– Spoiler Review –
Aftermath: Life Debt, written by Chuck Wendig, is the middle piece of his Aftermath Trilogy. Life Debt‘s ability to give purpose to the first book’s randomness, provide the original characters more room to shine, deepening and answering several mysteries, and written with what seems like a less chaotic style (I quite like Wendig’s style either way) help make it better than its predecessor. Being the middle book has its drawbacks though, but the exciting set up for the coming finale prevents any of those drawbacks from truly affecting enjoyment of the novel.
Life Debt picks up only a few months after Aftermath ended, with the Imperial hunting squad consisting of the first novel’s new characters pulling in war criminals left and right. But when Norra, Temmin (and Mister Bones), Jas, Sinjir, and Jom begin to wonder if chasing the Empire’s fallen crumbs is really making a difference, they decide the best course of action is go straight for the head instead: Grand Admiral Rae Sloane. The New Republic is figuring out how best to approach its takeover of the galaxy, but the decisions being made make some of its fiercest supporters, like Leia Organa, question the government’s methods. Their stonewalling of the Kashyyyk situation forces Han Solo and Chewie to take matters into their own hands, but things backfire in the worst way and send Han spiraling out of control. The remnants of the Empire get pulled further into a web being spun by the mysterious Fleet Admiral, who pulls strings on both sides of the conflict for goals only he knows. Rae Sloane plays the Fleet Admiral’s games, thinking it’s the best way for now to save the Empire, but once she begins to uncover his surprising past and finds herself trapped further in his web than she realized, what’s a resourceful and brilliant woman like her supposed to do to save the thing she loves most? The one thing that connects them all is Gallius Rax, the Fleet Admiral that no one quite realizes has his hands in everything…until it’s too late. Norra and her Imperial hunters, Han and his quest to fulfill the life debt he feels he owes to Chewie, and Sloane’s journey to save the Empire collide numerous times over in very enjoyable, though sometimes predictable ways throughout Life Debt. The galaxy is in flux like never before, as we first saw in Aftermath, and things only get worse for everyone here as both sides rush to obtain what they want most: peace and control, though they all have their own methods and goals for achieving the same thing.
Much like the state of the galaxy, the characters are in flux as well, with each one going through a personal crisis of their own. Norra Wexley’s still having self doubts about why she’s fighting and if there’s any course of action she could’ve taken to keep her family together…or if there’s any course of action to keep her family together now; Temmin, Norra’s son, questions whether he should become a X-wing pilot (I wonder…), go back to black market trading where things were simple with supply and demand, or keep fighting to bring justice to Imperials despite the complex decisions that go into how they capture them; Sinjir Rath Velus is beginning to trust the people around him, something he didn’t think was possible after his position as an Imperial Loyalty Officer, but he begins to wonder if he’ll be able to save his new found friends if he’s not dispassionate towards them; Jas Emari struggles with the heart of gold hiding inside her, as doing the right thing without getting paid means the debts she’s inherited on behalf of her Aunt Sugi’s own heart of gold philosophy (about life and taking jobs) begin to stack up and those she owes come out of the woodwork to collect. Even characters like Han and Leia are in flux as well, but they get a slightly clearer resolution to their internal struggles than the main cast does by the end of Life Debt.
These crises fuel much of the book and it feels like a natural progression for each character to go along with their changes in circumstances from the end of the last novel. While a lot of those in flux find some clarity, they return to uncertainty by the book’s end, but it’s not an uncommon or surprising move considering there’s still another novel on the way. But what makes the internal push and pull between various paths to take so intriguing and worth the read here is two-fold: First, because Wendig has created some strong and entertaining personalities (minus maybe one) for each of his new characters (while also continuing the canon’s amazing development of Sloane), making them feel like friends or people one would like to get to know; Secondly, because a lot of the fears and problems they go through are actually quite relateable: am I doing the right thing for the right reasons? Am I on the right path? Do I really belong with these people and can be their friend, trust them? I didn’t necessarily find any advice to take to heart mind you, but the potential is there, making these people in a galaxy far, far away feel much, much closer.
