As the second instalment in Alexander Freed’s Alphabet Squadron, it’s naturally hard not to compare Shadow Fall – out in paperback now from Del Rey books – to The Empire Strikes Back. In the same way Irvin Kershner’s film embraces the natural darkness afforded by a trilogy’s middle part, Shadow Fall does the same, telling a bleak story that grounds its characters immaculately, and orients new readers in such a way that makes this a valuable entry into Star Wars lore, even without any prior knowledge of Freed’s books.

Shadow Fall takes place soon after the events of Alphabet Squadron, catching up with the fleet of pilots led by Yrica Quell as their battle against Shadow Company – a group of elite Empire TIE pilots headed by Soran Keize – continues. Yet Freed takes the book in a much more character-driven direction, exploring the nuances of the crew by keeping them separate following a catastrophe on the Outer Rim planet of Troithe, as secrets of their past emerge and their willingness to fight for the galaxy, and for each other, is driven to the limit.

What some readers may find alienating about the book – but in many ways actually plays to its strengths – is that there simply isn’t much other Star Wars media like these novels. Sure, games like Star Wars: Squadrons focus on air-based battles rather than ground combat, but even that is rooted in the original trilogy’s settings and landscapes, something Shadow Fall opts against. Most of the action takes place on worlds that we’ve never seen before, but despite that Freed orients new readers comfortably, introducing them to Alphabet Squadron through a rollicking opening battle as they take down an AT-AT walker and its airborne TIE compatriots. He also explains the status quo of these characters really well, hinting at prior events just enough to orientate new readers without alienating old fans. We meet leader Yrica Quell, who has a hidden past she doesn’t want her team to discover, and her pilots Chass Na Chadic, Wyl Lark and Nath Tensent.

It takes place between the original and sequel trilogies, in a period where Emperor Palpatine is gone, but the remnants of the Empire fester on, regrouping and battling the New Republic. Seeing the Empire try to pick up the pieces is something hinted at in The Mandalorian – with Moff Gideon’s ragtag group of Stormtroopers featuring heavily – but Shadow Fall takes it further by exploring the politics of what happened post-Endor, how it impacted the Empire’s hierarchy, but also the effect it had on individual soldiers. The focus here is Soran Keize, the Shadow Company leader focused not on reviving the Empire, but causing as much damage as possible to New Republic forces. Keize feels reminiscent to the sequel trilogy’s Kylo Ren in many ways: he’s slightly burdened by his lighter past, and his disdain of the late Emperor makes him a far more layered villain than a simply an Imperial brute – Keize isn’t afraid to shed civilian blood to get what he wants.

Yes, this is a much more grounded look at the galaxy – there’s no Jedi here; not even a lightsaber, and it makes for a book that feels grittier and more adult than the films are often afforded. Freed certainly lets his writing skills take the reigns: there’s some wonderfully metaphysical and abstract sequences that challenge how we see our main characters, particularly in the book’s second act, as Alphabet Squadron are split up and unable to communicate with one another. It’s testament to the strength of Freed’s writing of these characters that during these moments of separation, the book is just as engaging, giving us more chances to delve deeper into the characters. Without getting into where they are and why, it’s all perfectly situated for each character, to unpick their psyche and challenge who we thought they were – something, again, that feels very reminiscent of Empire.

Of course, as a Star Wars novel there’s bound to be plenty of references to wider continuity, but rather than erring towards the ham-fisted, they feels natural and rewarding. Without specifying who may be mentioned – as these moments are used sparingly but effectively – it fits perfectly into fans’ knowledge of the saga, linking together eras and films that otherwise may not have been incorporated in such a way – proof that Freed is above all else a fan of the franchise too, meaning Alphabet Squadron are certainly in safe hands.

Any middle entry faces the burden of lacking narrative closure, and while you may be able to guess how Shadow Fall ends before reading it, the journey towards this conclusion is very satisfying. Freed’s language is at times repetitive – if you hear TIE blaster fire described as ’emerald’ once, you’ll hear it a million times – but his reverence for Star Wars shines through in the level of detail and care paid to the characters and their situations. They’re all so well fleshed out – aside from Shadow Wing themselves, which is inevitable, but a shame – and the exploration of a seedier, more brutal side to Star Wars is a very welcome shift in tone and approach.

Going into the book, you may struggle to accept a Star Wars story without a single lightsaber, or not one use of the force, but once Freed’s characters pick you up, you’ll be entranced until the jaw-dropping final line. Exploring the saga from the ground level is a perspective we so rarely see, which makes a story as well-plotted and engaging as this all the more worth treasuring.