Star Wars: Aftermath was an enjoyable foundation for a new Expanded Universe. Characters like Temmin “Snap” Wexley (played by Greg Grunberg in The Force Awakens), his murderous Clone Wars-era battle droid, and his Y-Wing pilot mother Norra Wexley were lively and colorful in Chuck Wendig’s snarky, goopy writing style. The sequel, Life Debt, leans heavily on these characters while including them more deeply in the lives of classic characters like Leia Organa and Han Solo. What could have been The Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy is fun but uneven, with major plot points occurring in a blink and a Han and Leia who don’t feel quite like themselves.
This time around, Norra’s ragtag group of rebels is tasked with finding Han Solo amid the turbulent political maneuverings of the post-Return of the Jedi galaxy. In an interlude featured in the first book in the series, Han Solo was headed to Chewbacca’s home planet of Kashyyyk to try to liberate it from Imperial rule. This time, we find out that his first attempt didn’t go well: Chewbacca has been captured. Meanwhile, the Imperial ruling council has pulled itself together under a new ruler.
Fans who are looking for hints at what happened between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens will find some here. General Hux makes a brief appearance, his first name and parentage casually dropped. The connection between Jakku, The Force Awakens, and Lor San Tekka’s Church of the Force is made clear through exquisitely paced revelations. However, the people most tied to those revelations aren’t as powerfully unique as the characters who have come before.
The villainous Fleet Admiral is quickly revealed to be Gallius Rax, an ambitious mastermind with ties to Jakku. Although a fondness for art and music is added for some flavor (and perhaps to recall the popular Grand Admiral Thrawn from the old Legends canon), Rax’s personality is mostly blank, as is his face. Curled, cold, sneering lips are about the only description we get of him. An affair with an Imperial aide is too briefly presented to either humanize him or further emphasize his villainy. Is he simply manipulative in love as well as in everything else?
That manipulation involves both the young New Republic and the struggling Empire. Rax appoints the outspoken Grand Admiral Rae Sloane as the public face of the Empire, intending her to look like the most likely candidate for Emperor to both the Imperial shadow council and the New Republic Senate.
Other side characters are similarly sketched in: a bounty hunter hired by Rae Sloane exists primarily to put Sloane in places the plot did not allow her to go, the rebel soldier Jom Barell is more abrasive and flat than charmingly roguish, and various villains are memorable for their preferred method of inflicting horror instead of any particular history or motivation. Several characters end up in romantic relationships that seem intended to change the course of their behavior, but never do.
Han Solo in particular never quite seemed to cohere into something that truly captured his Original Trilogy self. He describes having left Chewie behind during an Imperial attack, even though this was the Han Solo who came back to rescue friends he had known for mere days at the Death Star at great personal risk in A New Hope. It’s true Han Solo fashion for him not to be as impressive as his reputation would suggest, but there also isn’t much cool smuggler flair here. Leia’s dialogue is crisp and can absolutely be heard in Carrie Fisher’s voice, with her on-again off-again British accent practically discernible, but she’s primarily a voice of the Rebellion here, most interesting in more personal moments such as when she senses the Force presence of her unborn son. (Fans looking for the poignant, ironic sadness that comes from knowing exactly what happens in The Force Awakens will find that here, too.)
Perhaps the biggest problem with the pacing is a lack of emotional peaks for these characters. Han and Chewie are friendly, but one does not get the sense of the unending loyalty the title implies. The Kashyyyk segment is also hurt by the use of a time skip that obscures what could have been a vivid opening battle, and a major plot point that takes place off screen. A hugely significant moment for the Wexley family hinges on the coincidence that they need to break into a particular prison. Like the Wookiee battle in Revenge of the Sith, Life Debt doesn’t quite go all-out when it comes to showing the giant aliens wrecking house, although the Rebels’ situation does go to some grim places.
The book kept me wondering about the Wexley family, but primarily to see how it reflected on their past in Aftermath or future in The Force Awakens. What effect might these events have had on the “Snap” we saw in the film? It’s fun to wonder, but a lot of the energy from these characters is left over from Aftermath instead of being freshly generated in Life Debt. The fact that Norra makes a major life decision out of something closer to apathy than conviction – vowing to leave the New Republic military because she isn’t sure she ever wanted to join it in the first place – makes her story a bit weak on the motivation front: even Norra isn’t entirely sure why she’s doing what she’s doing.
Wendig does a great job of using characters’ hidden or subconscious emotions in the plot, though, particularly in the cases of the ex-imperial torturer Sinjir Rath Valus and Grand Admiral Sloane.
Although it is only detailed in two chapters, Sinjir’s romantic relationship is the most well-established and consequential one in the book, not only because it is a rare look at a gay relationship in Star Wars, but also because it illustrates how much Sinjir has changed from the beginning of the book to the end. Sinjir’s dialogue is heartfelt and pointed, and he remains a relatively complex character – a so-called good guy whose best skill is violent interrogation. The book doesn’t shy away from this, and Sinjir is both sympathetic and sometimes frightening.
The deeper theme in the Imperial side of the story is that of Rax’s penchant for what Sloane calls “melodrama” versus Sloane’s practical, ruthless strategies. She dislikes Rax’s subterfuge, feeling that it is un-Imperial, and becomes frustrated by having to relay Rax’s orders like “an errand girl tackling a to-do list.” She finds herself torn not between the Empire and the New Republic, but between what Rax wants the Empire to be and what Sloane wants it to be. The question of what Sloane will do next carries the book along nicely, and even when she does something completely unexpected, it always feels true to her character.
In these ways, both Sinjir and Sloane show good examples of slow burn character arcs that make Life Debt shine. It’s Sinjir who gets the closest equivalent to the dark revelations in Empire Strikes Back, learning his own capacity for evil and internalizing the idea that the enemy is also himself. Moments like this keep me convinced that these new characters are an essential and enjoyable part of the Expanded Universe. At the end, though, they’re in roughly the same places where they began, with the exception of Sinjir and Sloane and the addition of some family tragedy. They’re glad to be part of a lovable team, but not sure why they stick with it. The final book in the trilogy, Empire’s End, will have to answer that question for the readers, too.
Aftermath: Life Debt is out today.
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Megan Crouse is a staff writer.