Norra (which, let me just say it’s continuously great to a have a mother who is also a leader and solider as a main character) is also having doubts about those in command, as her and the team begin to question their targets, as they let a known slaver go just to capture an ex-Imperial (the opening of the novel). Norra begins to find new purpose for the team and herself by resigning her New Republic commission after she learns their upcoming mission to help and track down Han for Leia wouldn’t be a viably strategic use of NR resources. And just when Norra thinks she’s got everything figured out, having found a purpose and fight she can get behind like helping people, damning the resources, and also possibly moving on from her husband with Wedge Antilles, Brentin Wexley reappears with the prisoners they rescue while looking for Chewbacca with Han. Things don’t go like anyone expects from there.
Temmin might not have the best of people, i.e. the usually soused Sinjir, cold-minded Jas, and the psychotic (but immensely lovable) Mister Bones, to talk to regarding his feelings about what he wants to do, but when his father returns things get even less clearer than before…well, until some fateful events on Chandrila rock the NR and each of our characters to the bone. Speaking of bones, Mr. Bones somehow outdoes his appearance in Aftermath tenfold, from awkward hugs (and talking awkwardly about them), his excitement at splattering atoms everywhere to protect Temmin, and knocking Han Solo the hell out. To sum him up, here’s a dialogue exchange about him while he saves everyone’s asses in the prison ship on Kashyyyk: Han Solo, “That thing is terrifying.” Norra, “Just be glad it’s on our side.” True that, Norra…true that.
If I had to pick a favorite out of the new characters (I say new characters because Sloane is my favorite overall in the novels so far), Sinjir Rath Velus would be it (with Mister Bones coming a close, close second). He was my favorite from the first book as well, but somehow he gets even funnier and more entertaining than before in Life Debt. He bounces off every character he meets extremely well, from Han Solo, teenage angst Temmin, to crazy Advisor Tashu, instantly making any scene he’s in something I can’t wait to read. But he isn’t all humor and games, because out of all the internal struggles from the core team I have to say his was the most interesting to see progress, mainly due to his background as the Loyalty Officer meaning he can cut straight to the chase on other people’s problems…but not always his own. The time spent with the splicer boyfriend he picked up between novels and the interpersonal relationships with his teammates (especially his chats with Temmin) gives us some deep insight into what makes him tick and what he cares about the most, but his choices at the end point him astray from the progress he makes here even if he thinks it’s the right course to take for the right reasons. Here’s to hoping he’ll come out better on the other side of Empire’s End…
Jas didn’t ever agree with her Aunt’s chivalrous attitude towards the galaxy and those in need, but spending all this time with the team has turned her around to the idea. But as seedy underworld figures come out to collect on Jas new debts, she finds herself wondering if sticking around and doing the right thing is worth the risk of those rising against her coming to harm these new friends she finds herself caring about. Her past gets more and more interesting to learn about and her cold, calculating mind constantly coming at odds with what her heart wants makes for a lot of fun reading. Seemingly out of the blue, she’s hooked up with Jom Barell (who, if you noticed, I only just mentioned now), the Special Forces Rebellion solider, adding just a little extra pinch of drama to the proceedings. As for Jom, well, there isn’t much to say about him because he doesn’t bring much to the table. Sure, he has some really cool moments, especially towards the end on Kashyyyk, but he is the least developed character out of the entire book and feels like he’s just there to fill in the all-out action role. His path by the end of the novel, sticking around to help the Wookiees rebuild, seems like a perfect end to him and I wouldn’t be against him staying there during the last book.
