It’s not often that I read a Star Wars book that I don’t like, so it came as some surprise that Aftermath would fall on that list. The author, Chuck Wendig, is new to Star Wars, so I was unfamiliar with his work. But I’m not averse to new authors coming in to write Star Wars. Kevin Hearne came in to write Heir to the Jedi earlier this year and I really liked that novel. And while it might be easy to point at the odd narration style of Aftermath and say “that’s why I didn’t like the book”, it isn’t that simple. After all, Hearne wrote his book in first person, which took a little while to adjust to, but I quickly found myself slipping into the story and the heads of the characters and enjoying the book. The present tense narration that Wendig uses is a little jarring, but I was still able to slip into the story. The problem was that it read like a mediocre television show, and that’s something that’s hard to escape or overlook. For me, it just didn’t work.
At the heart of Aftermath, it’s a story about a rebel pilot named Norra Wexley who returns home to get her son after the Battle of Endor. And just some fair warning here, I am going to dive into serious spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book, don’t let me spoil it for you. Anyways, Norra returns to her homeworld of Akiva and reunites with her son, Temmin, only to find out he doesn’t like her anymore. It’s an interesting dynamic because the son is fully justified in his feelings. When Temmin was twelve years old, the Empire arrested his father, which led Norra to hate the Empire so much that she joined the Rebellion. But she didn’t just join the Rebellion, she abandoned her twelve year old son, leaving him without a father or a mother right after a traumatic experience in the vain hope that her sister would raise the kid and he would be alright. Let’s stop and think about this for a moment. When you were twelve years old, how would you have felt if your father just got arrested (and would never) and then your mom up and left you as well, ditching you with one of your aunts? Then three years later, your mom returns and expects everything to be okay. Is this rational thinking for a character? Are these the kind of actions that endear you to bond with a character, to like them, to understand their thinking, and to be hurt when their child rejects them? For me, the answer was a big, flashing no. I couldn’t understand why Norra would have abandoned her son to join the Rebellion just because her husband was arrested by the Empire. Had they executed him, it would have been more justified. Had we gotten Norra’s reasoning for leaving her son behind, a passage showing the turmoil as she was torn between the love for her husband and the love for her son, then yes, maybe I would have understood. But we didn’t get any of that. In fact I’m not sure Norra ever really comprehended how heinous it was that she abandoned her kid for three years while she went on a wild goose chase to find her husband. So yeah, that was one of the huge disconnects I had with Norra.
However, the disconnect with Norra isn’t the only disconnect I had with the story. In fact the reason I didn’t like Aftermath is because it’s riddled with disconnects. Every time I submersed myself into the story, something would happen that would throw me out of it. For instance, in chapter two we are introduced to Norra who hires a smuggler to take her to Akiva. We are left to assume she doesn’t have her own ship, and I guess the Rebellion isn’t in the habit of loaning out ships to their pilots, so she had to find a ride. We’re also left to guess that maybe this smuggler was somehow cheaper than public transport, because there really isn’t any reason she should have chose a smuggler to take her home. While there is an Imperial blockade currently happening on the planet, this wasn’t something she knew of before hand. We’re told the Imperial presence on Akiva was minimal prior to their recent arrival. So when Norra arrives and sees that there is a blockade forming for the planet, it’s convenient that she’s in a ship with only one other person and that she’s in the cockpit. They decide to try and run the blockade, dodging fire from TIE fighters and evading the Imperial ships. Then Norra, the big time rebel pilot, decides that the only way they’re going to make it out of this is if she takes over flying. She pushes the smuggler out of the way and commandeers his ship, using her piloting skills to evade the TIE’s and safely land on the planet. In the heat of battle, while they’re being shot at, she takes over flying the ship. She doesn’t ask. She just does it. On top of it, the smuggler doesn’t take offense, in fact he’s grateful. He’s not even mad they got shot at and had to run an Imperial blockade. The story never lets on that these two knew each other, that there is any kind of past history between them, or that the smuggler is some kind of rebel sympathizer. We’re just supposed to accept that Norra is such a badass pilot, that this smuggler is just so grateful to be alive, that it’s all fine and dandy. To me, it just raised a red flag and seemed like bad storytelling. If Norra was such a good pilot, why wasn’t she flying the ship to begin with? The story even explains that she’s an ex-smuggler, which makes the smuggler she hires even more redundant. It almost seemed like the only purpose the guy had was to show off how dominant and skillful Norra was in a tight spot. None of it fell logically into place and all of it felt forced. I found this theme to be prevalent throughout the book.
