Star Wars: Aftermath Life Debt - Review
Chuck Wendig's second entry into the Aftermath trilogy promised a greater intensity of lead-up into 'Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens', which he successfully delivered through consistent pacing, engaging plot and compatible chemistry between Wendig's original characters from the first 'Star Wars: Aftermath' and the legendary Original Trilogy characters. Wendig managed to be generous for most of the pages, revealing a lot of juicy bits that fill in the gaps between 'Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of The Jedi' and 'The Force Awakens' while keeping certain cards close to his chest. 'Star Wars: Aftermath Life Debt' hits the sweet spot of balance between drama and action, which says a lot when juxtaposed with the mild plot and slow pace of Wendig's debut story in 'Aftermath'.
Meet Rax, The Puppetmaster and Sloane, The Alpha Puppet
When I finished reading 'Aftermath' at the end of 2015, I just can't keep my mind off from Grand Admiral Sloane, which is by far my personal favorite character among the fresh faces in the new canon novels. Sloane's character arc is laid out beautifully in 'Aftermath Life Debt'. Personally, I feel like I'm getting to know more about Sloane as if we're in relationship stages. She's my crush in 'Star Wars: A New Dawn' (Sloane's novel debut in 2014), my first date in 'Aftermath' and now I have arrived at the early phase of our marriage in 'Aftermath Life Debt', where I can get to truly know her inside out. Her motivations in giving rebirth to her brand of Empire drives her actions throughout the pages. While her motivations bring out the best in her, it inadvertently directs her to a collision course with the mysterious fleet admiral that we were introduced to at the end of 'Aftermath'.
'Aftermath Life Debt' finally cast the spotlight directly at this mysterious character, who goes by the name of Gallius Rax. We finally learn that Rax has been playing Batman all this while, with Sloane as his Robin. We learn that Rax has been pulling the strings on everyone since the beginning of Empire's retreat at Endor. And when I say everyone, I literally mean everyone, not just Sloane, but the whole leftovers of Imperial's top guns and even the New Republic hotshots such as Chancellor Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar.
Rax possess an innate talent of manufacturing complex web of deceptions that is meant to snare the unsuspecting New Republic and trimming down the fat of the Imperial leftovers. In fact, it is his tactics to revive the Empire that rubs off Sloane in the worst way possible. Sloane's method of direct offensive with turbolasers, orbital bombing and blasters as a means to strike at disorder is at odds with Rax's indirect ruse and second-hand terror. In a way, Rax is what you will get when you roll Grand Admiral Thrawn and Emperor Palpatine into one messed-up but yet brilliant enigma. An interesting note to be made here. Rax is never presented physically as a whole person. Wendig seems very intent on portraying Rax as a specter rather than as a flesh and blood, with Sloane's minimal success in digging out Rax's past adding another layer of mystery to Rax's character, both from the physical and personality perspective.
We should've brought the fleet. We need to demonstrate martial ability. The Empire is hammer striking down disorder, not a knife slipped between unsuspecting ribs. Rax must be arrested. And then executed. I will be the one to do it.— Grand Admiral Sloane after witnessing Rax's plan unfolding
The Magnificent Six Returns
In regards to Wendig's original heroes from 'Aftermath', this sequel does justice for them, as we dive into the characters of Norra Wexley, Temmin 'Snap' Wexley, Mister Bones, Jas Emari, Jom Barrel and Sinjir Rath Velus in greater depth. Wendig didn't waste time in giving us a clear picture of what Norra and her motley crew have been up to since the conclusion of 'Aftermath', as the second chapter of 'Aftermath Life Debt' narrates their crusade of hunting down Imperial war criminals to justice for the New Republic. Are they good at this? Yes, it is implied that they give result time and time again. Do they enjoy working with each other? Yes, and no. In the beginning, the only connection that they share with each other is their common goal of Imperial-hunting, as most of them question their motives of staying in the pact (except for Jom, whose loyalty to the New Republic is unwavering). But over the course of the chapters, each of them is gradually directed down a road that cemented their convictions and purposes in the galaxy; that is being an extension of the New Republic to bring order to a fragmented galaxy that is still recovering from the Galactic Civil War.
In a way, Norra's crew is what you will get when you infuse energy gel, Red Bull, and adrenaline into the veins of Hera's rebellion crew from 'Star Wars Rebels'. Norra's crew is a melting pot of boldness, madness, and passion that somehow doesn't explode in your face but is mixed well together to form something that is aesthetically-challenged but yet serve its purpose for just about any situation that it is thrown into.
