This is the first part of a series of reviews, and is written from the perspective of a returning Star Wars fan delving back into the ‘new canon’ after years of absence. This is either an earnest attempt to re-engage with a storied science fiction franchise or a desperate attempt to fill in the many gaps left by Rise of Skywalker, take your pick.
The cynical part of my brain thinks a little confusion was planned. The sequel trilogy resumes with almost no explanation of the state of the galaxy (and is almost flippant about the destruction of the reigning system of government), and the ‘Journey to The Force Awakens’ multimedia release schedule was always part of the scheme. Planners may well have thought that people who cared enough would go and investigate these, and everyone else would go with the flow. If so – they got me, about five years later. We’re going to be talking about the first entry in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy, with which the novel shares a name.
If I’m after a direct explanation of the sequel trilogy, this isn’t really the place. Aftermath is concerned (as you might think) with the situation arising immediately after Return of the Jedi, with the death of the Emperor and the destruction of the second Death Star. It explores this through a central narrative thread, about a gang of misfit heroes trying to foil an Imperial summit, interspersed with vignette-style chapters offering glimpses of life in the waning days of the Galactic Civil War. As a result, the novel offers a shotgun blast of different perspectives. This is a quirk it leans into, but it also results in slightly uneven pacing (another new point of view – is this one important or not?) and is sometimes to the detriment of Aftermath’s strongest characters.
Whether or not Wendig’s writing style in this novel jives with you will largely be a matter of taste. I’ve seen some fairly vitriolic negative reactions (see this old Eleven-ThirtyEight article for details), but with the benefit of hindsight it seems to me like the reaction wasn’t really about the style, but rather the whole canon reboot situation at large. It certainly manages to draw attention to itself, as a very immediate, punchy present-tense in opposition to the ‘invisible’ style of narration preferred in much of SF and fantasy. When Aftermath adopts a direct point of view, it is not subtle in letting you know about it; this can range from differences in structure to adoption of an almost stream-of-consciousness style when shifting into a character’s ‘eyes’ briefly to witness them mentally processing a specific task. I found Aftermath’s approach to character narration refreshing, if occasionally a bit confused; sometimes, while clearly in a specific point of view, the tone would be incongruous. I remember on one occasion we’re following Jas Emari, a Zabrak bounty hunter. Her conversational style with other people is terse and to the point, and yet her chapter features a surprising amount of meandering exposition from the narration.
This isn’t helped by the weight of numbers. Clearly inspired by the Song of Ice and Fire school of narrative, there are a huge number of different characters who are all focal points. As mentioned, this also includes a number of unrelated snapshot chapters, showing slices of life across the galaxy. These are admittedly interesting, and provide important context for the Star Wars universe at large, but it does feel like our central characters receive less time than they deserve as a result. While this approach might be better supported in a sprawling fantasy saga, I’d argue it weakens the case for Aftermath as a singular novel – there’s a definite sense that you need to read the others.
I was trying to do a definite head count for the main characters, but it’s tough to do so without getting bogged down in definition. There’s definitely the ‘main gang’, the four who represent the story’s centre. Norra is probably the closest thing Aftermath has to a primary character, and she’s certainly the nexus of the most character development. Torn between extremely powerful convictions for the Rebellion (mixed with a self-sacrificing danger-seeking streak) and her equally strong need to protect her son from the ravages of a dangerous universe, Norra’s internal conflict serves as the pillar around which the cast’s friendships are built. The nature of her relationship with her son is pretty standard, if you ignore the skeleton-clad battle droid Mr. Bones; she’s returned from years away fighting in yonder wars among the stars, and in that time he’s developed a ferocious sense of independence, and isn’t keen to give it up to satisfy protective parental instincts. Despite her protestations that she’s just here for her son, she finds herself inexorably drawn to interfere with the Empire’s schemes. She’s repressed the emotions she felt to her family for years, and doesn’t seem to be done yet. Her sense of duty to the Rebellion leads her so often to the brink of death it invites the reader to wonder if that’s what she’s after. Norra is an intriguing and complex character with a nice mixture of relatable and personality-driven motivations, and it’s almost a shame that the novel doesn’t dedicate more space to her internal struggles in this first book.
