Inferno Squad is a great introduction to an exciting new character, but what Star Wars story does it tell? Joe has the review.
Iden Versio is a low-down, no good villain–and that is a very good thing. Because in Star Wars Battlefront II: Inferno Squad, author Christie Golden isn’t much concerned with a hero’s journey or cathartic redemption for her main character. Instead, Golden explores the magnetic allure of political extremism at both ends of the spectrum, allowing Versio to be something of a fascist that finds a kindred spirit and respect for her reactionary counterpart, the mysterious Mentor of the partisan freedom fighters known as the Dreamers.
Star Wars Battlefront II: Inferno Squad
by Christie Golden
This is a book for those Star Wars fans that love the Empire, and love seeing the bad guys win, because at its core, the protagonists of the book are unwavering, unflinching servants of the Empire and its Emperor. There are hundreds of pages of character bonding and exposition, which do their part to engender a sense of camaraderie between the members of Inferno Squad and personalities that are likable to the reader. It’s easy to forget that, in the big picture, the main characters are the ones the reader should be happy to see fail. And that is a credit to Golden’s talent as an author.
Who’s the Villain
That’s the paradox of Inferno Squad; you shouldn’t like Versio. She is self absorbed and so blinded by her own arrogance to notice her own privilege in the Empire. In fact, she rails against that very nepotism, demanding every know how “damn good” she is, despite her father being a high-ranking officer in the Empire. However, Versio is selected by daddy to lead Inferno Squad, leading to the more-than-obvious irony of a character that is tough and capable yet also a sycophantic cog in the machine. It makes the reader question her decision making to the core; is she truly capable of independent thinking, or is her personality as carefully crafted as her undercover story? Versio thinks she is the dynamic, cavalier hero of the EMpire, but in reality she is closer to the typical oligarch that rises through the ranks.
Speaking of her father, the character is tragically typical himself; a man so cold hearted, cookie-cutter and bland an Imperial that his only moment of compassion is an admission to his daughter that he let her mother die knowing she was never a traitor to the Empire. Nothing more, nothing less. What motivates the elder Versio? He seems filled with a cold malice that is unnecessary, yet doles it out in droves. There is no rational explanation for his nature, and it is difficult to resolve his favoritism for his daughter in a professional sense when he shows her nothing but contempt in a familial setting. Alas, Garrick Versio is a man consumed by the betterment of his legacy, obsessed with the improvement of the fortunes of anyone who carries his last name. That’s about it. Familial love didn’t matter much to him; having his wife know at the moment of her death that their child was no traitor? That mattered more. It may have been interesting to see a more complex relationship between Garrick and his daughter, but that may have unbalanced Iden’s character, imbuing her experience with more compassion than a villain deserves from the audience. It’s a thin tightrope to walk, but Golden crossed it successfully.
With the spotlight on the villains, does this naturally make the those freedom fighters that oppose the Empire in the spirit of Saw Gerrera’s Partisans, the Dreamers, the heroes of the novel? Hardly. The second irony of a novel titled Battlefront II is that there is little actual battling in it. Instead, Battlefront II: Inferno Squad is an espionage thriller, having Iden Versio and her team go undercover to dismantle the Dreamers from the inside, learn the source of their military intelligence, and ferret out a traitor in the midst of Inferno Squad. Much like in Rogue One, the Dreamers are not the Rebel Alliance; they are ruthless, hypocritical and extreme–unlikable in character and in method, with as little regard for human life and as hardline a political stance as their imperial counterparts.
It makes for an interesting dichotomy, especially in a Star Wars novel, because Inferno Squad is not black and white, and not shades of grey–it is all black. There are few characters worthy of redemption, and the typical bastions of hope (Jedi, Rebel Alliance) are nowhere to be found. Deep into the novel, it’s easy to forget that this story is indeed one set in the Star Wars universe. With a few minor edits, it could easily have been a story set anywhere, as its core characters have no real ties to the larger Star Wars universe and the concepts and themes are largely universal. Without the tethers of the Jedi, the Sith, the Force, the Rebel Alliance, and even the Empire, as well as a lack of known characters and place settings, it is unbound from the core conceits of the franchise.
This can be one of the novel’s strengths, but it is also one of its downfalls as well. Inferno Squad gets lost in the creation of its own world-within-a-world, and loses the classic tone readers com to Star Wars to see. It would be no surprise if Star Wars fans forget wholesale the majority of characters in the novel, remembering only the defiance of Versio and the true identity of The Mentor.
To that end, Christie Golden has done her job successfully, introducing a memorable character with a memorable backstory to carry over into one of the biggest video game releases of the year. Adding this success to the considerable talent displayed in Dark Disciple in 2015, Golden is a Star Wars author that deserves your attention. Her name alone should be enough to sell her next book.
Inferno Squad Audiobook
Janina Gavankar, the actor playing Iden Versio in the video game, lovingly throws herself into the narrative duties of this novel, taking ownership over this character with infectious enthusiasm. Her work as Versio in this novel is fantastic, delivering a performance that’s nuanced and affecting. However, her work as Versio is so strong that it feels bland and monotone to hear her narrate the rest of the novel as well, and other characters are not given the same nuance in their portrayal. This was the same issue with Ashley Eckstein reading Ahsoka. The performance got buried in the production itself.
In this case, less is more with a professional actor who wants to voice their character: hire a narrator for the rest of the novel and ancillary characters, and let Janina’s stunning performance stand out all the more. Or, better yet, elevate Star Wars novels to larger productions with full cast recordings, as well as new effects and music.
The latter point is especially important; readers who have been listening to audiobooks for years can by now list every effect and audio cue in the Star Wars audiobook library. There is a wealth of new music and sound effects post-prequel trilogy that can be mined from, given two animated series and two feature films; it’s past time for a production update.
Star Wars novels are in a strange place of late; they largely create their own characters and their own worlds, and carve out a niche to operate in that only nudges up against the main continuity of the Star Wars story. It’s a plan carried over from the old EU, and it is one that cannot sustain itself for much longer. Readers are looking for powerful stories that not only fill in gaps in storytelling continuity, but ones that add legitimate value to characters they love. Adding a new character to the Star Wars universe should be a major event; it shouldn’t be a strategy to avoid close interaction with larger storytelling arcs. For its part, Inferno Squad succeeds in introducing Iden Versio as a first-class Star Wars character. THe problem is that the rest fall to the wayside, paltry foils to the main pillar of the novel.
While authors must certainly feel the urge to create and add to the rich tapestry, it should be with discretion as well. I can only hope that the other members of Inferno Squad become favorite characters in the universe at-large, but I fear they will share the same fate as the supporting characters in Battlefront: Twilight Company, Ahsoka, the Aftermath trilogy, Bloodline, and so many others. The answer to this issue is unclear in the greater scope of how Star Wars operates as a business, but it is obvious a change is needed. Otherwise, it will become easier to predict recurring reboots of interstitial canon, but harder to understand if that is a good thing or not.
Aside from these issues–all of which are of a scope larger than one novel and the prodigious talent of Christie Golden, Star Wars Battlefront II: Inferno Squad works, and die-hard Star Wars fans will be highly satisfied with this novel. Will it be remembered in five years, or in ten? This reviewer can only hope so, because talented writers like Golden need the freedom to write legendary novels, not Legends novels.