It’s been a time of firsts in the Star Wars franchise since Disney purchased Lucasfilm and rebooted most of the continuity. The first canon story outside The Clone Wars was the comic series Son of Dathomir, an extension of the animated series. The first canon novel, appropriately enough named A New Dawn, tied into the Star Wars Rebels television series. It’s only with Aftermath by Chuck Wendig, though, that the new material starts showing what happened after Return of the Jedi, exploring territory once chronicled in a panoply of books and comics but now a daring, new frontier.
Aftermath shoulders the burden of answering questions fans have going into The Force Awakens, at least enough to pull back the curtain a little bit on J. J. Abrams’ secretive story. Set about 30 years before The Force Awakens, Aftermath is the best opportunity so far to find out what the franchise will look like in the future. Do the New Republic and the Empire become the Resistance and the First Order? Is it even that simple? How different will the new Expanded Universe be from the one fans know and love?
Both the main story in the novel and the two-to-three-page “interludes” in between offer glimpses at the future of the Star Wars universe, especially the galactic governments. Both the Empire and the Rebellion are re-forming, and Aftermath shows some of that.
When Rebel pilot Wedge Antilles is captured by Admiral Rae Sloane, a group of four reluctant Rebels find themselves breaking into a palace to save him. The book hits its stride at about halfway through and doesn’t slow down, becoming a fast-burning action scene that include both gunfights and space battles. The new characters are the true focus of the story, and are some of the most memorable, personable people to come out of Star Wars novels in a long time. Shell-shocked Rebel pilot Norra Wexley flew her Y-Wing into the Death Star II and barely managed to escape, and now returns to her mechanically-oriented teenage son to try to restart her life. Ex-Imperial interrogator Sinjir Rath Velus is on a similar life path from the opposite side of the war: after deserting during the Battle of Endor, he wants to drown his sorrows in drink and nearly succeeds before being found by the mercenary bounty hunter Jas Emari.
A key figure on the Imperial side of things is Rae Sloane, an admiral aboard the Star Destroyer Vigilance. She’s a good character more for her place in the story than for any particular quirks. While Imperial bureaucrats scrabble over the considerable infrastructure left in the hands of the Empire, she quietly calculates, holding an ace up her sleeve.
The four Rebels find themselves in the middle of Imperial operations on Akiva, as Sloane tries to keep the feuding leaders of the Empire in line. Almost the entire last half is an action scene composed of short chapters and scenes, making the story race along at an exciting pace. Throughout, the tone is slightly different than has been seen before in the EU, partially because of author Chuck Wendig’s scintillating writing style. He rapid-fires metaphors in a way that grounds the story in images and actions, creating a grimy, slimy galaxy far, far away that perfectly matches the look of the Original Trilogy. At first, his descriptions of aliens and cybernetics can seem unusually gross and textured for Star Wars: an alien’s mechanical arm is described as “a hasty, ill-fitting job – the wires plugged unceremoniously into the blistering flesh of his red shoulder.”
This is Chuck Wendig flair, but from watching Return of the Jedi soon after finishing the book, I also realize that the descriptions match the look of the movies exactly, warts, slime and all.
Wendig does have a bad habit of sacrificing his own metaphors to flowery, meaningless Star Wars jargon: the “horrible scream” of a TIE fighter is viscerally frightening, but even for someone who knows that a blurrg is a big frog-like creature, “this gawping blurrg who’s trailing Sinjir like a lost nek” is a vacuous description without the evocative humor of “scruffy-looking nerf-herder.” But that tendency toward the kind of word soup found in any average Star Wars novel is one of the only flaws that can be found here.
Wendig captures the used, unexplained things of Star Wars: datapads that don’t work because there is sand stuck in them, symphonies mentioned without explanation. Stuck in the middle of a media empire, one of Aftermath’s greatest achievements is its ability to make the reader forget that. The interludes give the reader information about what’s going on in the wider galaxy, including dramatic changes that indicate how the new canon might fork away from the old Expanded Universe fast. They’re also quality short stories in their own right, portraying events that feel like natural, sometimes dark results of the end of the Empire. In addition, the book leaves more than a few mysteries to be solved in the upcoming sequels.
The four heroes work fantastically together, and have become some of my favorite characters in the new canon. They really seem to connect with one another: they hug, they laugh, they make maps out of household objects. Singer, whose job was torturing his own crewmates for information, flinches when he’s presented with a box of thermal detonators – he wasn’t a front-line soldier, after all. Their dynamic is fun and believable. Aftermath is also one of the most diverse books in the Star Wars oeuvre, showing characters of various races, genders, and sexual orientations.
Part of their strength is in their growth and depth, too: Sinjir doesn’t know why exactly he feels some of the emotions he does, and Rae Sloane has to reconsider all the lessons that were most important to her. More minor characters get illuminating moments as well, which explain more about the political state of the galaxy and their own attitudes toward it: during the arguments among the Imperials, one argues bitterly that, “This isn’t some kind of inspirational story. Some scrappy, ragtag underdog tale, some pugilistic match where we’re the good hearted gladiator who brings down the oppressive regime that put him in the arena. They get to have that narrative.” Ouch.
I have to pay compliments to the physical construction of the book, too: the white binding is a nice change, and matches the jacket.
Except for some word choices that seem to favor fitting in with the Star Wars universe over making actual sense – would an Imperial advisor use “Imperial advocate” as a pejorative in the same way we’d use “devil”? – Aftermath is a wonderful addition to the expanded universe. It brings vivid characters and a strong writing style, and while I won’t be outlining them here in order to avoid spoilers, there are intriguing hints at where Star Wars stories could go next. The Star Wars universe is fresh and new again, and just as rich and mysterious as it always was.
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Megan Crouse is a staff writer.