“We all serve at the pleasure of the Emperor. None of us is indispensable.”
Iden Versio was a rising star in the ranks of the Imperial TIE pilots. Then she found herself to be an unlikely survivor of the Battle of Yavin. Through treachery, cowardice, and zealotry, a chain of events went unnoticed beneath the noses of the Empire, resulting in the destruction of the Death Star by Rebel terrorists. Versio vowed to make them pay, every last one of them.
The suicide mission of Rogue One gave the Rebellion false hope and made them a threat to be reckoned with. While the grand vision of the Empire is being seen to, the intimate details are best dealt with at intimate levels. Inferno Squad is the Imperial response to those missed details that led to the Death Star‘s destruction. It is a group of four of the Empire’s best, pilots all, with extra skills that make them well-suited for the task ahead. Their mandate: “to recover information, artifacts, or individuals that could prove harmful to the Empire if they fall into the wrong hands.” Their big objective for this story is to infiltrate and eliminate from within the remnants of Saw Gerrera’s Partisans (who now call themselves Dreamers) that enabled the Rebellion’s victory in the first place. Ordinarily, a mission of this nature would be a job for the ISB (Imperial Security Bureau), and there’s a lantern hung on this story point that says they already tried and failed. So, essentially, this is all a fancy way of saying, “Vader’s got the big story against the real threat to the Empire. Since this threat is beneath him, you lot of unknown small fry are ordered to clean up this side nuisance because the average Imperial agent is pretty much useless. Prove to your Emperor that you’re worthy of your own story.”
So begins Battlefront II: Inferno Squad. This tie-in novel (no pun intended) is the prequel to the forthcoming Battlefront II video game, which itself will begin at the Battle of Endor and cover the 30 years between trilogies. In that regard, I have no dog in this fight as I will not be playing the video game, a lack of time and money rather than a lack of interest. In this “everything is canon” era, we’ve already seen enough holes poked in that house of cards to know yet another clean sweep will be inevitable, so this isn’t something I feel I need to keep track of either. I cherry pick what holds the most interest for me. Everyone’s clamoring about how this is so exciting to have something from the Imperial perspective, and I would argue that we’ve had many Dark Side stories. That doesn’t make it less interesting to me by any stretch. I just like to keep these things in perspective. The “new” aspect of this is playing the Dark Side in the video game, which also isn’t a new thing, but it tends to be a crowd pleaser with Star Wars fans. What makes this story different for purposes of this novel, and what makes it resonate with me, is that it plays upon the newly seeded territory given us by Rogue One. The setup is something akin to the Empire’s version of 9/11. The characters certainly treat it as such. The character of Iden Versio is a voice we don’t hear from very often in the ranks, that of a rising military officer within the Empire looking to avenge those she called friends. And the idea of a covert team, essentially a small MI-6 styled unit… well, I’m a 007 fan. Of course I’m interested.
I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with this one right out of the gate. Maybe it’s my lack of investment in the video game because I won’t get to play it. Maybe it’s the complete lack of scenery-chewing villains that ordinarily make the Empire interesting. I really can’t say for certain. All I know is that it was a slow start after the opening scene at the Battle of Yavin. It certainly didn’t stay slow. The story is written as well as anything I’ve read from Christie Golden in the past, and the characters are all fleshed out quite nicely, each playing off the others in a way that added to the whole group. It’s cool to see this particular perspective as it opens up the galaxy a little wider and presents more possibilities. Its only real flaw is that it just doesn’t play to the primary reasons I engage with Star Wars. Even so, these kinds of stories have a built-in audience, even among fans like myself that prefer Force wielders and lightsaber duels. When dealing with a galaxy of such strong personalities, the central characters have to step up and become power players. Inferno Squad writes their own legend into the Star Wars universe.
The memory of Saw Gerrera is all over this book, and those who followed him are every bit as zealous as he was, for the same reason. You feel it. One of the Dreamers is from Alderaan. Need I say more? This story may have been a slow to get there, and it may not have any truly over-the-top villains, but it does have authenticity the comes from knowing Star Wars and being able to create credible characters with nuanced stories. It’s even better when you don’t have to keep reminding yourself that the protagonists are the bad guys. They remind us themselves at every turn. It makes for an interesting disconnect as they operate as heroes of the Empire with logic that makes perfect sense to them alone, doing things they find repugnant in order to protect their covers. I can’t help but wonder if Vader is going to requisition them at some point for one of his own missions between this story and the video game. I can’t stop thinking now that if they’d been available, he wouldn’t have needed bounty hunters to track down the Falcon. Such is the side effect of retconning.
As is often the case with the audiobook versions of Star Wars tie-ins, the productions are top notch. Familiar musical cues from John Williams and the classic sound effects of Ben Burtt and Matt Wood provide the soundscape that kicks things up a notch, ratcheting the story to immersive levels if the author and narrator bring their A games. As narrator, it’s equally appropriate to have Janina Gavankar, who portrays Iden Versio in the video game. Her delivery of the opening line “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” came across like it was somehow inconsequential to her, like a throwaway line, which really took me aback, but she dug into the performance from there and impressed me in short order. Her enthusiasm and intensity carried the book before the story really kicked in. After that, it was a near-perfect symbiosis. Star Wars has invested a lot into Battlefront II, so Inferno Squad has to do a great deal of heavy lifting in terms of pre-marketing hype. I certainly wouldn’t mind getting more of Inferno Squad’s adventures during the Original Trilogy era. Golden has created a fan pleaser in this one.