The journey to The Force Awakens continues in the second book of Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy.
The scrappy band of misfits, bounty hunters, and former soldiers introduced in the first book has been successfully (for the most part) tracking down high-ranking Imperial officers and dragging them back to the New Republic.
Far from being wiped out, the remnants of the Empire are stubbornly holding on to the planets they control and gathering their forces for another attack against the New Republic. But while some Imperial officers truly believe that having the Empire in charge would be better for the galaxy (certainly better than the chaos that’s going to result from the New Republic’s idealistic half-measures), others are working behind the scenes to return to the days of secret police, puppet governments, and an Emperor like Palpatine. Only much worse.
I don’t even know what I’m doing here, either. I suspect that the moment I have it figured out, I’ll probably die half a second later. Because if there’s one mystical energy that powers the galaxy, it’s not the Force. It’s pure, unadulterated irony.
If you’re wondering why this review has no mention in the opening paragraphs about the “Life Debt” from the title, well there’s a reason for that. Other than a brief scene at the beginning we don’t even see Han Solo until almost halfway through the novel. Despite what the description on the cover of the book may say, the rescue of Chewbacca is a secondary storyline at best.
I was a little irritated by the first hundred or so pages. Wendig’s use of the present tense can be a little grating, and he occasionally falls back on simplistic dialog where someone declares that they’re one of the “bad guys” or uses phrases like “it only offers her terror, from which she must wrest her own respite” (lord save us from clunky writing in the guise of being “clever”). We get to wade through lot of self-reflection, and characters’ motivations being repeated over and over, and while I understand the need to build relationships, there’s no need to be so clumsy about it. There’s actually a scene where two characters – who have been sniping at each other for an entire chapter – get into a knock-down drag-out fight that very embarrassingly turns into sex. The whole thing just screams INSERT TROPE HERE.
As many reviewers have already pointed out, a main focus of the story is on administration and political maneuvering. Mon Mothma almost becomes one of the bad guys by insisting that it isn’t politically expedient to liberate the entire Wookie race from slavery. And you have to be a little wary when two whole chapters are centered around a Grand Admiral looking through an archive on Coruscant.
Fortunately the novel settles into its pace by about chapter nine. The misfit team – bounty hunter Jas, solder Jom, former Imperial officer Sinjir, Rebel pilot Norra, her son Temmin and his droid Bones – still has all of the fun scenes, and Sinjir still gets the best lines (although Jas gives him a run for his money several times). And even though I had a hard time telling which of the Interludes are actually relevant to the plot, they’re still overflowing with interesting tidbits about the various planets in the galaxy and how they’re reacting to the end of the Empire (the Rancor trainer from Return of the Jedi makes a long-overdue appearance, and we get some new information about the Sarlacc pit).
A little necessary depth is added to the Imperial Officers in this book. Grand Admiral Sloan is surprisingly bad-ass, and the most dangerous kind of idealist: she really believes that anything less than total control by the Empire will lead to mass chaos and suffering for most of the people in the galaxy. Individuality be damned, you just can’t trust everyone to act for the good of everyone else, so it’s better to have everyone fall in line and do what they’re told. And she is not comfortable with underhanded tactics and secret plots that are being used by the shadowy figures running things from behind the scenes.
You could always trust a human, the Empire said; aliens would always betray you.
Of course, over time Sinjir learned the foolishness of that, because as it turned out human beings were fairly horrible.
The story really gets going when we finally run into Han Solo, and his would-be rescuers are dragged along with him to help with the small project of sneaking onto Kashyyyk, freeing Chewbacca from an Imperial prison, and, oh yes, liberating the entire planet from Imperial rule. The images from Kashyyyk are awe-inspiring (imagine looking at a planet from orbit and seeing the clouds flowing through the immense trees), Solo is brilliantly in character (I loved the bit where you could tell from an intercom’s automated responses that Solo was just angrily shouting at a computer somewhere), and Wendig writes some nail-biting scenes, including a sneak attack inside a Star Destroyer that looks like a scene from Cabin in the Woods (you know which scene I’m talking about).
When the chips are down and you have squat for cards, what can you do?
You even the odds.
And the way Han likes to even the odds is by cheating
Everything about the Han and Chewbacca storyline was exactly what I wanted – including the reunion between Han and Leia – so it’s a shame that it’s a relatively small part of the book. Wendig has to walk a fine line here: he can’t show too much backstory about elements that will be revealed in the new movies. But since these books about supposed to drum up enthusiasm for the new movies that means he can’t spend the entire time on old favorite characters who won’t have a huge part in the films. So he has to focus on showing how we went from the Rebel Alliance winning the war, to a resurgent Empire and the New Republic in pieces. That means lots of meetings (secret or otherwise), long discussions vis-a-vis total government control versus freedom of the individual, and of course entire storylines about Wendig’s new characters, who will probably never appear in a movie at all.
I’m kinda hoping I’m wrong about that last bit. Sinjir’s still one of my favorite characters, and he really does get the best lines.