Be advised the following review contains SPOILERS…
The Aftermath Trilogy comes to an end with the final nail in the coffin of Palpatine’s Galactic Empire in Aftermath: Empire’s End by author Chuck Wendig. On sale Tuesday February 21st in hardcover, ebook and audiobook, Wendig delivers another massive Star Wars tome.
Empire’s End clocks in at an official 448 pages which are broken down into five parts, a prelude and an epilogue. The novel is only a few pages shorter than the second book Life Debt, but substantially larger than the first book in the series. I mention the length because I like my Star Wars books like I like my Hutts, the bigger the better. This is particularly true for a book in Wendig’s style that includes interludes that are often distinct from the central narrative of the novel. Unfortunately in this case Empire’s End is too long and spends too much time meandering for the first two-thirds of the novel. I have mixed emotions on the entire Aftermath Trilogy to be perfectly honest. In the first novel, Aftermath I felt that Wendig’s Interludes were more compelling than the central narrative and that his new cast of characters felt 3/4 fleshed out in terms of characterization. In addition his writing style while particularly off-putting to some, was only moderately so to me as a reader, though it felt a bit sloppy. In Life Debt, I felt that Wendig did a very good job making the central narrative more compelling, spent the time to really flesh out characterization and also improved the quality of his writing. While it was not a perfect Star Wars book, Life Debt felt like a great improvement. So my hopes were pretty high going into Empire’s End.
Following Star Wars: Aftermath and Star Wars: Life Debt, Chuck Wendig delivers the exhilarating conclusion to the New York Times bestselling trilogy set in the years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.
EVERY END IS A NEW BEGINNING.
As the final showdown between the New Republic and the Empire draws near, all eyes turn to a once-isolated planet: Jakku.
The Battle of Endor shattered the Empire, scattering its remaining forces across the galaxy. But the months following the Rebellion’s victory have not been easy. The fledgling New Republic has suffered a devastating attack from the Imperial remnant, forcing the new democracy to escalate their hunt for the hidden enemy.
For her role in the deadly ambush, Grand Admiral Rae Sloane is the most wanted Imperial war criminal—and one-time rebel pilot Norra Wexley, back in service at Leia’s urgent request, is leading the hunt. But more than just loyalty to the New Republic drives Norra forward: Her husband was turned into a murderous pawn in Sloane’s assassination plot, and now she wants vengeance as much as justice.
But Sloane, too, is on a furious quest: pursuing the treacherous Gallius Rax to the barren planet Jakku. As the true mastermind behind the Empire’s devastating attack, Rax has led the Empire to its defining moment. The cunning strategist has gathered the powerful remnants of the Empire’s war machine, preparing to execute the late Emperor Palpatine’s final plan. As the Imperial fleet orbits Jakku, an armada of Republic fighters closes in to finish what began at Endor. Norra and her crew soar into the heart of an apocalyptic clash that will leave land and sky alike scorched. And the future of the galaxy will finally be decided.
Wendig returns with his cast of characters, Norra Wexley, her son Temmin (aka Snap), the former battle droid Mr. Bones, Brentin Wexley, former Imperial Sinjir Rath Velus, the bounty hunter Jas Emari, Special Forces solider Jom Barell, Grand Admiral Rae Sloane, and Counselor Gallius Rax among a host of other players. In addition Wendig introduces a new New Republic political antagonist in Senator Tolwar Wartol, a male Orishen. If Dash Rendar was a pale imitation of Han Solo then Wartol is a pale imitation of Borsk Fey’la. In Wartol we get a cardboard villain who is underdeveloped and completely forgettable. Given the fact Wendig had three books in which to tell this tale, Wartol should have been introduced earlier in the series building up to his conflict with Mon Mothma in this novel. Instead we get pages and pages of this character with a silly name and little characterization.
Perhaps the other major character added to the trilogy story in this novel is Niima the Hutt, who is the namesake of Jakku’s Niima Outpost. It is cool to learn where that name comes from, and Wendig’s description of this unique Hutt is rather compelling. Unfortunately her role in the novel feels like more of a distraction than a treat.