The Trinity of Han Solo + Leia + Chewbacca
As expected, one of the strong points of 'Aftermath Life Debt' is how centralized the role of Original Trilogy characters are in the story, especially Han Solo and Leia Organa Solo who both anchor the story from the hero's side, as opposed to Sloane and Rax from the villain's side. Wendig did a fantastic job in echoing the Han Solo and Leia that we grow up with from the Original Trilogy. I can't help it when my mind automatically plays 'Princess Leia's Theme' in the background whenever Leia is shown to be in her most vulnerable moments, especially when her thoughts are with her missing husband, her frustrations with the immovable bureaucracy of the New Republic and when she's connecting to her unborn child in the Force. The clash of personalities between Leia's idealist stance and the realist Mon Mothma epitomizes Leia's core and beliefs in doing good for every single inhabitant of the galaxy, regardless of the inhabitants' significance and resources value to the New Republic.
We argue, about whether it is the time to build up military or to dampen its effect. And all the while we forget that we have the privilege of arguing from comfortable chairs many parsecs away. We argue about what's prudent or what's practical while people suffer. Do you know what people want to see from the New Republic? Do you, truly? They want us to be heroes.— Princess Leia's argument against Mon Mothma on the inefficiencies of New Republic
Han Solo's evergreen bromance with Chewbacca is nicely captured throughout the plot, which gives rise to the titular debt on the novel's cover. 'Aftermath Life Debt' essentially expands upon an interlude in 'Aftermath' where Solo and Chewie are gearing up to Kashyyyk with the mission of liberating Chewie's home planet from the Empire's grip. Solo's motivations in going all-out in the search of imprisoned Chewie from the botched mission followed by freeing the enslaved Wookies at Kashyyyk are rightfully justified, even if it comes at the cost of leaving behind a pregnant Leia and resigning his military commission with the New Republic.
Another bonus point here to Wendig for displaying the true extent of the love between Solo and Chewie after successfully liberating the enslaved Wookies at Camp Sardo and the elimination of Lozen Tolruck, who is the Grand Moff of Kashyyyk. Solo's penchant for taking charge in any situation is apparent and stays true in 'Aftermath Life Debt'. I mean, what else could you say for someone who actually turns the tables on the search party for him? Not that you could blame him, as Solo happens to be a natural leader and as such, he falls in-sync perfectly with Norra and her crew, especially with Jas Emari, as there is a recognizable understanding and mutual respect between these two scoundrels.
A Missed Opportunity with Wedge Antilles
I could go on and on how Wendig should capitalize the star factor of the rest of the Original Trilogy characters in 'Aftermath Life Debt'. But mind you, this sequel is already longer and richer in the plot as it is from its predecessor. In that sense, Wendig still deserves his due credit when he included three big names from the Original Trilogy in this sequel. It seems to me that Mon Mothma, as the first Chancellor of the New Republic, is only there in the novel to be the face of a struggling infant government. Her confrontations with Leia underpin the grim reality of running a government machinations. Gone were the days when the whole Rebel Alliance could move forward with a snap decision of an individual, as a legit government could only thrive in the unity of its leaders, politicians and other upper-level decision makers. Fleet Admiral Ackbar is, well, the same Mon Cala that we all know. Ackbar seems content to be in his boundary as a military admiral, taking the lead as far as military action is concerned.
But I really feel Wendig should at least give Wedge Antilles a bigger role in his trilogy. After all, Wedge is one of the Original Trilogy characters that enjoyed an epic transition into the Expanded Universe, a high standard that Wendig didn't seem to keen to be on par with for the time being. Besides helping Norra on one quest to search missing Solo, playing a temporary Norra's love interest and rescuing Leia on a last minute attempt with his Phantom Squadron, nothing else made me feel excited about seeing Wedge in "Aftermath Life Debt'. I just can hope at this moment that I will see more of Wedge in the final book of this trilogy and in other Star Wars canon appearances.
'Aftermath Life Debt' is essentially a novel that branches into 3 main stories; the search for Han Solo, the liberation of Kasshyyyk and the complex machinations of Gallius Rax that will give birth to the First Order. The plot of this novel is leagues above its predecessor in a sense that Wendig managed to marry his characters and the Original Trilogy characters over the course of an exhilarating plot. There is also a strong presence of classic science fiction quality in 'Aftermath Life Debt', particularly with the Ashmead's Lock prison and its prisoners. Harnessing the bio-electricity of its prisoners as the power source for the prison complex? That's some serious 'The Matrix' stuff going on right there! The Liberation Day massacre scene takes you back to a time when mind-control was all the rage in science fiction. It also serves as a nice throwback to Order 66, when clone troopers of the Grand Army of The Republic turn against their Jedi Generals at the peak of Clone Wars. On the other hand, the political drama in 'Aftermath Life Debt' keeps you glued to the pages as well, although I have to admit the political intrigue is not at the same level with what 'Star Wars: Bloodline' has to offer.
