Review: Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig

Posted by DarkChaplain at 7/07/2017
The Emperor is dead, and the remnants of his former Empire are in retreat. As the New Republic fights to restore a lasting peace to the galaxy, some dare to imagine new beginnings and new destinies. For Han Solo, that means settling his last outstanding debt, by helping Chewbacca liberate the Wookiee’s homeworld of Kashyyyk.

Meanwhile, Norra Wexley and her band of Imperial hunters pursue Grand Admiral Rae Sloane and the Empire’s remaining leadership across the galaxy. Even as more and more officers are brought to justice, Sloane continues to elude the New Republic, and Norra fears Sloane may be searching for a means to save the crumbling Empire from oblivion. But the hunt for Sloane is cut short when Norra receives an urgent request from Princess Leia Organa. The attempt to liberate Kashyyyk has carried Han Solo, Chewbacca, and a band of smugglers into an ambush—resulting in Chewie’s capture and Han’s disappearance.

Breaking away from their official mission and racing toward Kashyyyk, Norra and her crew prepare for any challenge that stands between them and their missing comrades. But they can’t anticipate the true depth of the danger that awaits them—or the ruthlessness of the enemy drawing them into his crosshairs.

Ohhhh boy. Originally I wanted to read through all three Aftermath novels and review them together, but after this book? I can't hold out that long. I dropped Aftermath before, and gave it another try prior to this one, but... These books are pretty terrible.

The Story:
"The Emperor is dead, and the remnants of his former Empire are in retreat. As the New Republic fights to restore a lasting peace to the galaxy, some dare to imagine new beginnings and new destinies. For Han Solo, that means settling his last outstanding debt, by helping Chewbacca liberate the Wookiee’s homeworld of Kashyyyk.

Meanwhile, Norra Wexley and her band of Imperial hunters pursue Grand Admiral Rae Sloane and the Empire’s remaining leadership across the galaxy. Even as more and more officers are brought to justice, Sloane continues to elude the New Republic, and Norra fears Sloane may be searching for a means to save the crumbling Empire from oblivion. But the hunt for Sloane is cut short when Norra receives an urgent request from Princess Leia Organa. The attempt to liberate Kashyyyk has carried Han Solo, Chewbacca, and a band of smugglers into an ambush—resulting in Chewie’s capture and Han’s disappearance.

Breaking away from their official mission and racing toward Kashyyyk, Norra and her crew prepare for any challenge that stands between them and their missing comrades. But they can’t anticipate the true depth of the danger that awaits them—or the ruthlessness of the enemy drawing them into his crosshairs."

The Review:
Aftermath: Life Debt is a terrible book, and an especially bad Star Wars novel. I rarely make statements like these. I actively try to avoid it. I'd rather not review something I didn't enjoy and don't give it more effort and attention than it deserves in my eyes. This time, though? I can't get around venting my frustrations. This will not be pretty. You have been warned.

My main reason for sticking with this novel, and for having to read book three as well, is my own OCD sense of having to complete the new Canon books. I made a checklist to tick off all novel, novella, short story, comic and series releases. I'm still behind on a lot of things, of course, but I didn't want to keep pushing this trilogy ahead of me any longer. I'd attempted to read the first one and didn't finish it. I finally got through it recently and figured hey, let's get through the second as well. I wouldn't call it a mistake per se, because I'd have to read it one way or another, but I can't say I don't regret the time and money I spent on it.

The book's description alone is deceptive already. It promises grand action around the liberation of Kashyyyk, but that's barely an afterthought. All the actual liberation activities outside of taking out the Imperial leader on the Wookiee homeworld happen off-screen. Heck, Han's initial dilemma isn't even shown here - that happened between Aftermath and Life Debt. It is the same for many of the actual WAR scenes in this Star WARS novel. I often found myself thinking I'd skipped a chapter on accident, but no, the content is just not there. One battle we "see" is actually covered more in a short story by another author, it seems. Published after the fact, of course. That doesn't stop Wendig from telling the reader, as he is wont to do, how important this stuff was. You know, the things you did not even get to be shown because the author was too busy writing bad romance plots.
By the 200 page point, things finally got a little interesting as Han Solo finally makes an actual appearance. He didn't really feel like Han in many scenes and got little actual screentime to boot, but hey, the Scoundrel is back. To be sidelined.

Before that point, however, the book is an exceptional chore. Norra Wexley and her team of Chuck Wendig's original characters are often painful to read about. They're supposedly hunting imperial leaders, which we at least get to watch once. The twist the book throws into the mix in those early chapters is... pointless, expected and a waste of time, though. Not just that, it leads right into one of the most aggravating things in this novel:

Everybody feels like they're entirely too horny, hormone-controlled juveniles.
Jom Barell, the supposed hard-ass, special forces Rebel soldier repeatedly forgets all his objections, problems and moral views when bounty hunter Jas Emari "mashes her lips into his". Oh, I was mad about her supposed betrayal? Nevermind, let's go and bang. By the time Han Solo finally shows up, this happened THREE TIMES. Their relationship spins through the entire book and it is tiresome, typical, unhealthy and frankly just bullshit. Especially as Jas keeps harping on and on and on about how she has trust issues but actually loves everyone. She's doing it for the money but not really. You could've replaced her with a cardboard cut-out of the stereotypical soft-hearted scoundrel and that'd have had the same results.

