I’ve made good use of my time off work by reading the second novel in the Aftermath trilogy, Life Debt, and I have to put this out there now: this novel is weird to me. I alternately really, really like it, and find it so annoying that I wonder why I was even spending the time reading it.
First, let me tell you what happens – spoilers will be all over this blog, so you have been warned!
Picking up where the first novel ended, we see Norra, Sinjir, Jas and Temmin as a group of Imperial-catchers, travelling the galaxy picking up rogue Imperial officers and bringing them to account for their actions during the years the Empire was in control. The opening sequence also introduces Jom Barell to the team, a New Republic commando from the first book who I’d actually forgotten about. Anyway, the Imperial they catch ends up dead, but as soon as they return to Chandrila, they’re given a new mission: Han Solo has gone missing, and Leia wants him back. We learn that Leia is pregnant, too, providing even more motivation. So Norra and the team split up to find some clues as to where he could be, and find themselves on the trail of an Imperial prison-designer, Golas Aram. During an attempt to break into his compound, Han shows up and tells them Chewie has been taken prisoner by the Empire, and he was after Golas to attempt to find out where. Sinjir manages to get the details on the prison, which happens to be on Kashyyyk, and so they all head off to the Wookiee homeworld, just about managing to evade the Imperial blockade of the world, though their passage does attract the attention of Admiral Rae Sloane.
That should actually be Grand Admiral Rae Sloane, who is being used as a figurehead for the new Empire by the mysterious chap from the end of the first Aftermath book: mysterious, no longer! Gallius Rax was an orphan from Jakku who managed to stow away aboard the ship of Imperial Advisor Yupe Tashu, who we met in the clandestine meeting on Akiva in the first novel. Sloane is determined to find some kind of history on this guy, as she doesn’t trust him despite all that he has done for her career. There is a lot of intrigue around the new Empire in this book, as we see Sloane head to Coruscant which is still under ISB control and the like. It’s a really interesting look at the galaxy post-Endor, I must say!
Things come to a head when Sloane contacts the New Republic to offer to begin peace talks, coinciding with the return of the prisoners from the Kashyyyk prison, several of whom are high-ranking Rebels, Norra’s husband Brentin among them. While the prisoners return, Han doesn’t, however, having stayed behind with Sinjir, Jom and Jas to help liberate Kashyyyk. A month passes, and the celebrations for the return of the prisoners take a horrific turn when they are revealed to have been sleeper agents for the Empire, and they all try to assassinate Mon Mothma. In the confusion, Sloane escapes Chandrila having been shot, but steals a shuttle that Brentin has also stowed-away on.
Meanwhile on Kashyyyk, Jom is captured by the Imperial governor of the planet, who has not so much gone native as gone feral, and pulls out Jom’s eye for the hell of it. Thankfully, we don’t actually see that. Turns out the Wookiees are being controlled by a chip in their brains, so Sinjir masquerades as one of Sloane’s men to attempt to disrupt the signal to these chips. He gets soundly beaten-up in the process, but it works, and the Wookiees rise up against the Imperials and, with the timely intervention of Leia, Ackbar and Wedge, the blockade is broken.
The novel ends with the fall-out from all of this, as Sloane and Brentin learn of Gallius Rax’s origin on Jakku, and decide to head there to find out what’s going on. Rax, for his part, has decided to make a final stand against the New Republic at the planet, and arrives there with the entire Imperial fleet…
Like its predecessor, there are a number of Interludes that continue to show the state of the galaxy post-Endor, and while some of them are a little bland, I do like they way the break up the main narrative, and allow for an even wider scope for the book. Not many of them stick in the mind, though there is one that is set in Maz Kanata’s Castle, and being a big fan of her from Episode VII, I did enjoy seeing that one. It didn’t really tell us anything new, but it was good to see her again!
So that’s the story, broadly speaking. Overall, I thought the storyline was pretty great, and I think it would have been more deserving of being the one to come out before Episode VII last autumn. The first novel had a massive hype, and really fell flat as we learnt next to nothing of any real use, in my opinion, as to how the galaxy had changed. This book, however, shows us a lot more of the galaxy, and its wider scope is certainly to be commended. I love galaxy-spanning epics, and this definitely delivered on that! There are also some really great action sequences, such as breaking into the prison on Kashyyyk, the assassination attempts and Sloane’s escape from Chandrila. Indeed, the overall plot is exactly what I want and love from Star Wars novels.
Of course, here comes the “but”…
The characters were just so off for me, I can’t quite express how distressing it was sometimes to read. Let’s start with the movie people. Han knows that Leia is pregnant, but follows up on a lead with Chewie that might be able to save the planet Kashyyyk (it’s the lead we see them discuss in the interlude from the first novel). So Han willingly leaves his pregnant wife (we learn they married on Endor) to travel across the galaxy and put himself in danger. He’s also more of the cocky smuggler from A New Hope, which pretty much negates his growth that we see across the original movies – the Han of the ending of Return of the Jedi just doesn’t seem like the kinda guy to just abandon his nascent family like that. And the excuse he keeps giving is “it’s a thing I have to do…” which is just so damn stupid.