And then there’s Rae Sloane, one of the most universally loved characters in canon so far. The love is thanks to how well-developed she’s become, starting with her excellent introduction in A New Dawn, several short stories (including one of her baddassery at the Battle of Endor), the first Aftermath, and the final Kanan comic issue. Sloane is someone who believes strongly in the Empire’s ability to bring order to chaos (which is spreading the galaxy, according to her, as the NR wrestles for control), that military might is paramount, trust in one’s troops and other Imperials is vital (while Rax has been breeding distrust since coming out of the shadows), and she’s against such antiquated Imperial practices like slavery and the subterfuge-type games Rax likes to play. Because of this, she’s a bad gal you can root for without feeling bad doing so and you’ll only root for her more here as she goes through betrayal, hardships, battles, and the tests of Gallius Rax. Sloane is putting up with Rax simply because she has no choice, as she knows he holds more cards than he’s letting on and if she is ever going to have any hope of resurrecting the Empire she so covets, she’ll have to go through him one way or another. She’s resourceful and determined, and while she doesn’t like Rax’s more covert methods, she uses them to some extent to uncover his past and his secrets in an attempt to level the playing field. By the end though, she’s in a much different place than from where she begins the novel, but if there’s anyone who can bounce back from the setback she’s taken, it’ll be Sloane. The fact that she’s a villain and I’m eagerly anticipating Empire’s End simply to see how she proceeds from here tells you a lot about how much I like her as a character and how well developed she’s become over the past two years. There’s never enough Sloane because her continued existence makes Star Wars great and thankfully she shows no signs of stopping being an amazingly well-developed character anytime soon. Let’s hope she lives long, even if it means heartache for our heroes.
I incorrectly guessed Thrawn, or at least this canon’s version of him, was to be the Fleet Admiral…but I’m rather happy he’s a new character: Gallius Rax. He spins a deep, layered web throughout the novel and he knows how to play all sides of the conflict to get what he wants. His penchant for artifice and keeping his plans close to his chest (like when he reveals he’s putting together a Shadow Council to help rule the Empire, surprising Rae, especially since she’ll be on it). As engaging as it is to watch his ultimate plans come to fruition thanks to his crafty subterfuge, even if I might not like the repercussion of his actions, it’s his history that sparks the most interest. The book flashbacks 30 years to little Galli living on Jakku, of all places, when he sees Advisor Tashu land on the planet with the Imperialis and begin digging. Galli sneaks aboard, feeling partly pulled by destiny and partly because he wants nothing to do with Jakku anymore due to him considering it a dead-end…only for Emperor Palpatine himself to assign Galli back to Jakku to watch over his dig site. Even crazier, this all happens roughly a few years before Attack of the Clones takes place aka the Clone Wars. 10 years later, Rax finds himself on the Imperial Navy fast track and then by post-Endor he’s using his influence and power to carry out some unknown goal…but it relates to Jakku and likely to what was being dug there all those years ago. My bet hedges on kyber crystals, something canon has been revealing Palpatine to have been obsessed about uncovering, with examples from Star Wars Rebels, the Utapau Arc from The Clone Wars, and Tarkin. All I do know is this: Jakku’s becoming more important than just where we find Rey and I can’t wait to learn what part of the new canon puzzle piece it fits when Empire’s End comes out…especially now that the back of Empire’s End cover teases Rey’s fallen AT-AT home, meaning it could tie even more heavily than originally expected with events in The Force Awakens and beyond.
One of my favorite aspects of having Han and Leia play a decently prominent role in Life Debt was getting to see these characters we’ve known and loved for years through new eyes. Norra’s take on Leia isn’t far off from how most people see her, including the surprise people get when they learn she isn’t as ice cold queen as they originally thought. Jas gives us her take on Han, which is fitting considering her issues with the heart of gold inside her that Han has clearly embraced (though pretends he doesn’t) and she finds his eternal optimism infectious (something the directors of the Han Solo standalone film commented about Han at Celebration Europe 2016). On top of that, Wendig writes Han and Leia very well, especially when they get to interact, and having any time getting to see them happy together, considering what’s to come, is always going to be greatly appreciated as we fill in the 30 year gap from RotJ and TFA. However, someone should’ve warned me about the scene at the end with Han and Chewie, because it brought me to absolute tears sitting in the airplane on my flight back from SWCE ’16.
