Video game tie-in novels are typically of dubious quality. Shadows of the Empire was never great storytelling as prose or pixels. It came as a surprise to me how much I enjoyed Battlefront: Twilight Company and how grounded the series felt. Freed was clearly inspired by the long history of military science fiction and the hard-hitting reports of wartime journalism so prevalent in the last decade. What we get is a gritty, grimy, soldierly look at war on a galactic scale from the perspective of a boots-on-the-ground grunt. And somehow the book maintains the optimism inherent in Star Wars. It’s a refreshing look at Star Wars and brings to mind Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath in many ways – the action has an immediacy that pulls the reader into the world, caring about one character rather than the fate of a galaxy.
Johnny Rico, meet Namir
The novel follows Namir – a veteran sergeant of the 61st mobile infantry, Twilight Company – as he rises through the ranks during the darkest days of the Rebellion. He’s a jaded soldier fighting for the Rebel Alliance because fighting is all he knows. There is no patriotism in him, no love for the cause. As he is thrust up the chain of command he must grapple with his own doubts and whether he can serve the soldiers under his command if he is not a true believer.
The arc of grunt to commander is a common motif in military sci-fi, though the emphasis on the purpose and politics of war remind me of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. I can’t help but think that Twilight Company is Freed’s attempt to filter Starship Troopers through the lens of Star Wars. This isn’t a bad thing – Starship Troopers is a hell of a book and Freed is a good enough writer that the book stands on its own. In some places the homages shine through a little too brightly, though. Twilight Company is a mobile infantry unit the same as Heinlein’s Roughnecks. One of the fallen Twilight grunts is even eulogized as, “Bleeding Roughneck till the end.”
Where Rico learns political theory and struggles with math, Namir studies the inscrutable Captain Micha Evon, learning by trial and fateful errors. Early in the book the captain explains the Rebellion’s purpose in poetic fashion:
Our goal isn’t conquest, but alchemy. The transmutation of the galaxy. We are a catalyst, where Rebellion comes into contact with Empire, change must occur. The substance of oppression becomes the substance of freedom—and with any such change, terrible energies are released: war, victory, defeat.
This becomes the central conflict of the second half of the novel. Namir must divine the properties of the catalyst that is the Rebellion and determine how best to keep it pure. Freed explores this idea with a deft hand, unafraid to have Twilight go down the wrong path at first. Or the right path for the wrong reasons, which amounts to much the same thing when speaking of ethereal transmutation of ideologies. Namir’s realization and course correction feel very natural and is a significant turning point in the story. Suddenly we have a protagonist with a cause. Don’t get me wrong, Namir was interesting before his epiphany but it’s hard to root for a nihilist.
The reason Battlefield Twilight Company works is because the book never asks, “Will Twilight win the war?” Those stakes are set, we know they won’t. Instead the book asks, “Will Twilight Company remain true to the ideals of the Rebel Alliance?” It’s a much more delicate and fraught question; a bigger question grounded in the reality of the story. This makes for compelling Star Wars.
The Hard War
Accompanying Namir in the book are his squad. Gadren is a hulking, four-armed besalisk with a penchant for purple prose. Charmer is a scarred man with a stutter. Brand is a former bounty hunter and commando only suited to war. Then there’s Roach, a young woman who joins up at the beginning of the novel on Haidoral Prime. Through Namir’s eyes we watch her grow from ‘fresh meat’ to a competent, trusted soldier and integral part of the squad.
We never quite see the war through their eyes but they are the compass by which Namir’s experiences are directed. Gadren is a philosopher and moral compass. Charmer is the everyman of Twilight. Brand is the soldier who’s seen too much to become an officer. And Roach is hopeful recruit, representing everything Twilight Company is fighting for.
Alexander Freed does a phenomenal job of capturing the essence of war across multiple layers. The dynamics of the squad direct the characters and drive the story, both in and out of combat. His descriptions of firefights are punchy, violent, and brutal but musings on strategy and tactics are analytical. He adapts his prose to fit the needs of the combat at hand. He has a deft touch.
Splitting up the narrative of Twilight Company’s desperate campaign are chapters focused on the Imperials and flashbacks to Namir’s early adulthood. The flashbacks are set on the primitive planet of Crucival – a world ruled by a rotating cast of warlords and cults. Through these chapters we learn how Namir came to be the man he is during the main campaign. His sense of honor and camaraderie are bound up in his early years on Crucival.
The Imperial chapters follow two characters: Thara Nyende, SP-475 of the 97th Imperial Stormtrooper Legion, and Captain Tabor Seitaron of the Imperial Navy. Both are sympathetic characters. Thera is a good person. She gives to the needy. She only signed up to be a stormtrooper because she wants to protect her family. Order and security are important, which is why the terrorists must be stopped. Captain Seitaron would be a model officer in a modern military – a capable leader, concerned for the lives of the soldiers under his command, and the rightness of his government. He is plucked from the Imperial Academy at Carida and assigned to work under Prelate Verge, one of the Emperor’s inner court. It is through Verge that Seitaron witnesses first-hand the moral iniquity of the new elite.
This is all tempered by the character of Governor Chalis, an Imperial defector Twilight picks up on Haidoral Prime. Namir, Thara, and Seitaron are all focused on their personal needs; to find my purpose, to protect my city, to return to the Imperial Academy. Chalis, in contrast, is a big-picture character. Her understanding of the Empire’s infrastructure and logistics drives the campaign Twilight Company undertakes through much of the book. The ideological clash between her and Namir stems from these differences. It’s interesting to note that both Chalis and Verge share a lack of humanity as well as an eye on the galaxy as a whole.
Battlefront Twilight Company spans a ton of different worlds. Many planets are introduced in the novel, such as Crucival and Haidoral Prime, but planets from the films are used as well, including Hoth and Sullust (getting a second canon “on camera” appearance as it was featured in Princess Leia #3). I don’t recall any new species being introduced. Many pieces of technology (weapons and starship parts, mostly) are introduced and further define the capabilities of technology in Star Wars.
The Battle of Hoth is featured as a set-piece in the book but, aside from one scene where it is implied Namir gets drunk with Han Solo, don’t expect any famous Rebels to be featured even as set dressing.
Battlefield: Twilight Company is a fast-paced, introspective look at war. It’s steeped in Star Wars and fans will immediately fall into Freed’s characters. The biggest disservice one could give this book is to call it missing the single player campaign of Star Wars Battlefield. Twilight Company stands on its own as a solid entry in the Star Wars canon and one of the more literary entries, to boot. It needn’t rely on the crutch of a video game to be one of the best novels in the new canon thus far.