Leia isn’t much better. A lot of writers have had trouble writing Leia, because they seem to confuse the take-charge princess for a bossy, overbearing woman. This was certainly the problem with a lot of the Bantam novels, and a lot of the earlier Del Rey stuff. Leia here comes across as fairly erratic, particularly with her dealings with Mon Mothma. Spoiled brat springs to mind, actually. I think what’s worse is that I get the impression we’re supposed to put it down to her being pregnant? Hmph. That said, there was a nice little spark of character for her when she heads off to go save her husband without NR approval, that sort of take-charge attitude is definitely in character for her.
I was really surprised to see Evaan show up from the Princess Leia comic, wasn’t really expecting to see that, so it was nice to know that these things don’t exist in a vacuum, and they are all bleeding into each other.
Chewie is Chewie, but I was a bit dismayed to see that he still has the life debt thing to Han. Reading Bloodline, it looked as if they’d decided to do away with that, as it was wholly an EU creation, and even given the title of this novel, I was hoping it would have some other connotation. But no. It does look, at least, like it won’t be quite the issue it was for the Bantam and Del Rey series’, as our two favourite smugglers look like they might actually be parting ways now, rather than Chewie continually following Han around because he has to, ad infinitum. So that will hopefully be a thing, anyway.
Norra actually interested me in this book. She is still mostly just a bit of a blank character, unfortunately, but there are moments where she comes across as genuinely interesting. Her burgeoning romance with Wedge was nice to see, and I’m left wondering once again how her story will progress in the third book in the series.
I think the biggest let-down of the book, and one that I kept wincing at whenever I came across a scene with him, was Sinjir. He’s one of the earliest gay characters in the Star Wars universe, but I felt this was really quite badly handled in the first book, insofar as it seemed to come out of nowhere. The idea of Sinjir’s character really interests me, an ex-Imperial Loyalty Officer whose job was to root out dissension within the ranks, finds he’s actually losing his own faith in the regime so deserts, and wallows in self-pity at the irony of the situation before stepping up to the challenge in the last book, and now finds himself in a position where his particular set of skills can be put to good use. That’s a character arc I can get behind. The fact that he’s gay is interesting insofar as we have seen just one other such character (I believe) up to this point, and I find it interesting to see if the Empire would have any kind of reaction to that in its heyday. However, so many of Sinjir’s scenes show him to merely be a caricature of the campest of gay men, it’s borderline offensive, but also has little to no impact on the storyline. I’m just bemused as to why it’s even in there, to be honest.
Sloane, and her stuff with the Empire, was definitely the highlight of the book, much as the scenes with the Imperial Future Council on Akiva were probably the most interesting from the first book. As said above, I really enjoyed seeing Coruscant, almost under martial law, and the addition of Mas Amedda as the Grand Vizier of the Empire was really nice. Of course, I am a bit sad that they seem to have done away with Sate Pestage in this regard, though he is still a name in Tarkin, so maybe we’ll see some more of him and what he’s up to. It’s stuff like this that I feel really ought to have been in the first book!
Gallius Rax was a bit of an annoyance, if I’m honest. I think his appearance at the very end of Aftermath was touted as being the new-canon version of Grand Admiral Thrawn, and so my expectations were high. However, he comes across more like he wants people to think he’s more of a big-player than he perhaps is. Whether this is actually the author’s fault or not, I don’t know, but he’s definitely no Thrawn. (Of course, while I was in the middle of reading this, the announcement came out of Celebration Europe that Zahn is writing a Thrawn novel for April 2017, so in that sense, Rax is kinda superfluous).
Speaking of comparisons with earlier novels, I thought the stuff with the sleeper-agent prisoners highly reminiscent of the Lusankya prisoners from Mike Stackpole’s Rogue Squadron series of novels. Very interesting to see how the old canon is informing the new canon, and while I do think that Stackpole implemented it better, he did essentially have three novels to build the storyline over, but still, it was a nice little throwback.
Finally, we have Yupe Tashu and the whole Jakku thing. I read somewhere in the run-up to this book’s release that Life Debt will demonstrate that Jakku is more important to galactic history than we were expecting (or something like that), and this book certainly delivers on that front. The book starts with a prologue set 30 years beforehand, and shows a young Rax stowing away aboard Tashu’s ship, after he had set some droids down in the middle of the desert. The book ends with a scene between Rax and Palpatine, who asks the boy to return to Jakku and guard whatever it is those droids are doing. It’s all very mysterious, but there’s clearly something going on down there, and while part of me is rolling my eyes at how Jakku is almost becoming the new Tatooine, I’m nevertheless really intrigued, and looking forward to the third novel in the trilogy to see how this all ends up. Looks like the bulk of the book will be the Battle of Jakku, which has already been dealt with in parts, but since when has Star Wars had a problem with re-telling a story multiple times? (Death Star plans, I’m thinking of you!)
Oh, and Luke’s absence from any and all new-canon stuff is now becoming really annoying. What’s worse is we probably won’t get anything until Episode VIII, either!
This blog has been a lot bigger than I actually thought it would be, and I think that shows the mark of a good book. I mean, as much as I could say I dislike the characterizations, I still have a lot to say about it! Like the first, it’s also told in the present tense, which really helps you to propel through the pages, and I do think that perhaps it would be worthwhile going back through and re-reading the two of them, though I might wait until the third book, Empire’s End, comes out in January.
So yeah, something of a love-hate thing with this book. It was a lot better than the last book simply because of the scope, and while I wasn’t entirely impressed with the characters, getting to see the wider picture of the Star Wars galaxy has made reading this book definitely worthwhile overall!