There’s a lot of questionable decisions and shallow justifications coming from the NR, which pushes many characters in new directions…and helps set up how something like the First Order could slowly incubate and grow until the time is right to strike. Leia notices the problems with Mon Mothma’s approach to taking control of the galaxy, though understands why her friend is doing it at the same time. Mon doesn’t want to give anyone the impression the NR is going to be another Empire, tossing around its military might to bring planets into order, especially since throughout Aftermath and Life Debt we see numerous planets adversely affected by the lingering aspects of the war. To that end, Mon allows a council to help her plan where the NR’s assets go, meaning that many planets get passed over for ones with more “strategic” value in terms of influence, trade, and other factors that ignore the lifeform aspects of saving a galaxy and emphasize the material aspects of preserving stability. In the wake of the NR’s decisions to bypass helping certain worlds, crime syndicates and even a pirate nation in possession of a Super Star Destroyer begin popping up all over the galaxy, while worlds that might’ve been considered valuable to the NR start slipping out of that acceptable range. This also becomes a fertile breeding ground for those who begin what eventually becomes the First Order, as they can operate out of the NR’s reach and prying eyes and not ever be in any risk that the NR will find them. Leia’s thoughts (check out Chapter 18 for her rundown of how she sees this all going) reminds us she loves that the galaxy might have peace firmly and quickly, but she’s more concerned at what cost it’ll have in the long run. As Leia puts it in the book, isn’t helping other people, not gaining power and influence, why they started the Rebellion in the first place? She’s wondering how they got so far from that so quickly and decides to take matters into her own hands to help Han, Sinjir, Jas, and Jom when their takeover of Kashyyyk goes completely sideways.
As I mentioned in the beginning, Life Debt has issues only a middle book a trilogy could have, as while it ends with plenty of exciting set-up for things to come, it leaves the characters in mostly similar state of minds (still in flux) and the events within read like really fun and detailed background for something bigger. In fact, considering Wendig’s fake-outs in the last novel (which slightly overused them, while some return in LD) and the knowledge of a third book seemed to diminish the stakes for most of the characters here, as I never really was in fear for their lives or thought they wouldn’t make it out of this one and survive to the next one. Other little nitpicky issues with the novel include: the similarities in several names, like Jas and Jom, Rae and Rax, Sloane and Swift, etc. which can make reading these characters in a scene together tough sometimes if Wendig doesn’t refer to them with different parts of their name; blaster and rifle get used interchangeably in a few fight scenes, which took me out of a scene or two as it made me wonder how someone who just had a blaster suddenly has a rifle; several potentially big moments with Mercurial Swift and the missions Sloane sends him on get totally glossed over (freeing Commandant Hux from Arkanis, tracking down the Imperialis on the junk moon of Ord Mantell), which feels like a missed opportunity; and lastly, some of the surprises were a little too predictable (Brentin and the prisoners, Rax didn’t plan on attacking Chandrila with the fleet), but I will say for every predictable moment throughout, the finale had an equal moment that took me completely by surprise.
AND NOW SOME MORE, POSSIBLY BIGGER SPOILERS
Scroll down to “Here are a few other things” section if you don’t want to read them!
- Sloane manages to escape Chandrila after Rax’s inhibitor chiped assassins open fire at Liberation Day, but not after getting into some serious fisticuffs with Norra (probably my favorite fight in the whole novel) and ends up being shot by Norra while fleeing. As she hangs in the balance of life and death, she finds herself in the company of Brentin Wexley, who also ran away from Chandrila after he was forced by the chip to shoot at Mon Mothma, and they reluctantly team up together to get back at Rax for how he destroyed both of their lives. A message from Mercurial Swift, who plundered the wreckage of the Imperialis to uncover this next bit of news, reveals Rax is from Jakku and Sloane decides that’s where she and Brentin will go to begin their revenge (they stop at the bar featured in Aftermath‘s Interlude to Jakku). Much to her surprise, Rax shows up shortly after they do, though she doesn’t know why nor does Rax tell his Shadow Council why he’d want to come to Jakku either. For the answer, we’ll have to wait to find out until January. We’ll also have to wait to see how Sloane survives despite having everything stacked against her as she’s currently without any of her command or troops, Rax doesn’t want her to live anymore, and Norra ends the novel aiming the team straight at her. If anyone could come out on top despite those odds, I believe and desperately hope it’s Sloane.