Another example, and this time with the villains of the novel, is how cheap the Imperial characters felt. In chapter three, two Imperials show up in a cantina with a squad of stormtroopers. The Imperials are characterized as complete goons. They instantly start bullying the people in the bar. In fact they just landed on the planet. The whole scene is just so cliche, complete with the classic overweight oaf and his skinny buddy being bullies to the good guys. The leadership of the Empire isn’t any better. Admiral Rae Sloane, first introduced in John Jackson Miller’s A New Dawn, has a meeting with a Moff named Pandion, a general named Jylia Shale, a moneylender named Arsin Crassus, and a weird Sith cultist named Yupe Tashu. As Pandion, Shale, Crassus and Tashu are developed through the story, it becomes clear they don’t have any redeeming qualities. They are the classic, despicable bad guys. Pandion is selfish and stupid, Crassus only cares about money, Tashu is crazy to the point of being useless and has zero Force powers, and Shale is an overly cautious commander who might very well be a coward. Sloane is the only one with any kind of competence. Out of all of the Imperials in the entire book, Sloane, her assistant Adea, and her pilot Morna are the only ones who aren’t made out to look like fools. Even with them, there is no attempt to show why any normal person would want to be an Imperial or pro-Empire. The slant to the story is that everyone with the Empire is a bad, selfish person. While that by itself didn’t destroy the book, it didn’t help any, and it certainly lessened the pool of relatable characters. It also furthered the feel of the whole thing being a bad television plot complete with shallow, mustache twirling bad guys.
Now I took a lot of notes while reading this story, part of that was because there seemed to be a handful of new named characters in every chapter—and that’s really not much of an exaggeration—but mostly I took a lot of notes because of the amount issues I came across. Aside from the bad character decisions or plot missteps, the dialog itself had some problems. For instance, page 196, Norra and her sister—the one who was suppose to raise Temmin—have a little spat after Norra’s homecoming.
Esmelle meets her at the top of the steps. Her sister gently closes the door. Worry crosses the woman’s face. Her features bunch up like a drawstring cinched tight. “Is the droid okay?”
“I think so.” Norra neglects to mention the astromech arm that has now replaced the missing one. “Sort of?”
“That droid means a lot to him.”
“So I gathered.”
“No, you don’t get it. He built Mister Bones the year you left. Temmin doesn’t have many friends. That droid might be it.”
“You can’t be friends with a droid.”
“Well, he is. Temmin was getting taunted and beaten by a gang of…young tyrants. Bones protected him. He’s not just a bodyguard. When you took off on your…trip…”
“I get it,” Norra snaps. “You think I should feel bad about leaving. I do feel bad. I felt bad then. I feel worse now. I’m trying to fix things.”
“And yet here you are. Doing more work for the rebels. It’s your son that needs you, Norra, not this…crusade of yours.”
Crusade. That’s how Esmelle sees it. Norra snarls, “War is coming to Akiva, Esme. Not later. Soon. Now, maybe. You can pretend that it won’t land on your doorstep, but trust me, you soft-handed, weak backed sister of mine, no amount of wishing will hold back the tide. Now step aside. I don’t have time for this conversation.”
Her sister protests, but Norra pushes past her.
That’s a complete passage about halfway through the book. The question is, when you read that, do you think it’s good prose or bad prose? If you think it’s good prose, you might like this book. If you think it’s bad prose, then keep in mind you’ll be getting more of that. It’s short, it’s choppy, it never delves too deeply into the characters motivations and thoughts—only enough to show their surface feelings—and sometimes you get absolute clunker lines like, “you soft-handed, weak backed sister of mine.” Here’s another one.
Sinjir hangs back, and urges Jas to hang back with him.
“What is it?” she asks in a low voice.
“We need to talk.”
“Mm,” she says, nodding like this was inevitable. “I knew this would come. And yes, I concede.”
“You concede what, exactly?”
“You are satisfying.”
