It starts and ends with Jakku, a dead planet on the very edges of the Western Reaches. As soon as I started this book I started to wonder, are we finally going to find out why everyone wants to go back to Jakku?!
Star Wars: Aftermath Life Debt is the second book in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy, but it most certainly does not suffer from that ‘middle book’ syndrome. It’s prelude sets the stage for a book that is brimming with excitement, drama, some satisfying revelations and, of course, some further questions about the mysteries of the galaxy. We never quite find out what the mysterious figure in the prelude was “excavating” on Jakku’s dusty surface, but we do start to get an idea as to the shape of the galaxy post-Endor and get some tantalising glimpses of events to come.
Most of the action of this book takes place down on Kashyyyk, as our ragtag bunch of misfits (and I really do mean that in the most affectionate way) are sent by Leia to find her missing husband, Han, and eventually wind up trying to liberate the planet from Imperial oppression. This is all against the backdrop of a galaxy still at war, as the New Republic struggles to restore order and liberate countless besieged planets. But the chaos isn’t just limited to the fledgling New Republic, the Imperials themselves, usually bastions of order and stability, has been reduced to infighting and power grabbing, with Grand Admiral Rae Sloane in the thick of things. We see her attempt to navigate the mire and outwit numerous foes all hell bent on wresting power from her and seizing control of the remnants of the Empire for themselves.
As with Aftermath, the standout parts of Life Debt are the characters themselves. I really don’t know how Wendig has managed to make me care so much about all of these characters in the space of just two novels. What really makes them shine for me is just how diverse they all are, not just from each other but even as individuals they are complex and many layered. Take Norra for example, she’s not just a Rebel pilot, she’s a survivor, a mother, a wife and much more.
Then you’ve got Sinjir, although I found him an interesting character in Aftermath, I didn’t quite click with him the same way I did with Norra, Jas and Sloane. But, I think that whilst he has taken a little while to grow on me as this series progresses, I’ve got a feeling finishing this book that he will end up being my favourite at the end of all this! I am SO grateful for Sinjir. At first glance he is a straightforward turncoat (if there ever is such a thing!) but once you get inside his head you realise that his bravado and silver tongue, hilarious though they may be, are all an act – an armour he puts on to face the world. Inside he is deeply conflicted, not only does he have a sense of revulsion for his past and some of the terrible things he has done in the name of the Empire but he also recognises that he was good at what he did, that his talents really do lie in reading people and figuring out where best to apply pressure, both physically and mentally. It’s a past he can never walk away from and indeed the New Republic even call on his particular skills causing him to question whether he has just swapped one flawed regime for another.
I really appreciate a character that hasn’t got it all figured out. Sinjir doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life – he is, as Jas puts it so beautifully – “takask wallask ti dan – a man without a star”. He, like many former Imperials has lost his purpose in life and we are getting to watch him slowly piece together where he wants his journey to go.
On the other side of the war, not only is Grand Admiral Sloane having to deal with the New Republic, but also a new threat from within her own ranks. The mysterious Fleet Admiral Gallius Rax – a sinister and shadowy figure who reported directly to Emperor Palpatine himself back in his hayday and whose background files are almost completely redacted. Sloane rightly doesn’t trust him as his secrecy and methods go against the Imperial way that Sloane herself is such a firm believer in. This creates an awesome “baddie vs baddie” storyline which is always the most fun kind of storyline!
Sloane really goes through the mill in this novel and I love watching her mind at work. She’s not a cliche Imperial character at all. She’s thoughtful, sometimes hesitant, tenacious and shrewd. She has some serious moments of self doubt which makes her all the more sympathetic. Her idealised view of the Empire reminded me of Cienna Ree from Lost Stars. Both believe that the order and stability that the Empire provides is paramount to peace in the galaxy. Sloane is firmly against slavery, believing that the Empire should be so great that people should WANT to be part of. She views the New Republic as violent terrorists, upstarts to brought the horror of war to the galaxy with no plan on how to rule when the dust finally settles.
With Gallius Rax’s formation of his Shadow Council, we get to see the very first seeds of the First Order planted. My ears instantly pricked up at the mention of Brendol Hux and how a man with his particular skills was to be vital to Rax’s plans moving forward.
Finally of course, there is Han Solo. I’ve always felt that Han is at his best when he is free from the shackles of responsibility and leadership. I love it when Han is at loose in the galaxy, wreaking havoc and generally being a scoundrel and Life Debt very much gives us this Han! For me, Han was written perfectly and he lights up every scene that he’s in. But Wendig never allows Han to steal the limelight from any of our core characters from Aftermath. I won’t go as far as to say Han slots seamlessly into the team – far from it! As with any group of people so different from each other, there is tension and even friction. But he settles in and the team defer to him – allowing him to show that natural leadership that Leia as always recognised in him. His plans are, as ever, a little hair brained, definitely reckless and hopelessly against the odds. But it’s these kind of plans that Jas, Sinjir, Jom, Temmin, Norra and Mr Bones seem to excel at and somehow manage to pull off!
Most of the information we get about the state of the rest of the galaxy comes from the Interludes. I feel these Interludes were great opportunities for Wendig to unravel some of the mysteries of the galaxy. Life Debt was released after The Force Awakens, and so Wendig clearly had a little more freedom with his world building for which I as very grateful. This was the first new canon novel I’ve read which actually gives us some answers, as well as a proper look at the galaxy and what really went down between Episodes VI and VII. Obviously there is plenty held back and Wendig masterfully provides some answers whilst sprinkling his own little mysteries and questions. These interludes contain some absolutely delightful cameos of characters from the original trilogy and beyond – one in particular left me grinning like an absolute idiot!
This book really does have anything, from political plotting and backstabbing (both New Republic and Imperial), to prison breaks, espionage, assassinations, battles and brawls. What’s interesting though is how some of these roles are flipped on their heads. Leia, usually in the thick of politics in the Star Wars books, ends up ditching that particular arena to roll up her sleeves and get stuck into the action. On the other side of the war, it’s the Imperials who are mired by political intrigue.
I get why it had to happen but I won’t lie – I was more than a little gutted that Norra and Temmin (and by extension Mr Bones) were removed from a big chunk of the action. It was very, very important for the overall plot and they did have some great character development but I still did miss them being in the thick of the action!
Overall – a terrifically fun read packed with action and excitement, against the backdrop of the senseless violence and chaos of war.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Death Stars – jackpot for Life Debt!