Just over a year ago, Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath hit the shelves of bookstores to overwhelming sales and the wailing of a distinct minority of fans who claimed Wendig had somehow ruined their beloved franchise. Their complaints encompassed everything from the use of present tense to the presence of gay characters, and thankfully, now with the release of Aftermath’s sequel, Life Debt, it’s clear that Wendig didn’t change a thing. Life Debt is a masterful visit to the Star Wars galaxy in the time period after the Battle of Endor, as the balance of destiny begins to strongly tilt in the direction of the rising New Republic and the collapsing remnants of the Galactic Empire. In the process, Wendig essentially doubled down on the things which garnered complaints in the past, adding a neutral gendered pronoun to the present tense mix, and exploring the love life of Sinjir Rath Velus. However, like before in Aftermath, these things really are inconsequential to the story being told, simply being threads in the novel’s narrative tapestry.
There is one major change in Life Debt that was absent in Aftermath, a greater focus on the major characters of the Star Wars franchise. In this case, Han Solo, Leia Organa, and other more established heroes are drawn into the plots in the book. We are keeping this review spoiler light, so here is a general overview of the novel’s plots. First, we are introduced to Gallius Rax, the mysterious figure at the end of Aftermath. Who he is becomes an enduring mystery not for our heroes, but for our returning antagonist, Grand Admiral Rae Sloane. Rax controls Sloane, in a manner that is never clearly revealed, and acts as a puppet master or more fittingly, the conductor or composer of a symphony who has a grand plan in mind and slowly reveals it as the novel progresses. Sloane spends much of her time trying to understand Rax’s mysterious past as she realizes that the future she has envisioned for the Empire does not coincide with his.
The second major plot element is the absence of Han Solo. It turns out that the major attack on the Wookiee homeworld, Kashyyyk, which was heavily built up in Aftermath’s interludes, was simply a trap and happened sometime off stage before the setting of Life Debt. In the course of everything going south, Chewbacca was captured, and soon after, Han Solo disappears in the hunt for his friend. This leads Leia to hire one of the best Imperial officer hunting teams the New Republic has, our heroes from Aftermath, Norra and Temmin Wexley, Sinjir, Jas Emari, and Jom Barell, to find her husband. Their hunt for Solo provides the setting for more character development and the emotional stakes which increasingly causes the reader to fret more and more about their safety in any given violent situation. While those heroes are busy hunting down Han, Leia remains busy dealing with the growing realities of a rebellion transitioning into a government.
The Aftermath Trilogy has been all about seeds, seeds which eventually take root and grow into elements of the Expanded Universe further down the road, such as in The Force Awakens or in Bloodline by Claudia Gray. Beyond her worries for her husband’s safety, the beginning of Leia’s future problems with the Senate of the New Republic and the clash of her personal motivations against political pragmatisms are established in Life Debt. A bit surprisingly, Leia’s chief antagonist in Life Debt isn’t Grand Admiral Sloane, but Chancellor Mon Mothma, who repeatedly is forced to turn down Leia’s request for help from finding Han to helping the enslaved Wookiee race. Given that her nemesis, we use that word loosely, is the saintly Mon Mothma, these interactions force the reader to grapple with both sides of the argument in a manner much more removed than the usual, Rebellion good, Empire bad. More often than not, Mothma makes very good points when she denies Leia the princess’ wishes.
As we stated, this review is intended to be spoiler light, so we won’t go any deeper into Life Debt’s plot or its characters. However, it would be amiss not to briefly mention how much Life Debt is woven into the emerging Star Wars Expanded Universe, a heightened characteristic of the franchise since Disney’s acquisition. The novel connects to The Force Awakens, pulling Jakku into the picture and timeline of the universe, well before we are introduced to a scavenger named Rey. It also references the junior novel series, Servants of the Empire, a spin off from the animated Star Wars Rebels, and draws upon Marvel Comics’ limited Princess Leia series. It should be stated that knowledge of these other sources is absolutely unnecessary to enjoy Life Debt, but they exist as wonderful nuggets of knowledge. It’s both the writer’s and Lucasfilm’s way of expressing gratitude to its fans who explore Star Wars in its other forms and mediums, and it’s simply just fun as all get out.
Chuck Wendig has produced another great addition to the Star Wars universe with Life Debt. He succeeds because he understands the franchise and its characters, and more importantly, he successfully grasps that fine mixture between space opera and the thrill of murderous droids, high flying X-wings, and the need to bring it all down to a human level. He creates living breathing characters, who find themselves conflicted with their place in life, question their happiness or sorrow, and sometimes act against their own better judgments. When this quality is extended to the antagonists, and not just the heroes, the result is highly entertaining reading. When it’s found in a Star Wars novel, it makes for one more excellent addition to the Star Wars universe.