Before I begin my review of Chuck Wendig’s Life Debt, book two of the STAR WARS: AFTERMATH trilogy, I want to talk about myself for a minute. I like STAR WARS. I loved the original three movies. I didn’t like The Phantom Menace, surfed away from Attack of the Clones about two-thirds of the way through, and never saw Revenge of the Sith. Remember that I’m the person who couldn’t figure out why commenters on various sites kept talking about the European Union as part of the Star Wars cycle because I didn’t know that “EU” meant “Extended Universe.” I’m not a capital-F Fan.
What I am is an enthusiastic reader. I enjoyed STAR WARS: Aftermath. In fact, I hadn’t made any plans to see Star Wars: the Force Awakens (see my reaction to the prequels, above), but I enjoyed the first book in this three-book series enough that it made me change my mind. With AFTERMATH: Life Debt, my enjoyment continues.
This is a pretty big story, with many moving parts, and some work better than others. Life Debt continues the practice of showing us “interludes,” vignettes on various planets as people rise or fall to fill in power vacuums left by the defeat of the Empire. It’s clear that some of these short scenes exist to develop characters who will show up later in the timeline, or maybe in the movies. I sincerely hope Eleodie, the pirate, shows up again, because Eleodie is not only a great pirate but an amazing performer, and that scene was loads of fun. A strange little guy named Malakili was also pretty interesting and I hope we see more of him.
The two main stories involve our team of New Republic heroes, and the loyal Imperial Admiral Rae Sloane. While Norra Wexley; her son Temmin; Jom, a rebel fanatic; Jas, a bounty hunter and Sinjir, a turncoat Imperial, search for the missing Han Solo and his partner Chewbacca, Admiral Sloane struggles to save the dying Empire she loves, all the while getting drawn deeper into the shadowy, twisted plots of a mysterious “mentor” named Gallius Rax. Norra’s team is good and the action unfolds at a breathless pace, but there is an element of manipulation, as there was in The Phantom Menace, that makes every action questionable. This put a bit of a pall over the book for me, but on the other hand, it upped the suspense, so I’m considering that a net gain.
Wendig uses the search for Solo and a subsequent mission to free the Wookie homeworld as a way to explore some of his more troubled characters; particularly bounty-hunter Jas and disloyal-loyalty-officer Sinjir. Both wonder why they have joined the side of the more idealistic New Republic. Sinjir, in particular, seriously doubts that he can be a good man. He’s not sure he knows what a good man is. Jas’s issues are slightly more pragmatic; she has assumed her aunt’s debts, and can’t be haring off on non-paying jobs if she wants to keep her reputation — and her life.
Norra’s concerns about her missing husband and her broody teenaged son are just as serious though, and in Life Debt, those two worries boil up to the surface before the story’s done. Meanwhile, Leia Organa struggles with the New Republic as it makes the transition from rebel force to true government, with all that implies, good and bad.
Wendig uses present tense again. It creates a brisk, cinematic quality to the action sequences — and there are many. I was surprised to find that while I did care about Han Solo and Chewbacca, (and Norra’s team), I was the most interested in Admiral Sloane’s story. She is an Imperial loyalist, one of the few in the book who is portrayed as something other than corrupt or crazy, and her reasons for admiring the old Empire are credible. She is smart, capable and honorable, but is being boxed in by the malevolent Rax. It doesn’t help that Norra’s team, to a person, want to kill her.
I was disappointed in a couple of small elements. We meet Conder Kyl in this book. At first I thought he was simply brought on to be Sinjir’s love interest, but then it turned out he works for Leia, so he serves the plot by providing some exposition. [highlight here to see spoiler]: Sinjir breaks up with Kyl at the end of the book, because Sinjir feels Conder deserves someone better. It’s a reason that has been overdone in fiction, especially romance fiction. I hope this development is temporary and we will see more of this character later. As it was, that plot point felt contrived to me.
Secondly, Sinjir muses in the book that the Imperials treated all non-human races like second-class citizens, but in at least one sense, Life Debt does too. Apparently there are no decent, law-abiding Hutts anywhere in the galaxy — or if there is one, it was raised by humans. While I don’t need Wendig to derail the action by showing me the one Hutt who runs a soup kitchen, I would like to see a little more variation in that race; or maybe just fewer criminal Hutts. It’s a quibble, I know.
On the other hand, a few minutes of banter between Leia and Solo felt like old times, and I loved the entire adventure on the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk. The power struggles and compromises a newly-minted government finds itself making are realistic. The book puts elements in place for Star Wars: the Force Awakens, sets a definite timeline for that movie and its sequels, and answers a question for us.
The dialogue ranges from snarky to menacing to heartfelt, the pace is brisk and Mr. Bones, Temmin’s very strange battle droid, is just as whacky as ever. Overall, I was entertained by AFTERMATH: Life Debt and I’m looking forward to the third book, Empire’s End, very much.