Chass.
For the most part, Yrica Quell gets redemption and a happy ending (as much of a happy ending one can have in Star Wars). But she earns it for three novels, and even in the end, she is still a work in progress. And a work in progress should be the goal of every redemption story. Star Wars has relied too much on self-sacrifice to be sufficient, but it is not enough. One good deed does not erase a lifetime or even years of bad ones. And not all redemption stories need to be successful.
In Part 2, I take a closer look at the character of Soran Keize as one of the antagonists of the Alphabet Squadron trilogy and why his path to redemption was unique to Yrica Quell’s path, and to Star Wars overall.