Sunday, August 7, 2016

Review: 'Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt'


The first half of this review is SPOILER FREE, but the second half will address the novel in detail and is intended for fans who have read the novel already.  The separation will be clearly marked.

The most unfortunate thing about Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt, the second installment in Chuck Wendig's Aftermath trilogy, may be the timing of its release.  The novel, which picks up following Return of the Jedi and lays the groundwork for The Force Awakens, hit shelves a little over a month ago in the week leading up to Star Wars Celebration in London, meaning its  release was largely overshadowed by the news from the convention (Rogue One, Star Wars Rebels, Alden Ehrenreich, etc.).  Which is unfortunate, because Life Debt is a fun adventure, and opens up some very intriguing story lines that could play into the sequel trilogy in a big way.

While I enjoyed the first Aftermath novel, I do think Life Debt is a significant improvement.  Part of this may be the inclusion of more classic characters (Han, Leia, and Chewie all play significant roles in the story), but Wendig also does an excellent job at fleshing out his original characters.  The action in Life Debt is also an upgrade from its predecessor.  Towards the end of Life Debt, there's concurrent action taking place on Kashyyyk and Chandrilla that is equal in impact, yet what's actually going on on the two planets couldn't be more different.

As with any story set between Episodes VI and VII, there is an immediate draw to see what the state of the galaxy was between the two films.  Life Debt juxtaposes the struggles of an Empire on the edge of collapse with the struggles of a Rebellion attempting to transition into a government.  We see conflicting views on how to move forward among the characters on both sides.  Although the two sides are still fighting each other, the behind the scenes drama is just as intriguing as the actual confrontations between the Empire and the New Republic.

Speaking of the Empire, the character of Rae Sloane continues to shine.  First introduced in John Jackson Miller's A New Dawn (the first novel of the new canon), Sloane has become a key player in the Empire following the Emperor's death.  Life Debt sees her locked in a battle of wills with Gaelius Rax, the mysterious Fleet Admiral from the end of Aftermath and a character who some believe will become someone huge in the sequel trilogy (more on that in the spoiler section below).  Sloane's arc in Life Debt is one of sticking to her convictions.  Though they are on the same side, Sloane and Rax fundamentally disagree on what the Empire should be and how it should achieve its goals.

On the side of the New Republic, much of the action centers on the band of misfits who were brought together by the events on Akiva in Aftermath.  This time, they are sent by Princess Leia on a secret mission to find Han who disappeared while trying rescue Chewie after a failed attempt at liberating Kashyyyk.  Of this crew, the characters Jas and Sinjir stand out as having the most compelling interactions.  The two share a strange bond that comes from having pasts that haunt them (Jas used to be a bounty hunter, Sinjir a former Imperial) and they share several scenes in which they attempt to come to terms with their new lives in the New Republic.

Unfortunately, the relationship between Temmin "Snap" Wexley and his mother Norra continues to be a weak point in the series.  The two have a strained relationship that comes from Norra leaving Temmin behind while she joined the Rebel Alliance.  Obviously, this would cause tension between the two.  However, too often it comes across as immature outbursts from Temmin who is now fighting on behalf of the New Republic (and will go on to be a top pilot in the Resistance--he's played by Greg Grunberg in The Force Awakens).  I would have thought that going on these missions would have taught him something about why he's fighting and helped gain an appreciation for what his mother did, but instead he appears unmoved by her actions.  On the bright side, Mister Bones (Temmin's modified B1 Battle Droid) continues to steal every scene he's in.

Leia's story in Life Debt is an interesting one, as we see the groundwork for her frustration with the Senate as later seen in Claudia Gray's Bloodline.  Once again Leia is without her support system.  Han and Chewie are missing and Luke has already left on his own adventures.  Much like she'll eventually do with the formation of the Resistance, Leia is forced to call in favours and go behind the backs of her political allies to achieve her goals.

