BOOK REVIEW: CHUCK WENDIG’S LIFE DEBT: AFTERMATH

“Han did it. He must have. If anyone could cause an overreaction like “bomb the whole planet into bits”, it’d be him”

Leia Organa, inner monologue (Life Debt, page 337)

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Life Debt, released in July 2016, was the second of the Aftermath Trilogy of books exploring the time period between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. After the events of the first book, Aftermath, Life Debt depicted the further adventures of Norra Wexley’s band of heroes. We saw the return of Norra’s teenage son Temmin (and his custom-made Battle Droid Mr Bones), the Zabrak bounty hunter Jas Emari, former Imperial officer Sinjir Rath Velus, and the SpecForces officer Jom Barell.

The book also continued the development of Rae Sloane, and saw her working alongside the duplicitous and sinister Gallius Rax. In Life Debt Rax was established as a Machiavellian force to be reckoned with, and his fate was continued in the closing part of the Trilogy Empire’s End. At this point there is still a picture of general Imperial disarray, with a picture starting to emerge of only a select handful of Imperials able to keep their cool and calculation in their new and uncertain environment. Sloane was knowingly set up by Wendig as Leia Organa’s Imperial counterpoint.

More than any other impression Life Debt conveyed a sense of Wendig having fun with his characters. It is that sense of fun, along with the natural drive of the plot, makes Life Debt the best book within his Trilogy.

That outcome was assisted by the book’s reprise of the classic Star Wars heroes from the Rebel Alliance, now the New Republic. Our heroes blazed onto the stage of Life Debt and Wendig was adept at weaving them in alongside his new characters. Importantly he accurately captured the hue, tone and speech of the Original Trilogy characters. This is important. As fans we become so attuned to these characters; anything that fails to align with our knowledge of them simply wouldn’t work.

Wendig’s Han Solo in particular was pitch-perfect. He also convincingly established the tensions between Leia Organa and Mon Mothma in the immediate “post-war” environment. Mothma embodies the pragmatist and cool tactician. Leia combines the latter trait with a “Jyn Erso-esque” spirit of not wanting to let political expediency detract from the spirit of the Rebellion. Wendig resurrected the same dynamic that existed between Leia and the New Republic in the Expanded Universe (prior to Disney’s creation of an alternative continuity).

Wedge Antilles was once again present and accounted for, with a characterization consistent with his appearance in Aftermath. He also continued to show a keen interest in Norra. It was in Life Debt that Wedge took the opportunity to bestow Temmin Wexley with his famous nickname “Snap”. We even saw the literary introduction of  Marvel Star Wars’ Evaan Verlaine; a cult fan-favorite.

At the heart of Life Debt though, indeed at the heart of the Aftermath Trilogy, was the scale and complexity associated with post-conflict (or perhaps more precisely end of conflict) galactic arrangements. The book depicted the end-games between the New Republic and the Empire. In Life Debt we watched the seeds being sown for the events of The Force Awakens.

The complexity of the task that faced the New Republic is what makes the particular dynamic between Mon Mothma and Leia Organa in this period so important. Each has a vision at this point of what they want the New Republic to stand for. Mothma’s strategic pragmatism acknowledges the ideological concessions required to secure governance over a diverse coalition. Organa by contrast deploys a charismatic, almost Churchillian leadership style unswayed by resource arguments. Both women are conscious of the residual Imperial forces being primed to reassert effective (if brutal) governance should the New Republic project fail.

It would be remiss to touch upon the strengths of the book without mentioning the fascinating dimensions in relation to the Wookiee home of Kashyyyk. Life Debt showed us the horrific environment that the Wookies had been cast into. Their home had become an Imperial prison planet in large part. One keen observer has however raised questions about the rapidity of the disintegration of that environment in the alternative continuity set by Disney. What is certain is that the conditions on Kashyyyk depicted in Life Debt were truly horrific. Wendig pulled no punches and deliberate parallels were drawn with WW2 POW camps. Other WW2 parallels were established in the depictions of the residual Imperial forces that continue to battle against the Rebels long after defeat at Endor. For me this had this effect of drawing comparisons with so-called Japanese “hold-outs” who continued to fight for Japan after VJ day.

Overall Assessment: Life Debt was the strong point for me in the Trilogy and it effectively set up the concluding installment. The characters had a natural dynamic, there was a nice depiction of the political tensions within the emerging New Republic structures and the difficulties of transitioning from conflict to reconstruction. Most of all  – and despite some of the brutality of the scenes on Kashyyyk – the book overall had that “Saturday morning matinee” feeling of fun that most Star Wars fans crave.

Score: 8/10

Chuck Wendig, Life Debt: Aftermath is published under the Century Imprint in the United Kingdom and is available in all good retailers and libraries.

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