Thursday, August 4, 2016

Paying Debts - A Review Of Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig.

Chuck Wendig's arrival among the pantheon of Star Wars authors has been, perhaps, the most significant one since the announcement of the new canonical timeline by Lucasfilm in 2012. Wendig has certainly divided opinion - as the reviews of his first entry Aftermath illustrated at the time of its release. 

Aftermath was a bold departure - both in style and substance - from previous Star Wars storiesand which many readers took issue with, but it was one that I really liked. Wendig laid the foundations for a wholly revised geopolitical environment in Aftermath that examined the fall out from the Empire's defeat at Endor - both from the Imperial and Alliance perspectives and his examination of both factions responses to the new paradigm was absorbing.

With Aftermath: Life Debt, Chuck Wendig pushes forward unapologetically, making Star Wars his own.

From the liner notes; 

The Emperor is dead, and the remnants of his former Empire are in retreat. As the New Republic fights to restore a lasting peace to the galaxy, some dare to imagine new beginnings and new destinies. For Han Solo, that means settling his last outstanding debt, by helping Chewbacca liberate the Wookiee s homeworld of Kashyyyk.

Meanwhile, Norra Wexley and her band of Imperial hunters pursue Grand Admiral Rae Sloane and the Empire s remaining leadership across the galaxy. Even as more and more officers are brought to justice, Sloane continues to elude the New Republic, and Norra fears Sloane may be searching for a means to save the crumbling Empire from oblivion. But the hunt for Sloane is cut short when Norra receives an urgent request from Princess Leia Organa. The attempt to liberate Kashyyyk has carried Han Solo, Chewbacca, and a band of smugglers into an ambush resulting in Chewie s capture and Han s disappearance.

Breaking away from their official mission and racing toward the "Millennium Falcon" s last known location, Norra and her crew prepare for any challenge that stands between them and their missing comrades. But they can t anticipate the true depth of the danger that awaits them or the ruthlessness of the enemy drawing them into his crosshairs.

Life Debt builds on those Aftermath foundations and kicks the action into high gear. The team we were introduced to in Aftermath, led by Norra Wexley and Sinjir Rath Velus, hit the ground running as a galactic equivalent of Nazi hunters, contracted by the nascent New Republic to collar and bring high value Imperial targets. Their cohesion as team remains appealing and I like how Wendig undertakes a deeper study of them as individuals and the internal conflicts they are grappling with. I have a particular fondness for the Zabrakian Bounty Hunter Jas Emari whose desire to remain a lone wolf hunter clashes with the burgeoning loyalty she has to the group and she has an extensive internal narrative surrounding that that I liked a lot.

The main game however, is the team's secondment by Princess Leia Organa - making a welcome return to form - to find her missing husband Han Solo and his loyal friend Chewbacca, both of whom have gone missing in the region of the Wookiee homeworld Kashyyyk. The team's reverence for Leia and the legendary smuggling duo makes the decision a relatively easy one - though Wexley does have to prick some of their consciences - and soon they are propelled head long into a conflict that represents a significant last stand for both sides. 

On the Imperial side, Grand Admiral Sloane continues to navigate her way through a veritable hornets nest of treacherous Imperial colleagues who are floundering in the aftermath of their defeats at Endor and Akiva and thus they spend a lot of time bickering amongst one another rather than unite towards a common goal. The introduction of a new, even more calculating antagonist in Gallius Rax (*cough* Benedict Cumberbatch *cough*) is a welcome one and the chess game that goes on between Rax and Sloane proves to be one of the highlights of Life Debt. 

When the focus shifts to Kashyyyk, Life Debt really comes into its own. For the longest time, I have wanted to see the liberation of the Wookiee homeworld done in a really compelling way but previous efforts to portray it have fallen flat. Wendig's approach is gut wrenching. 

He shows us the devastation the Empire has wrought upon this planet and the cruelty it has metted out to the Wookiees themselves. There are moments of real anguish and emotion here. Their plight is visceral. The Empire's evil is absolute and I became emotional reading these scenes. The subsequent battle for the planet is one that, I think, outshines the Battle for Endor. The Wookiees, as portrayed by Wendig, are a more complex species than they have ever been. 

Wendig's bringing together of his own cast with classic identities from Star Wars is seamless. He retains the cinematic qualities of those we have known and loved for 40 years and adds to nuance to them. Leia is fascinating to watch as a figure head in the New Republic and she is much more dynamic than she was in the old EU. Han and Chewbacca are like a well worn jacket with the Ford/Mayhew influence easy to access. Wendig gives unexpected gravitas to Han Solo that sees him truly evolve into a more considered human being. Without spoiling it, the Life Debt we have always known is actually kind of turned on its head. And I found Wedge Antilles presence in Life Debt to be a really strong one. Wendig does things with his character that I don't think has ever been done previously and Wedge comes off as being perhaps one of the most interesting characters in the story.

(art by blindroosevelts: DeviantArt).

The mainline narrative moves at varying speeds, but it is easy to follow and it doesn't labor. Scenes of action, both in the stars and on the ground, are kinetic and easy to access visually. And they're as entertaining as hell. The interludes - a kind of Wendig signature - remain as  enjoyable additions to Life Debt. I spent a lot of time thinking about them between reading, wondering if some of them hint at future story points and characters in the sequel saga. Others serve as mood pieces, giving the reader more of an insight into the feel of events and the emotions of the characters in Life Debt even if they aren't directly specific to those characters.

Life Debt is a thrilling, fully formed sequel to Aftermath and one that students of the new Star Wars canon era should add to their shelves. 

I loved it.


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