There was an aspect of the novel I found chilling.  A few times through course of the story we see Leia and Han (separately and together) reflect on their hopes and dreams for their unborn son.  Knowing what will become of Ben Solo/Kylo Ren made these scenes especially poignant

Life Debt also continues Aftermath’s trend of featuring interludes every couple of chapters to show the state of the galaxy in locations not directly impacted by the main plot of the novel.  Though there are far fewer interludes in Life Debt than there were in Aftermath, some of them are sequels to, or at least pick up on ideas from, the interludes in Aftermath.  The interludes can be a little hit or miss--it was fun to see Maz thirty years before we meet her in The Force Awakens, and the Acolytes of the Beyond stuff continues to fascinate, however I'm not such a big fan of therapy Ewoks (yes, that is a real thing).

One more point I want to raise isn't so much a criticism of Life Debt as it is a concern about the future of Star Wars novels (and Star Wars storytelling in general).  Towards the end of the novel, Wendig introduces a character who was a key player in one of the Marvel Star Wars mini series that was released last year.  In the story, this character was an effective way to advance the action.  As someone who's read the comic series I thought this was a cool connection between the two, but I wonder what someone who has not read the series would think of it.  One of the issues I had with Legends novels was that they became too self referential, making it difficult for new fans to jump on board.  I'm not saying Star Wars stories should not reference each other, far from it.  I think these connections are fun for fans and make the universe feel connected in significant ways.  I just don't want to see the new canon repeat the mistakes Legends made, and the way this character was introduced with almost no setup caused me to raise an eyebrow.

Overall, Life Debt is a solid addition to the new canon.  It picks up on the strengths of Aftermath, while also working to rectify some of the weaknesses of its predecessor.  Wendig continues to paint a compelling picture of what the galaxy was like immediately following Return of the Jedi.  The action in Life Debt stands out as some of the best we've seen so far in the canon novels.  The book ends with an excellent cliffhanger that should be intriguing to anyone who saw The Force Awakens.  Fortunately, the wait until Empire's End isn't that long!

Score: 8/10

Below are some Spoiler-filled thoughts on Life Debt.  These are intended for fans who have read the novel or just don't care about spoilers.  If you plan on reading Life Debt, and don't want to know anything more, stop reading now.  This is your SPOILER ALERT!
There are two main questions I want to focus on here.  First, is Gaellius Rax Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis in The Force Awakens)?  And, what's going on on Jakku?

Is Rax Snoke?  Many fans have come to this conclusion after having read the novel, and understandably so.  Snoke remains one of the big mysteries coming out of The Force Awakens and has been the subject many insane fan theories.  Rax is equally mysterious and there are some fascinating aspects to his character that appear to be leading in that direction.  While I'm not ready to buy into any Snoke theory just yet, I must admit it is intriguing.

The biggest piece of evidence that Rax might be Snoke is his interest in Brendol Hux and his son Armitage (played by Domhnall Gleeson in The Force Awakens).  Rax considers all the members of his Shadow Council to be expendable, except Hux.  And we know that in The First Order the younger Hux continues his father's methods of programming children from birth to become stormtroopers under Snoke's leadership.  With both those facts in mind, it does seem to create a link between the two characters.  To play devil's advocate for a moment, should the two turn out to be separate characters, this could easily be explained on the basis that Brendol Hux's methods seem to be a known quantity within the Empire, making it conceivable that two different characters would both want to recruit him and his son.

The other factors that might be considered evidence of Rax being Snoke are more tenuous.  Both Rax and Snoke prefer to work in the shadows, letting someone else be the face of their project while secretly controlling things from behind the scenes (we see this with Snoke controlling Hux and Kylo in The Force Awakens, and Rax controlling Sloane in Life Debt).  I also like the idea of tying in Snoke with Palpatine somehow, and making Rax Snoke would do that.  However, neither of these are particularly compelling pieces of evidence to link Rax to Snoke in any significant way.

While I must admit the evidence connecting the two is intriguing, I would only go so far as to say this is the one Snoke theory that doesn't suck.  I am still not 100% convinced that they are one and the same, but if Rax does turn out to be Snoke, I hope we learn more about his history in Empire's End because honestly I would find this backstory for Snoke, as it stands now, a bit underwhelming.

Speaking on Empire's End, let's talk about the Battle of Jakku!  The Battle of Jakku will be the focus of the final book in the Aftermath trilogy.  Though we've already seen little bits and pieces of it (in Star Wars Battlefront and Star Wars: Lost Stars), we will finally learn what it was all about in the final installment of the Aftermath trilogy.