- Han and Chewie splitting up, though given away by Bloodline earlier this year, still hits the heart hard because it’s rough seeing these two brothers and comrades in arms part ways after having seen them together for so long. On top of that it’s even more touching because these two aren’t separating due to some Imperial villain or problem of the week, which would’ve meant we’d have likely seen them get back together triumphantly in some hair-brained mission like Han goes on here to get Chewie back, but instead it’s due to them taking a break to focus on their families. And the real killer, which is why I was a grown man crying over my Kindle on the plane while reading, is Han’s line to Chewie, “…no way my kid won’t have you in his life.” Chewbacca’s howl at Han’s death and shooting Kylo/Ben on the bridge afterwards got an extra emotional punch it didn’t need. Thanks a lot, Wendig!
- Mas Amedda, who’s been entrenched on Coruscant having to play the public face of the Empire while all the various factions fight amongst themselves and with the NR, tries to surrender to Mothma and Leia at one point in the novel. Interestingly enough, they decline it and counter-offer: he signs a treaty to surrender the entire Empire. Sloane makes a surprise visit to his office (which mirrors the opening scene in Casino Royale slightly) to learn more about Rax and while he points her in the direction of the Imperialis’ wreckage, he also fights for a place in her Empire, extending his life for now.
- The Acolytes of the Beyond are spreading like a bad fungus, inciting a riot on Corellia as they steal a lightsaber from storage. Last book, they took what was possibly Darth Vader’s lightsaber from Taris and now they are bringing a whole city to it’s knees…what’s next for these crazies?
- The lawman, Cobb Vanth, who took what was likely Boba Fett’s armor in an Aftermath interlude is building some type of city on Tatooine with the help of others to provide law to a previously gangster infested planet. One of their plans to keep the Hutts at bay and make others submit to their new order is by having Malihiki, the rancor keeper last seen weeping over Pateesa’s death at Luke Skywalker’s hands in RotJ, raise/teach a baby Hutt to grow up to fulfill their needs. But just who’s baby was it? Could it have been another of Jabba’s?
- Leia and Evaan Verlaine, (first introduced and last seen in the Princess Leia comic, where she was one of the best aspects of the series) who gets a small but immediately unforgettable and spot-on appearance helping Leia appropriate the Millennium Falcon to help Han, have begun working on a surprising development to give the Alderaan Flotilla of survivors a place to live. It turns out they have a chunk of a Death Star to give the survivors in the hopes them deciding to build a giant space station of their own rather than wait around to get a planet to move to. I’ve been wondering since the PL comic what happened to this group and it’s nice to get some follow-up!
Here are a few other things:
- I’m just going to hope Sloane never mentioning her obsession with finding Kanan (from Star Wars Rebels) in the past two Aftermath novels is simply because she has way bigger fish to fry at the moment…and not that Kanan is dead or something.
- As much as I like Rax and his scheming, particularly his willingness to get rid of both friends and enemies, the fact that he isn’t Thrawn and Thrawn is now in canon kind of diminishes the impact of his character and mystery surrounding him. Having two brilliant strategists that can manipulate both sides of the conflict to get their desired outcome and are both nearly omnipotent makes Rax feel less original (even though technically, he was in canon ‘first’) and Thrawn not seem as smart because there are now two super-geniuses out there. On top of that, Thrawn appreciates an enemy’s art mainly because it can teach him how to beat them, while Rax loves the opera because it plays into his worldview of how one can care about something that isn’t real, thus his focus on artifice in his tactics; Having them both obsessive over a form of creative art doesn’t help keep them separate either. This can’t be blamed on Wendig or Life Debt, but it does make me question the Story Group allowing these two similar characters to exist, and digging into what makes them different or similar really needs an article in of itself.
- Leia gets some Force work in feeling Ben growing inside of her and when she slips into its stream during a space battle.
