Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt, by Chuck Wendig — a book review

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Author Chuck Wendig made news last year when he was fired by Marvel Comics. He was working on a Darth Vader series for the comic book giant at the time, and he claimed that his firing was a result of his social media commentary that, according to Wendig, “was too much politics, too much vulgarity, too much negativity” on his part. By all accounts, Wendig is not a fan of President Donald Trump.

Marvel’s parent company is, of course, Disney. Wendig was also reportedly pulled off an as-yet-to-be-announced Star Wars novel. This, after Wendig had written the Aftermath trilogy, among the first of the stories published in the new Star Wars Expanded Universe. Life Debt is the middle novel in this trilogy.

I don’t really know anything about Wendig’s politics, and I’ve never read any of his novels other than the first entry in this trilogy. If what he asserts is true, I think it’s a shame that Wendig lost all of his Star Wars gigs due to comments made in his public private life. However, this isn’t news anymore. Yes, you have Freedom of Speech. That doesn’t mean you can’t be fired for it. It happened to James Gunn, director of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, for some stupid jokes he tweeted long ago. Disney saw the error of its ways and rehired Gunn. So far, the same reinstatement hasn’t been offered to Wendig. Maybe that will change.

Let’s talk about Life Debt. It’s the middle installment in a trilogy, and like The Empire Strikes Back it goes a little dark. The conclusion of this novel doesn’t tie off all of the myriad plot threads in neat little bows, and everyone isn’t happy. You should know that going into it, so you won’t be disappointed.

You know, Empire is my favorite Star Wars movie out of all the movies made so far, and it is the darkest of the original trilogy for sure. I will accept that Rogue One is arguably darker because (SPOILER ALERT) everyone dies. I liked it, too. Maybe my tendency to enjoy stories that play on the dark side of the street is further proof of my Sith leanings. Regardless, I enjoyed Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt more than I did the first novel. And, I didn’t hate the first one; read my review here.

While the first novel was a brisk, entertaining read, it suffered from a lack of familiar characters during the early-goings. Sure, we had cameos by Mon Mothma, Admiral Ackbar and Wedge Antilles, but where were Luke, Han, Chewie, Leia, R2-D2 and C-3PO. You know, the old gang. The movie Rogue One had the same initial problem. That is no longer an issue in this novel. After reading their first adventure, Norra Wexley, Rebel pilot, and her son Temmin; Jas the Zabrak bounty hunter; Sinjir the former Imperial loyalty officer; Jom Barrell the special forces soldier; and, Mr. Bones the psycho repurposed B-1 battle droid, are all known entities. When I began reading the second novel, I felt like I was rejoining former acquaintances.

While writing this review, I just found out that Temmin Wexley is supposed to be the same character played in Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Greg Grunberg, J.J. Abrams’ best bud and Heroes alum. He was referred to as “Snap” Wexley, a nickname that Temmin inherited from Wedge Antilles.

Experience with the characters focused on by Wendig in the first novel may have been enough to make this an easier read. But, Chuck doubled-down this time. Maybe he was responding to corporate notes or fanboy feedback; maybe it was his plan all along. Whatever the reason, we get a lot of our old gang in this one. At least three of them—four, if you’re counting Wedge. A lot of this novel’s plot centers around a pregnant Leia Organa, her husband the former-General Han Solo, and his co-pilot the Wookiee Chewbacca. Leia sends Norra’s motley crew to find her husband, who has gone missing. A good chunk of the story follows this thread.

Wendig writes sequences that are easy for me to visualize cinematically on the movie screen in my mind. The opening sequence, in which Norra and her crew are about to capture an Imperial war criminal on a foggy planet, feels like the opening of a Star Wars movie to me. Especially the Jabba the Hutt sequence in Jedi (which in my world will always refer to “Return of,” not “The Last”). I could almost hear the John Williams score as I turned the pages.

It turns out, after Norra’s team accepts the mission from Leia, that Han isn’t actually missing at all. He’s trying to save Chewbacca, who’s been captured by remnants of the Empire. This takes us eventually to Kashyyk, the Wookiee planet, and the highly-coincidental first appearance of another character mentioned in the first book. I’ll accept coincidence in the Star Wars universe as a side-effect of the Force.

There’s enough going on in the Han story to fill a book, but that’s not the only story being told here. Grand Admiral Rae Sloane is back and has her own story thread that weaves its way through the novel. Unfortunately, she loses some of her apparent agency as we learn that she is a puppet for the enigmatic and shadowy Fleet Admiral Gallius Rax. The puppet master seems to have learned a few tricks about operating in the shadows from the departed Emperor Sheev Palpatine himself. Almost as if he were a disciple or something. Hm?

I will say that Rax’s power never comes off as convincing to me in this book and the character seems almost shoehorned into Rae Sloane’s story as a foil for the outspoken and Imperial-to-the-core Grand Admiral. Rax’s character traits, in fact, make him seem more like a second-rate Thrawn to me. But, Rae develops as a more attractive character because of the contrast, and when she clips her own puppet strings and takes bold action, I was nearly cheering her on. Even though she is—of course—still the enemy of the characters I’m supposed to be rooting for.

I liked this book. I compared the middle part of this trilogy to Empire Strikes Back earlier, so I’ll give a callback here. Did I like this as much as Empire? No, I didn’t. But, I like it much more than I did The Last Jedi. To continue the movie analogy: in my personal ranking of Star Wars movies (which still doesn’t include Solo, because I haven’t watched it yet), I would place Life Debt at #6 (of 9). And, honestly, on a different day, I may place it ahead of #5 Revenge of the Sith. Not a terrible showing.

I’ve read others complaining about the lack of depth in the novel’s characters. Some have called them cardboard (although I’d argue that even cardboard has a little depth). To those critics, I have one thing to say: You’re not wrong.

Okay, I have two things to say: You’ve also missed the point.

The point of all these Star Wars stories has been spectacle, not character-driven drama. Even our favorite original Star Wars crew were pretty much one-dimensional. What internal life they possess has been provided mainly by the viewers’ imaginations. Which, I’d argue, is exactly how it should be in this type of story.

The characters in this novel could each be summed up in one sentence, and not even a compound sentence.

If you think I intend this as a backhanded harsh criticism, let me assure you that I do not. I still like these characters (or like to dislike them). Maybe I’ve set my personal bar a little low, but I don’t think even Chuck Wendig intended for this book to be discussed as great literature. It’s entertainment. And it succeeds reasonably well as that.

Firewater’s Second-Book-in-a-Trilogy Report Card: B+

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