Ever since we first heard about Jakku and the battle which took place there, we've been told that this is the true end of the war between The New Republic/Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire.  Endor, as it turns out, was not the final major battle in the war but rather the turning point, while Jakku is where it all ended.

Jakku appears only twice in Life Debt; first, during the prologue set thirty years previously when a young Gaelius Rax escapes the planet by sneaking aboard Darth Sidious' personal shuttle; and then at the end of the book when Sloane and Brentin arrive on the planet moments before Rax's star destroyers appear in the skies--setting the stage for the battle that leaves the wreckage seen in The Force Awakens.

In Life Debt's epilogue, we return to the time of the prologue to see the first meeting between Rax and Sidious after Rax sneaks on board Sidious’ ship.  Sidious is clearly impressed by Rax and asks him to return to Jakku to oversee and guard an excavation site which Sidious tells him was  "significant a thousand years ago and will be significant again" (430).  It's worth bearing in mind that this interaction takes place thirty years before the events of Life Debt, meaning this scenes takes place sometime between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, so whatever it is Sidious wants Rax to guard must be hugely important to his plans.

Exactly what was  at this site remains a mystery, though there are clues in some other material.  The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary states that there was a secret Imperial research facility on Jakku,  which retreating Imperials destroyed rather than allow it fall into the hands of The New Republic.  Meanwhile, Rey's Survival Guide reveals that some on Jakku believed The Emperor had a secret facility there filled with treasures from ancient civilizations (we know from the Marvel Comics miniseries Lando that the Emperor was a collector of ancient Sith artifacts), while others believed that The Emperor's facility was a secret throne room from which he would direct the conquest of the rest of the galaxy.

Whatever Sidious has hidden on Jakku is obviously important to Rax's plans going forward. And, if Rax truly is Snoke, then he likely has his eyes on the long con.  During his final scene in the novel, Rax thinks to himself about how he must subtly lead the members of his Shadow Council to come to certain conclusions on their own.  This likely means ending the war and reorganizing the Empire into The First Order.

Based on this, it looks like the Battle of Jakku might have been intended as a ruse by Rax/Snoke -- a distraction while he visits Sidious' excavation site one final time to take what he needs (be it an artifact or information) before destroying it.  Rax might then lead the remaining Imperial troops into the Unknown Regions following the battle, where they will regroup and become the First Order.  All the while, The New Republic would think they won the war, eventually becoming complacent--as seen in the novel Bloodline and The Force Awakens--setting the stage for The First Order to emerge.

There's another piece of evidence that might suggest this.  In Lost Stars, which gave us our first look at the Battle of Jakku, Ciena Ree, captain of the Star Destroyer Inflictor (seen crashed on Jakku's surface in The Force Awakens), ponders the possibility that the Empire had been betrayed.  The Empire seemingly had all the advantages going into the battle, and yet suffered a crushing defeat.  Granted, this would not be the first time the New Republic/Rebel Alliance overcame insurmountable odds to win a battle with the Empire.  However, it might also allude to Rax intentionally losing the battle to forward his plans.

Outside of this conspiracy theory, I do have one hope for the Battle of Jakku, and that is for an appearance by Luke Skywalker.  Luke's whereabouts following Return of the Jedi have remained shrouded in mystery, with only two appearances from him since (in the fourth issue of the Shattered Empire comic books series, and his dramatic reveal in The Force Awakens).  The rest of the time he seems to be off on some quest around the galaxy to learn the secrets of the Force, which I actually think is preferable to him remaining at the center of galactic affairs--as he did in Legends.  However, given that Jakku is supposedly the final battle in the war, I would hate to think that Luke wouldn't show up to support his friends in this deciding moment in galactic history.

Hopefully we'll get these answers and more when Empire's End hits shelves on January 31st, 2017.

You can follow me on Twitter: @DominicJ25
Also check out my reviews of past Star Wars novels: Bloodline, Battlefront: Twilight Company Lords of the Sith and A New Dawn
This article is an opinion piece and represents the views of the writer, and not the entire Star Wars Underworld organization

Follow The Star Wars Underworld on Twitter @TheSWU for more updates about this story and other breaking Star Wars news.


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