Coming off fresh on the heels of 'Bloodline', 'Aftermath Life Debt' expands further on the origins of the First Order. While 'Bloodline' limits its narrative to the founding of the First Order in political boundaries, 'Aftermath Life Debt' examines the foundation of the First Order right in the snake pit. In essence, Gallius Rax is the foundation of the First Order. He's the Big Bang that will give birth to the regime and he's the grand architect of a galaxy where the First Order will triumph over the New Republic in due time. Word of mouth has been going around since the release of 'Aftermath Life Debt' that Rax and Supreme Leader Snoke are one and the same. Is he? While the clues are there, I wouldn't say that this is the case for now. It's tantalizing to examine the details under a microscope to search for further proofs of how Rax will come to be Snoke. Instead of jumping into the 'Rax is Snoke' bandwagon, I prefer to wait until I have arrived at the conclusion of 'Aftermath Empire's End', the final installment in the trilogy that is due in February 2017.
We already have three worlds under our sway there: Zhadalene, Korrus, and Belladoon. The Empire has long - to its detriment - relied on third party corporations to produce the pieces of our war machine, but that is no longer the case. Production is entirely Imperial. And on these worlds we have already begun to produce our weapons: all-terrain walkers, new TIE starfighters, E-11 rifles, and the other necessities of war.— Fleet Admiral Rax, revealing his master plan to revive his Empire to the Shadow Council
Continuing his signature trend from 'Aftermath', Wendig interspersed the main chapters with interludes that paint the galaxy outside of the main narrative. You will get a sense of how far the Empire is dragged down by the weight of its defeat and failures when an offshoot of the Imperial Navy starts to resort to kamikaze tactics against the New Republic. Or when an Imperial Super Star Destroyer is hijacked by a common pirate. Or when the Empire abandons its post altogether on Ryloth. But all is not lost for the Empire, as they are pockets of Imperial sympathizers around the galaxy, especially so with Acolytes, which is an Imperial supporters movement that idolizes Darth Vader on Correlia. Maz Kanata shows up in an interlude, enforcing her law in her castle at Takodana (the theory of how Maz is a Force-sensitive is going to take traction at this point). Hope also is on the horizon in the midst of a chaotic galaxy, as evident from the interludes of the Alderaan flotilla and the return of law and order on Tatooine after the fall of Jabba the Hutt and his criminal organization.
The Ghost of Rax from Jakku
The prelude and epilog of 'Aftermath Life Debt' build on two elements that will define the identity of the new Star Wars canon for many years to come; Gallius Rax and the hostile, barren planet of Jakku. By including both elements in the prelude, 'Aftermath Life Debt' starts strong. It wouldn't be far-fetched to say that the prelude alone could become the dangling carrot to attract new generations of Star Wars fans to pick up this book, seeing as how centralized Jakku is in the 'The Force Awakens'. Rumors of Rax is Snoke also didn't hurt, as the mystery of Snoke's identity provides fresh rounds of conspiracy theories in Star Wars community. Darth Sidious's fascination with the young Rax when they first crossed path is an additional ammunition in the arsenal of Rax is Snoke theorists. Be it so, but in due time, all the loose ends with Rax and the First Order will be tied up one way or another in 'Aftermath Empire's End'.
While 'Aftermath Life Debt' is more fun and exciting than its predecessor, it still falls short on a few points; the lack of Wedge's role in the story, the unexplained time jump in Kashyyyk between Solo's plan and its execution, and finally the romance between Wendig's original characters that could have lead to something more concrete at the end rather than just a simple handshake to sign-off the relationship.
One of the assets of 'Aftermath Life Debt' is how the transition from the Galactic Empire to the First Order is meticulously described. It's fun to see Rax manipulate the people and events around him towards his vision of an orderly galaxy. Sloane is at her best here, even if she is pushed around in all directions by Rax. The formation of Shadow Council under the behest of Rax will certainly expand the power play of the future First Order between Rax and its council members. The New Republic, on the other hand, is still shown to be struggling in its vision to forge the galaxy together under one governance. This will be an inevitable burden indirectly trusted upon the shoulders of our heroes in 'Aftermath Empire's End'.
Finally, the intensity of violence portrayed in this novel is spot-on. Half crushed head under a crashed TIE Fighter, eyeball forcefully removed in an interrogation, giant spiders puncturing holes clean in stormtrooper's white armor...I can only hope Wendig will maintain this level of graphic violence in the upcoming sequel. The galaxy will still be plagued with war by then, and war is never pretty.
Until then, the Battle of Jakku awaits...