Jom meanwhile goes through hell in one section of the book and they barely even talk about it. In fact, the way he gets into peril, the things that happen to him and his personal losses, are simply mentioned in hindsight. He's not important, not really. We still don't even know much of his history before these books. He may have some of the most growth as a character in the book, especially when compared against his time on page, but as Wendig's Sinjir and Solo will remind us every so often, he's just Jas's "boy toy". My god how I loathe that expression. It is one of the many used by Wendig in this trilogy that feels altogether un-Star Wars and far too much [Current Year]. For somebody who has a history of criticizing representation of women and minorities, I find it pretty ironic that Barell gets such a tag plastered onto him.

The book also features Wedge Antilles. You know, that one guy Luke Skywalker meets at Yavin, one of his two buddies during the Death Star Run? The one who survives the ordeal and goes on to be pretty important within the Rebellion? An ace pilot? A character who raised hell in the old Expanded Universe?
...he's a cripple and basically only exists in the story to be a love interest for Chuck's Norra Wexley. As soon as she's reminded that hey, she was/still is actually married, he's relegated to the back ranks of characters. He gets exactly one appearance in the action and.... as usual, it gets skipped. Who cares about a squadron of X-Wing fighters taking on a trio of Star Destroyers anyway?
This whole plotline with Norra and Wedge is incredibly awkward and so obvious it makes absolutely no sense for none of the crew to take notice. They act like awkward teenagers around one another.

But if you think this was the last of the love-centered subplots, you'd be mistaken. Because Sinjir is gay, if you remember, and he's sitting in a bar with his new boyfriend who we see, I believe, 3 times across the entire novel, never in an important situation, and laments how oppressed gay people still are even in the New Republic. It felt entirely too preachy and has nothing to do with Star Wars. After Wendig had to make sure in the first Aftermath that everybody knew Orphan XY had two daddies and Norra's son was supposed to live with his two lesbian aunts, none of which seemed to have any negative effects from their sexuality alone, this preaching feels especially hollow.
Heck, Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp had an imperial Moff hold female sex partners and nobody really cared beyond the fact that the character was a lazy, self-indulgent mess (who then went on to be one of the coolest characters the book has to offer). And that was during the pre-ANH time, not after the fall of the oppressive Galactic Empire.

Likewise, when the enslavement of the Wookiees is discussed by the author, he first makes sure everybody knows it is down to Xenophobia more than, you know, them being exceptionally strong workers with high endurance and all that. Thankfully those points are made later, ironically by the imperials seeing them as animals to be made to work.
And do I need to mention that [Current Year] pronouns you'd find on sites like tumblr have made their way into Star Wars Canon thanks to this book? There's a pirate...king? queen? I can't even tell you which because this character is, after looking up what the pronouns are supposed to signify, gender neutral. "Zhe" and "zher" are incredibly awkward things to use in a Star Wars book. The scene wasn't even bad. It was too short, again skipping the actual action involved in pirates boarding a smaller vessel, but at least it had a cool core idea behind it that I enjoyed, even if the execution wasn't up to snuff. Maybe this would've been a great scene if the author had focused more on the scene than being obnoxious.

I want to stress that I have no problem with having gay characters, gender-neutral characters and the likes in principle. The worst I can say about it is that it isn't within my range of interests. What I do object to is the entirely too shoehorned and non-organic way these things are pressed into this Star Wars trilogy. They do not belong here, not like this. When the sexual identity of a character overshadows the actual role they have within the story or the author has to write sitcom-tier "maybe I had the hots for you too, my straight friend" scenes into the book, then the least I'll do is cringe or groan in frustration. It is hamfisted and annoying, not clever, fitting or improving the IP.

That's one of the big problems I have with this trilogy so far, not having read Empire's End yet. A lot of it seems entirely too self-serving. To push modern mentalities rather than a desire to write Star Wars. It feels very disrespectful if you ask me. This author got to play in one of the greatest creative sandboxes of the last 40 years, given mostly a free pass on things, and then goes to not tell stories about the Star Wars but about petty things like these, awful soap opera (not Space Opera) romance plotlines and doesn't make use of the things that only Star Wars can give.

Ah, but there's another point about the supposed romance-related plotlines here. One of the characters I enjoyed a great deal turns out to just be a puppet for the big bad, because how could it be otherwise. The motive? Apparently getting under his sheets. Wookiees can't groan hard enough to express my disappointment... Why is everybody here so... so... needy?

Don't get me started on Mister Bones, Temmin Wexley's reprogrammed and heavily modified battle droid. I know he has plenty of fans and is often held up as the best character in the trilogy, but my god was he annoying and cringeworthy. He was obviously there for comedic relief for the readers, as if they'd need more of that considering how the crew is constantly snarking at one another even in the direst of circumstances. But Bones, while occasionally entertaining, was just too much. Multiple times he's being used as a cheap way to get out of trouble and I don't even remember how many times Temmin has rebuilt the droid so far. It was funny the first time, granted, but after this many appearances stressing his love for violence? It got old. Older than the droid model he was based on.
Temmin himself remains a petulant, edgy teen with daddy issues. Sometimes I felt he may be getting there, especially when he's shown early on with Wedge Antilles, but then it stooped right back to soap opera level teen drama.

