Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig is a fun romp packed with fascinating hints for future stories, but is only partially successful in delivering a thoughtful, well-rounded cast of characters.
Life Debt is the second book in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy, and it picks up nearly where Aftermath left off, right in the thick of things with the misfit New Republic crew who teamed up in the latter’s final pages: Norra Wexley and her son, Temmin, nicknamed “Snap,” Temmin’s droid Mr. Bones, Sinjir Rath Velus, Jas Emari, and Jom Barell.
The story orbits around a central plot: Han Solo is missing after a failed attempt to liberate Chewbacca’s homeworld of Kashyyyk, where, despite the slow but steady release of the Empire’s grip on the galaxy as a whole, the latter regime still holds the Wookiee people in a chokehold. Leia, still the face of the Rebel Alliance turned New Republic but now with a pregnancy thrown into the mix, recruits Norra and her team to find her husband and bring him home.
There is far more to the story than that, however, namely Imperial machinations as seen through the eyes of Grand Admiral Rae Sloane and plotted by a mysterious new would-be Emperor, who humbly calls himself Sloane’s “advisor.” But the focus remains on the heroic team, with mixed results.
The following review is spoiler-free.
There is no disputing that Life Debt is a fun read. The action is nearly non-stop, the prose is colorful and quick (and slightly more organized and less choppy than that of Aftermath), and both the story and the interludes, which give us a glimpse at other conflicts and drama taking place in various parts of the galaxy, are intriguing and question-provoking.
What suffers the most about this novel is not the narrative, however, but the characters. Which is sad, because some of them, like Jas and Sloane and Norra, are so well written.
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A prime example of this dichotomy is Jas Emari, the sexy, freewheeling Zabrak bounty hunter, paired with Jom Barell, the tough, rule-stickling New Republic soldier. At the start of the story the two are constantly butting heads, but this is merely an outlet for their underlying attraction to one another. They consummate this attraction more than once, and the resulting romance becomes the point of many of their scenes together and apart. At least, it becomes the point of Jom’s scenes. Jas, for her part, undergoes her own character arc disparate from that romance, but the whole of Jom’s character revolves around it. He is little more than a tool to shape Jas’s character as well as an object she (not himself) sharpens into someone different instead of what he and every well-rounded character should be: an arbiter of his own persona, the shaper of his own path. While Jas is made a deeper and more relatable character than she was in Aftermath, because she is given more scenes through which to relay her thoughts and struggles, Jom’s thoughts and struggles, in the one or two scenes we get from his perspective, begin and end with Jas.
This kind of neglect of one of the main members of Norra’s team is a problem, for the simple fact Jom is part of the team. Nearly everyone else gets more autonomous personal character development than he does. The only other team member who suffers is Temmin, Norra’s son, whose character arc in Life Debt devolved from the conflicted, clever teenager in Aftermath to, for the most part, an angsty one with no great flashes of insight except as they serve the main plot or the growth of someone else.
“Steel in my spine. Bronze in my voice.” – Rae Sloane
Again, this neglect is tragic when you look at how the other characters thrive. Rae Sloane is the standout star, as she struggles to keep herself in a position of leadership on not a mere figurehead in what remains of the Imperial hierarchy. Gallius Rax, a new villain and Sloane’s supposed “adviser,” is brilliant and evil without hope of redemption. Norra Wexley wrestles with the question of where her multiple loyalties lie, Jas and Sinjir try to find their places in this new scheme of “doing the right thing for the right reasons,” and Leia and Han find themselves more and more at odds with the idea of a regulated government running things instead of the self-righteous Rebellion.
And there are other elements of Life Debt to love, too, such as how many questions and potential new story threads it presents. Never have I been more desperate for the sequel to a novel to come out; Empire’s End, the penultimate installment of the Aftermath trilogy, will be released in January 2017, which seems like eons away after finishing and speculating on all Life Debt had to offer. The prologue, interludes, and epilogue are the greatest harbingers of curiosity. Without getting into spoiler territory, let me say one thing: Jakku is far more important that we first gave it credit for. I suspect, after we see Episode VIII next year, we will look back on Aftermath, Life Debt, and Empire’s End and only then realize how many hints for the future Wendig and the Story Group hid like tiny treasure troves within the pages of these books.
As a story, Life Debt was a delight. As a character study, which it tried to be at times, it fell short in not giving all of its characters the courtesy of a compelling character arc. This is in no way damning to the book as a whole and should not discourage anyone from reading it, however. What is hopeful to me about pointing out what I perceive as a flaw in Life Debt is it may be remedied, as some of Aftermath‘s flaws were in the latter, in Empire’s End to the satisfaction of all.