The Aftermath series thrives or stagnates on the strength of its characters. Norra and Temmin “Snap” Wexley, Sinjir, Jas, and Mister Bones are not unlike the crew of Star Wars Rebels. Completely original characters, they have to hold up under the heavy weight of the expectations on the new canon. After some missteps in Life Debt, Empire’s End strengthens its characters and brings a classic Star Wars feeling to the trilogy’s finale.
The novel immediately established strong character stories that follow on from Life Debt. Norra is driven by her desire to get revenge against ex-Grand Admiral Rae Sloane, while Sinjir cuts himself off from his boyfriend Conder due to a self-hatred as surgical as the torture he once inflicted on others. Meanwhile, Sloane and Brentin Wexley travel to Jakku to find out what Gallius Rax, the man behind the Imperial machine, has been conspiring to do. With everyone raring to go to Jakku, a good portion of the first half of the book is taken up by obstacles preventing them from getting there. It makes the plot feel very urgent, and splitting the story between Jakku and elsewhere should satisfy fans who want to get some answers while still keeping reveals in hand for the finale.
While Norra and Sloane have the most significant plots, Sinjir also has a very strong emotional arc and a fantastically paced fight scene that reveals some more of his history. Jas Emari’s family relationship to The Clone Wars bounty hunter Sugi pays off nicely, if a bit conveniently. We know that “Snap” Wexley will end up in The Force Awakens, and Empire’s End shows some of the steps he took to turn from restless teenager into an accomplished X-Wing pilot. Sinjir’s plot in particular combines an emotional arc and an adventure story into a neat conclusion.
In the end, though, this is really Norra and Sloane’s story. It’s refreshing to see two women take the center stage, and for the book to show a lot of different types of relationships between women: Jas and Norra have become fast friends, while Norra and Sloane are bonded by shared circumstance. The book left me wondering until the very end what their personal choices would be and whether that relationship would prove stronger than their quests for revenge. Sloane’s penchant for moving ahead with her plans no matter what collateral damage may result manifests in a lot of hand-to-hand combat in Empire’s End. Having lost her ship and her command, Sloane will shout and punch her way to her victory – and she’s great, if not quite as poised as she was in the previous books.
Sloane and Norra are both pushed to the breaking point, and yet again, Wendig’s fight scenes set themselves apart not so much by their word choice but by their very personal brutality. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, the villains aren’t as well-drawn as the heroes. The bounty hunter Mercurial Swift has some amusing braggadocio, but your mileage may vary as to whether that translates to anything actually cool. Rax gets some more depth, but it’s expressed in a tired chess metaphor.
New villain Niima the Hutt never quite becomes anything more than an Indiana Jones-style cult leader. She doesn’t necessarily have to be – Jabba wasn’t – but the plot gets a bit muddled when she and her army are used as chaotic elements dropped into other people’s stories. Sloane in particular isn’t as strongly characterized around the middle of the book as she is elsewhere, and Brentin’s amateur diagnosis that Sloane ultimately feels unfulfilled as a person because she never had a family seems misplaced.
At times, I found myself looking at this book from two different perspectives. A younger reader might find joy in the book’s classic science fiction mysteries and its take-no-prisoners women. As a reviewer steeped in Star Wars, the ending treaded familiar ground. New mysteries are suggested and some questions are answered. The series is positioned to set up plot points for The Force Awakens, but it’s clear from some sections that those plot points either haven’t been established by the Lucasfilm Story Group yet or will be revealed in another medium. Empire’s End doesn’t answer all of the questions it poses, but it does resolve the character arcs for the people who have been most important within the novels themselves.
The scenes which right now seem to be the most closely connected to The Force Awakens are the ones which feature infant Ben Solo and young Armitage Hux. Of course, these are the scenes most restricted by the need for the new canon to be so cohesive. Wendig does a skillful job of writing around events that might be portrayed in canon later. For some readers, the end of the book might have the feeling of a myth, told at a distance. This provides atmosphere at the same time as it keeps Aftermath from stepping on any canon toes.
In Life Debt, I felt that Han Solo was portrayed as too mercenary and that his dialogue didn’t quite fit. Empire’s End doesn’t go much deeper into his family relationships, and I would have liked more about Leia’s impressions of Ben in the Force, some of which we saw in Life Debt. Some of the conversations in the Solo household felt very classic Expanded Universe, but didn’t quite capture Han’s voice.
Meanwhile, New Republic Chancellor Mon Mothma has her own story wrapped in political turmoil: up for re-election against the alien Tolwar Wartol, she is portrayed as both noble and a bit conniving, not above trickery to secure what she thinks is the most peaceful route for the galaxy. It’s very different from the Expanded Universe’s politicking, and I struggled to decide whether I actually enjoyed the political maneuvering or merely found it wrapped in fun packaging.
In general, Chuck Wendig’s writing in Empire’s End is vivid but not tight, and some lapses of point of view and missed shots (“rocking his dome dizzy”) were jarring. Some of the ways in which Wendig juggles scope were impressive, though, especially near the end. The interludes continue to entertain, but with one notable exception, aren’t quite as memorable as the ones from previous books. They also contain one of the sillier scenes: an acrobatic Tusken Raider on a steampunk bantha are a bit much.
The character work in Empire’s End has given Norra, Sinjir, and Sloane in particular a memorable place in the Star Wars timeline. Empire’s End was stronger than Life Debt and left me eager to find out what, if anything, is next for the new Expanded Universe characters. Fans looking to find answers about the Sequel Trilogy will still have to wait for The Last Jedi, but Aftermath‘s likeable crew should provide some entertainment in the meantime.
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.