“I…don’t follow. Satisfying? I don’t know what that means. I do know that it sounds awfully…milquetoast. Drinking a cup of protein slurry when you’re truly hungry is satisfying. And yet, disgusting.”
Jas gives him a frustrated look. “I mean that I find you capable. You interest me. And so, yes, when all this is over, we may couple.”
“Couple. Like-” His face goes suspiciously and surprisingly red. “Like you and me? Together?”
“That is indeed what I mean.”
The setup here is that Sinjir notices something odd about Temmin and wants to tell Jas about it. Jas completely misreads his intentions. It’s actually a good setup. The dialog that follows after what I quote above is pretty funny. But the dialog from Jas there at the beginning was odd. “You are satisfying”, “we may couple” it’s just odd. There’s no pretense for her speaking oddly or even thinking oddly. She is an alien but nowhere else in the book does she speak weird like that. I’m not sure if Wendig was trying to use the dialog to define her character as somewhat odd, or if he just has an odd way of thinking, and to him, that was natural dialog. Either way, little dialog moments like that with unnatural word choices jumped out at me and threw me out of the story.
I could wrap this review up here, but I’ve actually got a lot more to say, so if you’ve had your fill, you may break now. Otherwise, let’s move on to some problems with the plot. The premise for the entire book rests on the fact that the Empire needed a place to have a meeting. They chose Akiva, a world they don’t have much of a presence on. A place they don’t really control and where there isn’t a whole lot of pro-Empire sentiment. Furthermore, the first thing they do is lock the entire place down, full on blockade and communication blackout. If you’re trying to have a discreet meeting, these are things you would not want to do because they all draw attention. Let’s face it, if you really want to have a secret meeting, why not do it on a Star Destroyer or some asteroid or desolate moon? The answer is because it’s not convenient to the plot. The story needed a place for the meeting where the local population could turn into a giant crowd of protest and rebellion. The story needed to take place somewhere populated so it could be Norra’s home. Plus they had to do the big blockade and communication blackout so Wedge Antilles could stop by, notice the suspicious activity, and get caught. Perhaps it could have been woven together better, but Wendig doesn’t spend much time in trying to make the dots connect together logically.
Another plot element that really bugged me, and this is serious spoiler territory, was the character deaths. Several characters die in this book. Some of them more than once. Heck, some of my favorite moments in the book where the character deaths. When Norra died the first time, I thought that was a bold move. I didn’t like Norra, so getting rid of her seemed like a good move and had the potential to really transform Temmin. But then Wendig revealed she wasn’t really dead. By blind luck she randomly pushed buttons in her crashing TIE fighter and conveniently found an ejection button that she didn’t know existed. Then Temmin died. I almost cheered at this one. Initially I liked Temmin, then he turned traitor and stupid and his death seemed like yet another great moment to transform the other characters, heck the entire plot could have transformed. His death could have been the fuel to light the fire of the gathering mob outside the satrap’s palace. But he lived too. Somehow he fell over 15 to 20 meters (49 to 65 feet) off a roof into a crowd and survived. No broken bones. Temmin just blacked out and woke up in the crowd’s arms. It’s conceivable that the crowd caught him, though I think his falling body would have broken their arms, but the whole thing was just so fortuitous. By saving him, by creating another fake out death, it robbed the story of emotional impact and took away the story’s credibility. At this point, any character death was questionable. Norra died twice and lived both times. Temmin survived his death. Even Wedge got a death fake out. By the end, it was a serious flaw with the story, and one that will carry over to the next two books in the trilogy.
Okay, I’ve vented enough. How about some positives? I actually liked the interludes in Aftermath. Throughout the book, there are chapters called interludes which take a break from the story and showcase events going on elsewhere in the galaxy. At a panel at Dragon Con, Chuck Wendig explained that this came about from story meetings when Del Rey suggested doing something like World War Z, a series of separate stories that come together to form a whole picture. For me, the interludes were an escape to more interesting stories. There are interludes covering Mon Mothma which reveal her outlook on the war and what she wants for the New Republic. There are parts that show the public’s reaction to the Empire, the New Republic, and everything that’s going on. And then there are fun little stories like Dengar fist fighting some upstart bounty hunter on Corellia, a group of slaves on Sevarcos fighting for their freedom, a Kubaz trying to sell off a lightsaber that may or may not have belonged to Darth Vader, or my favorite, Han Solo and Chewbacca deciding to liberate Kashyyyk with the help of some smuggler friends. That last idea alone would have been a great one for an entire book. Looking back on it, I think the idea of doing a bunch of little short stories would have been cool. Throwing aside the main plot line, I enjoyed all the interludes, so if the book had just been a bunch of those, I would have enjoyed it.
