Chuck Wendig’s Life Debt is the second novel in the Aftermath trilogy released in the run-up to Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015, and somewhere in my busy schedule of feverishly checking stock notifications and serving coffee to the dead during the holiday period I managed to find the time to read it. I’ve already written my impressions on the first novel (just named Aftermath), which you can read here. The first book left me a little lukewarm. Intrigued by the characters and their occasionally surprising complexity, it also felt scattershot, like it was focusing on setting up a multitude of perspectives for the rest of the series. Life Debt has a much tighter and more obvious plot focus – the novel is about finding Han Solo, who was left at the end of Aftermath scheming an unofficial movement with a suitably rag-tag group of pirates and smugglers to liberate the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk from the yoke of Imperial slavery.
Unburdened from the weight of extensive set-up and introductions, Life Debt actually goes some way to feeling more aftermath-y than Aftermath. Focusing more heavily on the shape of the whatever-the-galactic-equivalent-of-geopolitical landscape is, this second novel brings much more original trilogy star power to bear. This originally caused me a bit of anxiety (I felt the Aftermath core cast deserved more attention, rather than less, in the first book), but Wendig carries it off quite well. The novel’s portrayals of Han Solo and Leia feel authentic, and most of the time they’re on-screen they’re partaking in (or being the nexus of) useful character development for the central cast.
It’s easy for the participation of well-known characters to be included as pointless fanservice, but it doesn’t feel that way here. Instead, they’re well-rendered, and we even see parts of Han, Leia and Chewbacca that aren’t totally visible in amongst the stellar swashbuckling of the original trilogy. Life Debt really, more than anything, is about the Han/Chewie eternal bromance, and this novel displays the depth of their devotion to one another, even as we find Chewbacca at last reunited with his home planet.
It’s honestly pretty affecting. While I think it’d have been nice to see more of everyone’s favourite walking carpet, they’re rendered with a warmth here that’s nice to see, willing to quite literally go to the ends of the universe for one another. In a landscape that’s more and more morally and ethically ambiguous, Han and Chewie form the personal core.
Life Debt raises the stakes
The main benefit enjoyed by Life Debt over its predecessor is a clearer sense of stakes and import. While ultimately quite engaging, the synopsis for Aftermath was somewhat convoluted – Life Debt has straightforward narrative hooks. Han Solo is missing. The Wookiees are still enslaved. Now that you’re familiar with the characters from the first time around, the plot can lean on them as established points of connection while building towards the main moments of the plot.
A criticism I had of the Aftermath was that it spent so much time introducing characters and rapidly flitting between perspectives that Wendig never gave the main characters any space to breathe. I’m quite glad to report that that’s not the case here. Norra, Jas, Sinjir, Temmin and the less-prominent Jom are given quite a lot of time here, and their characters don’t develop in the uniform way you might expect, building in tension until it’s all released happily at the end. Whether or not this is setting up for an idealistic ending in Empire’s End is another question, but some of the character arcs in Life Debt go in darker directions than I was expecting. Despite some moments of triumph, many of the book’s characters don’t really leave this novel on a high.
Intrigue, schemes, plots, and everything else
Having moved beyond the scope of Aftermath’s Akiva, the second novel takes a much wider approach to the Star Wars universe. Most of the cards are on the table with regards to the continuing Imperial presence, though they’re scattered and dissolute – not to mention the continuing haze of mystery surrounding Gallius Rax. This seems almost comically obvious, but the conflict between the New Republic and Empire form the core of the plot, centred around Kashyyyk – the other thematic elements grow their branches from here. There’s a pretty serious character conflict between long-time allies Leia and Mon Mothma. Mothma is the Chancellor of the fledgling New Republic – and refuses to bend the rules of democracy to send aid to the Wookiees. A system they can afford to lose, evidently.
This forms the basis of a familiar duality – hidebound politicians on one side, and rugged individualists on another. While Mothma and the New Republic’s reasoning for avoiding aggressive executive action is understandable – they have a bad precedent to avoid – they’re pretty unambiguously on the ‘wrong side’. It’s a familiar strain in popular culture. Politicians are either unprincipled or their principles blind them to the truth of immediate action. Life Debt at least goes so far as to justify the Republic’s political indecisiveness. The war-weary and suspicious New Republic is keen to broker a peace deal with the remaining Empire and get to rebuilding, but are ignoring the horrors faced by others to do so.