But I have yet to say anything about one of the worst parts of the book, which should, by rights, have been the coolest: Freeing Chewbacca and other prisoners. Instead of a great prison break story however we are treated to a weird, entirely too high sci-fi super AI being all-too-meta. Heck, her name is even an anagram for Portal's "GLaDOS"! Just without the charme or wit. In fact, most it does is repeat people's replies to the altogether silly code phrase query.
“‘What the hell is this?’ is not an acceptable passcode. Two out of three attempts used. Please speak the passcode aloud to continue.”
Wendig even wastes time coming up with zabrakian translations for queries and repeating this stuff three times.

The whole prison scene quickly devolves into a miasma of rip-offs from other franchises. Portal is but one of them, but there's some distinct Matrix stuff in here as well. Stuff that does not fit into Star Wars. Reading this book especially it makes me wonder if the author even understands the thematic tone of the franchise. This is reinforced by his use of modern slang terminology. From "When I give the say-so" coming from a high-ranking imperial admiral over the use of pronouns, "straight punches", "stay frosty" and "won’t release because spiders, spiders, there are so many spiders" and on and on and on, the book is filled with things characters in this universe, especially the important ones, would not use or say.

Then you have odd issues like Leia Organa being described as an idealist while Mon Mothma is the realist. Are we looking at the same people? Even this book and the previous contradict this assessment! Leia is willing to take risks based on the situation whereas Mon Mothma constantly drives the idealistic route. She's a big annoyance because of it. Heck, it is because of her that the New Republic was established in the previous book as preparing to disarm their military early. She constantly goes on about how the New Republic should be this, needs to act like that, to reach her idealistic standards whereas Leia is realistic enough to see what needs to be done. That simple statement about their roles, especially coming in a Leia-focused scene, baffled me.

But I'd be lying if I was saying this was all, 100% awful. Like I mentioned before, some of the interludes are actually cool. They often have better ideas behind them than Wendig knows how to execute, granted, but especially the interludes dealing with the actual aftermath of the wars are good. There are shell-shocked veterans, people in need of therapy, and even the reporter from the first book's interludes comes back to witness more tragedy. They could have been written better but these scenes are where I had to wonder what the book could have been had it less hung up about the author's original cast's entanglements and more about the aftermath of the Empire's defeat at Endor.

And while I didn't like the way the book got there, or the lackluster focus on the lead up, the climax of the novel wasn't half bad. That was the first time I actually felt the book had gotten exciting and showed me something instead of just telling me about it. Just that then again it skipped things between chapters and wasted another opportunity to show the disastrous aftermath properly.

I won't go into the prose here. I mentioned the awkward terminology but can't bring myself to even find a way to word it properly. Wendig at least learned to ease off on the staccato sentences and written-out sound effects, but the rest is par for the course. He still tells the reader things that the characters think just to then have said character say the thing out loud, verbatim, right after. Many dialogue scenes felt choppy because of the author's insistence to throw in as many bracketed bits of character thoughts or side info as possible before continuing with a simple reply. It made me think that all these characters are so far up their own backsides, it is no wonder there was so little room for other things left.

The worst offense the book made, in my opinion, was presenting events that by rights should have been the focus of the novel as barely worth mentioning, tangential and quite frankly boring. The characters flip-flopped so much throughout that I can't say I cared for their development. It was nice to see Han and Chewie all emotional and Leia had a few nice scenes, but the majority of these 480 paperback pages were poorly utilized. This is one of the rare instances where I'd actually recommend just reading a summary on Wookieepedia or the likes if all you want is relevant information going forward without the nonsense drama. There are some interesting bits for fans, a bunch of questionable things that don't really go hand in hand with established canon as well as they ought to, but they're tangential to the ongoing plot around Norra Wexley and co. I'm not sure whether to be glad or disappointed about that, actually.

I cannot say which of the two Aftermath books I disliked more, though I tend towards this one. After all, this one had a fantastic premise and many opportunities it blatantly wasted or abandoned halfway. I sincerely pray that Empire's End will be better. It has to be. Please let it be. But frankly, if Chuck Wendig never got to write another Star Wars story again, I wouldn't shed a tear.

Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt on Goodreads

About the Author

I'm known as DarkChaplain across the internet, and call myself a passionate gamer and book enthusiast. I have been blogging mostly about games for a couple of years, but finally found my way to reviewing a different medium: Books. Honestly, I prefer that job so far.
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain


The Reading Lamp

0 comments:

Leave a Reply

DarkChaplain's bookshelf: read

The Dragon Engine
Tomb Raider II #7
Star Wars #22
Star Wars: The Force Awakens Adaptation #3
Deathwatch: The Last Guardian
The Harrowing
Whacky
The Awakening
Blackshield
Poe Dameron #5


DarkChaplain's favorite books »