While there were some bad dialog moments and bad prose, there was also some really good prose. Here’s my favorite passage from the book.
It’s like inverting a pyramid and carrying it, point down, on your back. All that weight. The sharp peak between your shoulder blades. Built of bricks of blame. A terrible and uncomfortable burden.
Sloane is feeling it now.
The others are driven now by panic, rage, opportunity. Pandion, trying to winnow her down to particulate matter. Shale, the doomsayer who thinks they must surrender now or die soon. Tashu, interjecting now and again with some parable or pabulum about the wisdom of the dark side and if only they followed its teachings and oh, Palpatine said this, the old Sith writings said that. Crassus wants to buy their way out. He’s waving around his metaphorical credits-purse thinking that the Empire can bribe its way free of New Republic persecution. Best of luck with that, Rae thinks.
The satrap, at least, remains quiet. He sits in the corner, staring down at his hands. The writing is on the wall for that one. He knows the Empire will abandon him. He will be left with a city that seeks his head on a pitchfork so they can wave it around for all to see.
The beginning of the passage is my favorite part. Describing a person’s burden as an upside down pyramid is just a great visual. Had he used that for Norra, it could have earned her some points. But I also like the way the others are panicking but the satrap gets it. He’s a dead man. The contrast between the two is made clear. With that short passage, Wendig paints a picture of where things are for the Imperials. Everything is clear. It’s good writing, and it’s not the only good writing in the book. Lines like, “Time, broken out into the moments between trigger pulls” have a great poetic quality to them. There’s lots of good stuff in the book, it’s just overshadowed by Norra and her mood swings, dumb character decisions, or plot conveniences.
Wrapping things up, I want to give Wendig some praise for his use of Ackbar. I really like what he did with Ackbar in the book. As a long time Expanded Universe reader, it’s been awhile since we’ve seen Ackbar, and I like the way Wendig handled and portrayed him. I also enjoyed all the connections to Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels. Jas is related to Sugi the Zabrak bounty hunter. Dengar has the same speech patterns as he did on the show. There’s a tie between Wedge and Fulcrum as they once did a mission together, and there’s even a throwaway line about an artist who paints stormtrooper helmets. Perhaps most tantalizing of all, he has an interlude about a guy on Tatooine becoming a sheriff and acquiring what might very well be Boba Fett’s salvaged, sarlacc scarred armor.
In the end, Aftermath was a hard book to get through. The present tense narration and the short, choppy prose all posed an immediate barrier I had to hurdle. Getting past that, I had to deal with droves of named characters—many of which that didn’t even need names—the sporadic illogical decisions of the characters and the plot, the overly convenient plot points, some bad dialog, and the cherry on top, a mysterious Imperial officer who is revealed at the end of the book…and not named. Of all the inconsequential characters who are named in this book, Wendig chooses not to name the surprise Imperial who is in charge of Sloane. It was the final sting. Taking all of that into consideration, I give Aftermath a one out of five metal bikinis. I have no desire to reread the book, and it leaves me with the very uncomfortable decision, one I have never found myself making when it comes to Star Wars, of whether I should read the next book in the series. Aftermath is the first of a trilogy. It’s the first post-Return of the Jedi canon novel. All the books that follow will based on this trilogy to a greater or lesser extent. To skip the rest of the trilogy would leave a giant void in my knowledge of Star Wars, one that could affect my future reading experiences. When it comes to Star Wars stories, I greedily consume them all, and it’s a very rare occasion when I don’t find them enjoyable. I’m not sure if I want to put myself through another Chuck Wendig novel. The optimist in me wants to give him another chance. However, if the next two books are like this one, I’m not sure I can endure it, or that I should even try.
And that, folks, is the longest review I’ve ever written. To those who enjoyed Aftermath, I envy you because I do love a good story.
Reviewed By: Skuldren for Roqoo Depot.