“When did we start to see this as a government and not a collection of people helping people? We’ve started seeing . . . territories and battle logistics and votes. We’ve stopped seeing hearts and minds and faces. The more we do that, the more we lose. Of ourselves. Of the galaxy.”Leia, lamenting inaction
Mon Mothma’s apparent coldness is contrasted with Leia’s fiery, passionate nature, the sort of yin and yang that makes them well-suited. Here, their friendship is tested to breaking point, neither willing to give in on their principles. It makes for effective character drama, even if I don’t necessarily agree with what the ‘thrust’ leads to, with the reliability of characters’ moral compasses intrinsically linked to how little they care about politics. You can just trust them to do the right thing. The main cast are involved in this thematic chunk too, but mostly in the sense that Norra finds surprising self-confidence.
It’s a little bit of a shame, because Star Wars is a franchise that has handled this with more nuance in the past in The Clone Wars, where the idea of principled political action isn’t disregarded as naive and ineffective. Here, any form of bureaucratic deliberation is impotent, and the real weight is placed on heroic figures following their gut, “making snap decisions for the whole”. I’m not sure if this is intended to form a coherent worldview in the novel or if it’s standard help-your-friends stuff. Certainly there is a big throughline of the ways that individuals help other individuals – the titular life debt really ends up going both ways, and ultimately does a hell of a lot of good.
How Life Debt uses the Empire
The Empire of Life Debt is a wounded animal. Broken and splintered, it’s digging in and lashing out. Rae Sloane is trying desperately to create a facade of Imperial unity under the mysterious and possibly untrustworthy guidance of Gallius Rax, while planets like Kashyyyk have essentially become solely controlled by despotic governors. Though it’s occasionally somewhat cartoonish, Life Debt doesn’t pull its punches with regards to the brutality of the Imperial regime on the Wookiee homeworld. The governor there has basically hidden himself away and gone mad in his godlike dominion, a bit of a Kurtz-like entity. It is, frankly, mega-colonial, maybe in a way that’s uncomfortably close to reality.
Through Sloane, Wendig examines the internal logic and imaging of the Empire, expanding it quite significantly from the films. It makes for an unusual contrast with the theming of the Republic parts of the books; while Sloane professes a machine-like vision of the Empire working in unity, she too is quick to disregard the political apparatus in favour of renegade action. While writing this article, I read a lengthy post on the relevance of fascism in Star Wars which may be relevant here as regards hero worship and tradition. As a soldier, she venerates the Empire for imposing violent order on her gang-ridden planet, and Wendig’s novel has a relatively nuanced take on how someone who considers themselves upstanding might ignore the unfettered brutality of Imperial slavery:
“Slavery has never been part of the perfect Empire that lives inside her head. It may have been necessary for a time, but now the galaxy should be made to see the Empire’s glory—and you can’t teach them of its splendor through slavery. Slavery is not strength; it is weakness. Citizens should serve the Empire because it is right to do so. Why would any choose otherwise?”Sloane, ruminating on the use of slavery in the Empire
This highlights an ambiguity in Sloane’s character. She seemingly has a stance against slavery – or at least the weakness it implies, a failure of self-sufficiency in a perfect mechanism. Yet she’s willing to erase it from her own understanding of the imagined ‘perfect Empire’, and from the projection of that Empire her propaganda wing puts forth. While I’m not enough of a historical expert to wrangle with the specifics, this attitude has a chilling relevance both to the history of slavery and, broadly, the capability of people and populations to engage in wilful ignorance of atrocity to maintain the sheen of patriotism.
There are other parts of Sloane’s character which are either inconsistencies or tensions to be resolved. Suffice to say the Empire does a big sneaky war crime, but because she’s an honourable warrior-type, she’d rather have done a big un-sneaky war crime, you see.
The remaining Empire here has become even more of a death cult than before, and Wendig does an excellent job of tying together a number of interesting strings about Imperial self-understanding when viewed as a whole. The Empire here functions as the concept of ‘empire’, but is also quite explicitly fascist, maybe increasingly so, relying more on propaganda and indoctrination as its bureaucratic mechanisms fall apart. Whether or not this will dovetail neatly into the First Order remains to be seen.
I am really looking forward to reading the last novel in the trilogy, Empire’s End. Wendig has set up a lot of pins here for the last novel to knock down, while also providing a satisfying, self-contained tale about dastardly sneak attacks, roguish bravery and great injustice. It’s still my opinion that criticism of this trilogy’s writing style is somewhat overstated, especially after this second book, which is much more even throughout. If I was a bit cautious in recommending Aftermath, Life Debt gets an unreserved thumbs-up as an exciting action novel and interesting examination of Star Wars‘ politics.
If you read this and you’re thirsty for more written c o n t e n t, please go ahead and read Nevi’s cartographical journey in God of War 4 or my review of antipodean necromancy slash coffee-house game Necrobarista. If you’re still feeling literary, also take a look at Nevi’s review of Tales of Heresy, set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.
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