Her son Temmin has taken to dealing in dangerous junk, with a side-line in theft. He’s a little more predictable as a rebellious teenager archetype, but has some interesting character interactions. Jas is basically what you’d expect, though she’s much more honourable than the capricious bounty hunters we often run into in the Star Wars canon, committed to avoiding collateral damage. Sinjir Rath Velus is the most conceptually complex of the new characters, at least possessing the most character traits to describe. A former Imperial Loyalty Officer (responsible for ensuring unwavering loyalty among the Empire’s troops), he turned to drink after deserting, though his alcoholism is mostly played for laughs. Sinjir is also the first openly gay Star Wars ‘main’ character I can particularly recall (except from Norra’s sister earlier in this book). The ethics of the queer-coded way he regretfully describes torturing a ‘pretty’ Imperial soldier are a bit murky, but to Aftermath’s credit this is a reductive way to view that particular flashback. In general, when Sinjir isn’t being generically snooty, he’s an interesting and nuanced character. His convictions run deeper than he lets on, and he represents a fresh way to look at the human cost of the Empire. They also eventually link up with a Rebel special forces drop trooper, Jom Barrell, who isn’t given a ton of room, another hanging thread Wendig seems to want you to pull by reading the next one.
There are a few Imperials in the book, but the most notable (and the only one who gets perspective time) is Rae Sloane. The novel avoids any daft Empire apologism, but through Sloane it attempts a bit of humanisation – she usually seems reasonable, and acts as a mediating force towards the more aggressive elements of the Imperial summit. A career soldier denied the ‘glory’ of frontline action during the Galactic Civil War, she’s torn between the potential for an opportunistic rise to power and her own (malleable) principles, which are increasingly tested in the course of the plot. The Imperial summit is carried off quite well, capturing the bickering nature of a dominating power structure collapsing into a vacuum. Some of the Imperials offer self-reflection; one strategist remarks on the absurdity of building a ‘Death Star’ on the instruction of a ‘decrepit old goblin’ on the ‘dark side’, a comment that maybe skirts too close to crossing the ‘are we the baddies?’ event horizon, jabbing a little too firmly at our suspension of disbelief. Others believe that victory and the restoration of order is just a matter of a firm counter-attack and a show of force (fear will keep them in line, right?). They are all high-value targets for the burgeoning New Republic, keen to defeat the Imperial leadership once and for all. It plays around with what we know about the order of the galaxy after the fall of the second Death Star, without treading too heavily on the toes of what comes before or after (so far).
This raises the ultimate question with these new Disney-era novels – what should a Star Wars novel be? The old Extended Universe took a very scattershot, anything-goes approach; good for stoking fans’ imaginations, but not so good for the prized Brand Integrity™. As a result, the canonicity (if that matters to you) was all over the place, and you basically need a degree-level qualification in Star Wars lore to understand whether or not something was relevant to the ‘real story’ about all those Jedi from the films. The new Disney approach is different, where basically everything published is official canon material unless it’s blatantly not (Lego Star Wars and so on). While this clarity is appreciated, it puts a lot of extra pressure on books set in the universe, now condemned to bear the weight of the franchise. So every novel, this one included, faces interrogation: how does this advance Star Wars? Is it relevant to the movies? Importantly, when dealing with these novels that are explicitly designed to tie in to the sequels; how (if at all) does it support the new material?
“Aftermath focuses its energies mostly in a direction where it can maintain creative control without treading heavily on canonical toes.“
So in a way I’m glad that the bulk of Aftermath is devoted exclusively to new characters. In some regards that liberates this book, and I’m assuming the rest of them, from some of the crushing weight of canonicity. In others, it renders it somewhat disconnected, with its own narrative sandbox, a little awkward where the ‘big-name’ characters come into contact. This is a matter of taste – do you demand that big actions be taken by big characters, or are you happy to have unrelated characters fill in the blanks? Of course, there’s the standard array of SW stalwarts (Leia, Han, Ackbar, Wedge Antilles) in various roles, but Aftermath focuses its energies mostly in a direction where it can maintain creative control without treading heavily on canonical toes.
In the end-of-2020 era, after the second Mandalorian season, Disney’s strategy has pivoted (a bit strangely) to exploiting this post-Return of the Jedi period. This makes the Aftermath trilogy more relevant than they’ve ever been to the expanding body of material, with characters popping up intermittently (most notably Cobb Vanth, first introduced in a vignette chapter in this first book, appearing in The Mandalorian). If you’re interested in getting a head start on some obscure cameos as Disney pursues its relentless production schedule of streaming spin-offs, it’s not a bad time to take a look at this novel and its sequels. Though its approach is a little too unfocused at times to fully recommend, by and large I enjoyed my time with Aftermath, and look forward to seeing what happens in the next novel, Life Debt. It seems geared to tie in more directly with the original trilogy cast (it seems to relate to Han Solo trying to liberate the Wookies, from what I’ve picked up). If you want to imagine this as a real-ish book club, feel free to read along and join in next time.
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