- The Imperialis was first introduced in the excellent Lando series, where Lando and his crew steal it without knowing it’s actually Palpatine’s. Things get out of hand for the group very quickly, and not just because the Empire and a bounty hunter named Chanath Cha (personally picked up the Emperor) come after them. It ends with only three of the crew making it off the ship alive…right before it finally self-destructs. How its remains ended up on the Junk Moon of Ord Mantell is an interesting question.
- Curious about General Hux’s first name? Armitage. Turns out he’s bastard-born, which makes even more sense why he always seems to have a chip on shoulder and something to prove to Supreme Leader Snoke (We learn his name when Rax’s Shadow Council is arranged and Sloane gets Brendol Hux flummoxed for interrupting her in an attempt to say she isn’t an important part of the Council…another reason to love Sloane).
- If you haven’t read Lost Stars, now would be the time to do so between Life Debt and Empire’s End. LS includes the Battle of Jakku, Grand Moff Randd (a member of Rax’s Shadow Council), and the reveal that Imperials continue to exist past Jakku by hiding out in nebulas (something Rax reveals having them do before the Battle of Jakku). Not only will it be a good read to see some of the connections, but it’s a damn fine novel overall.
- The Maz Kanata interlude is more interesting for the fight that breaks out between an ex-ISB agent and a Rebel pilot and the reasons for said fight, though Maz’s final moments about sensing something bad coming was a nice tidbit. Was she sensing the events of TFA or something to come much sooner?
- I felt like the Wedge and Norra romance worked…for the most part.
- Speaking of Wedge, towards the end he cobbles together a group of pilots to create the Phantom Squad in an effort to help Leia rescue Han and Kashyyyk from the Imperials unwilling to give it up. Considering the squad is full of a ragtag group of pilots, could this be a possible set-up for a new type of Rogue/Wraith Squadron series with Wedge at the helm? Let’s hope so! In fact, a Wookieepedia search turns up Phantom Squad being from Legends (some 130 years after BBY) where it was, “…created in the spirit of Wraith Squadron.” Well, that’s certainly a nice little wink and a nod, hey?
- A lot of the interludes from the first book connect or continue in Life Debt, most of which I’ve mentioned in this section or the spoilers section, with some coming to a close or some just getting crazier from here. It’s one of the many ways LD makes all the seemingly randomness of Aftermath more cohesive and essential to the story being told.
- The official site has a decent interview with Wendig about how Life Debt continues the story of Aftermath and what makes Sloane so damn special.
- A different interview with Wendig at io9 talks about the author’s feelings on lack of suspense for Temmin due to him being in TFA and where he wanted to start the story…to name a few things.
- Eleven-ThirtyEight has a great discussion on how Life Debt and other works so far have let canon drastically open up future story potential of the original trilogy era and anything post-RotJ (something I kind of touched on as well in a previous post, which was how the Legends wipe made RotJ‘s ending feel more open ended for the first time in a long time).
- UPDATE: Empire’s End release has been shuffled back a few weeks as to provide some space between novels. Originally it was to be out in January and now it’s set February 2.
Wendig’s Life Debt does everything a second book in a trilogy should do: it builds upon the (solid, though seemingly full of randomness) first one to begin revealing a more complex but cohesive story, all the while setting the stage for a finale readers don’t want to miss. Thanks to a strong pack of original characters, Rae Sloane’s continued excellence, a complex-interwoven narrative with compelling revelations, and some fantastic usage of cameos, Life Debt is another enjoyable read in the Aftermath Trilogy that will have you eagerly anticipating more.
+ Original characters thrill again
+ Sloane’s journey
+ Exciting set-up for big finale
+ Giving purpose to the first book’s randomness
– Middle-book of a trilogy problems (like getting every player ready for the next one)
CANON NOVEL REVIEWS:
Battlefront: Twilight Company
Lords of the Sith
A New Dawn
Heir to the Jedi
CANON YOUNG ADULT NOVEL REVIEWS:
Moving Target: A Princess Leia Adventure
Smuggler’s Run: A Han Solo & Chewbacca Adventure
The Weapon of a Jedi: A Luke Skywalker Adventure
Before the Awakening
Episode VII: The Force Awakens