The galaxy is in chaos. The powers that be are no longer in control, and a new entity has risen up to take control of the future of the universe. Some citizens have reacted with anger and loathing; others welcome the change with open arms. All that’s come before is about to be thrown into question as the path forward seems unclear.
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It may sound like I’m describing the state of the Star Wars universe immediately after the destruction of the Second Death Star in Return of the Jedi, but I’m actually talking about a period in our own galaxy. Not 4 ABY, but April 2014. That’s when Disney pointed a blaster at the numerous titles in the Expanded Universe canon and obliterated it into smithereens, clearing the way for a cavalry of new authors to build the foundation of the galaxy exactly as Disney wanted them to.
With the Mouse replacing George Lucas as the architect of the universe, we’ve since gotten plenty of new content filling in the gaps between the six movies, but because we’re already familiar with many of the characters and settings, much of it has been more like a refurnishing or redecoration of an office we’ve visited many times.
Until now. The release of Chuck Wendig’s novel Star Wars: Aftermath, the first in a trilogy of books set after the events of Return of the Jedi, is like Disney unveiling a brand-new wing of the pop culture skyscraper it purchased. Yes, the place feels familiar, with characters like Han Solo and sayings like “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” still popping up. But Wendig takes us, literally and figuratively, into uncharted territory in the Star Wars galaxy.
The book’s opening establishes this new era’s tone immediately: amid the celebration of the destruction of the Second Death Star and the death of Emperor Palpatine, Imperial forces attack the citizens of Coruscant in an attempt to maintain control.
It’s an effective, bleak scene that doesn’t feel anything like Star Wars, and that’s the point. Just because the Empire fell doesn’t mean the Alliance (ahem, the New Republic) succeeded in taking its place. This is a galaxy on edge, where even the good guys aren’t trusted by the citizens they’re trying to protect, and as a result, maintaining the peace can sometimes be trickier than fighting a war.
The novel’s main storyline is set on the jungle planet of Akiva, where a group of surviving Imperial higher-ups are holding a secret meeting to figure out how to re-establish the Empire in the wake of Palpatine’s death. But they’re not alone on the backwater world. Captain Wedge Antilles alerts the rebels to the meeting before he’s captured by the Imperials. We also meet Norra Wexley, a rebel pilot who survived the Battle of Endor and is returning to her homeworld of Akiva to fetch her son Temmin, who she left behind to fight for the Alliance.
We’re also introduced to Sinjir Rath Telus, an “Imperial loyalty officer” who deserted during the Battle of Endor, and the bounty hunter Jas Emeri, trying to collect a bounty on one of the Imperial officers meeting on Akiva. Meanwhile, Admiral Rae Sloane attempts to lead that meeting and draw her Imperial counterparts under control while fending off the rebels’ attack on her and the rest of the officers.
One of the novel’s greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses is its clever structure. The main storyline is broken up by about a dozen cutaway chapters set in a different part of the universe. These function as small vignettes about how the rest of the galaxy is adapting to the Empire’s fall.
We see a family arguing over the dinner table about which side of the war was right, before one relative reveals he sold out his rebel-sympathizing brother as stormtroopers arrive at the door; we see Mon Mothma debating political strategy with her lieutenants as they tour the site of a deadly skirmish; we see mysterious Sith acolytes (but not actual Sith) barter for a lightsaber purported to be Anakin Skywalker’s.
I would buy an entire box set of novels written like this. It’s a brilliant, efficient way to paint in the corners of the universe, but at the same time, it’s an indicator of one of Aftermath’s biggest problems, which is that it tries to do a little too much legwork. It’s admirable that Wendig is flying us across the galaxy and giving us the VIP tour, but the cost is the novel’s main storyline ends up running out of fuel.
Star Wars: Aftermath author Chuck Wendig.
The character development suffers the most. Every character is given a few surface traits that make him or her stand out from the others, but their relationships aren’t fully explored to make us care about what happens to them. I was not interested in the fragmented mother-son bond between Norra and Temmin, or the wary trust between Jas and Sinjir. Even Wedge comes off as a missed opportunity, as his injuries leave him sidelined for most of the novel.
The scenes between the Imperials fare a little better. Wendig crafts Sloane into a believable character who’s respectable, mostly because she’s following her sense of duty without seeming cruel or malicious. She’s also intelligent in that she tries to match her counterparts’ political maneuvering and maintain control of the Empire’s navy. But she’s robbed of a satisfying end to her arc in favor of more action.
That’s another frustrating aspect of Aftermath. The entire novel is written in short, fragmented, punchy sentences, and while that works well with some of the action scenes, it begins to wear on the reader. Tires them out. Makes them feel exhausted. Like these sentences. I’m not sure if this is Wendig’s normal style or if he changed it for the novel, but I wish he threw in some elongated sentences from time to time to break things up.
I enjoyed Aftermath on a macro level more than a micro level. I really dug the broad strokes of how Wendig interpreted this era of Star Wars, with paranoia and edginess lurking at the edge of every scene. But the nuts and bolts of the main storyline were jammed together rather than fitted in properly. It still functions well as an introduction to a new generation of Star Wars storytelling, but Aftermath isn’t memorable enough to stand on its own.