Wendig once again gets a chance to play with some of the classic characters such as Leia, Han, Mon Mothma, Wedge. Ackbar, etc. Spending a good deal of time with the first three. I enjoy Wendig’s portrayal of Leia a great deal. He handles the public vs private Leia personas deftly. Mon Mothma always feels like a character that we never quite get into what makes her tick, she suffers from the 3/4 fleshed out problem that I felt with much of his characterization in the first novel. With Han we get some of what you would expect, humor, insight, fear, pride and noble scoundrelness. But something about Han just rings as a little off and some of the Han and Leia interactions as well. Leia is a zealot, she believes in the cause of the Rebellion and the burgeoning New Republic. Even pregnant and soon to give birth, I have a hard time believing she would not be pushing Han to take an active role in what becomes the battle of Jakku given the stakes. At the same time the new canon portrayal of Han (not limited to Wendig) strikes me as rather disappointing. Han seems completely lost and rudderless, it isn’t compelling to see and the idea that he is just sitting around with nothing to do seems kind of silly. We already have established in the new canon that the elements of the underworld are on the rise, how is the New Republic not using Han in a capacity to help them plan or act to attempt to control these destabilizing elements? It feels like we just can’t have Han doing anything in this book because he needs to stay around for Ben’s birth. An event which while part of the main narrative feels like an interlude grafted onto the story and rather irrelevant to the larger events.
Wendig’s treatment of his main cast is equally hit or miss. The unquestioned star of the novel is Sinjir whom he writes beautifully. Sinjir is a complex and entertaining character whose growth since the first novel has been a pleasure to read. Snap is also a bright star though he is under-served in this book and should have been more of a focus. Wendig’s most entertaining character is without a doubt Mr. Bones, unfortunately he is sidelined for a good portion of the novel leaving the first half of the story without his comedic punch. The duo that really are the co-stars of the novel are Norra Wexley and Rae Sloane. Sloane may not be perfect but she is the more interesting of the two, though most of her journey in this novel until the battle of Jakku feels rather pointless. She also doesn’t get the character development that I felt from Life Debt. Of course Sloane reads much better to me than Norra. Impulsive and selfish, Norra is a character that seems to inspire loyalty in her makeshift crew for no apparent reason. She repeatedly seems to make bad decisions yet somehow she ends up escaping with only minor scathing. I may be more predisposed to like Norra if the whole Norra/Brentin story arc didn’t feel like such a rehash of the Expanded Universe’s Iella and Diric Wessiri story complete with the Wedge Antilles love interest. It feels like Stackpole beat Wendig to this story and did it much better.
As I write this review I can feel that it is trending rather negative, so lets talk about some of the things I did enjoy. The battle of Jakku itself was fairly interesting, I thought Wendig did a good job describing the battle lines for the space battle and how it unfolded. The land battle was a little underdeveloped, but we did get some cool atmospheric fighting from Phantom Squadron. We got more development on Emperor Palpatine’s thinking and his planning. This building out of the story was compelling and sets up future storytelling possibilities based on the system of Observatories and Sentinels is a cool idea and something I hope plays into future storytelling. We got to see the return of some fan favorite characters, the appearance of Embo in particular was a pleasant surprise. Wedge is back once again and we get some brief but enjoyable interplay between he and Snap. The idea of Wedge running the New Republic equivalent of Top Gun on Corellia has enticing storytelling possibilities in multiple mediums.
The interludes have been some of my favorite parts of this series and in this novel including the prelude and epilogue we get eleven mostly good ones:
- Prelude: The Second Death Star Over Endor (The Emperor and Rax)
- Kashyyyk (Lumpawaroo)
- Theed, Naboo (Jar Jar)
- Tatooine (Cobb Vanth in Boba Fett’s armor)
- Christophsis (Church of the Force pilgrims)
- Coruscant (Mas Amedda and the Anklebitters)
- Devaron (Acolytes of the Beyond)
- Cloud City, Bespin (Lando and Lobot)
- The Imperialis, Twenty-Five Years Ago (The Emperor, Rax and boardgames)
- Liberty’s Misrule (Priate Eleodie Marcavanya aka Zher)
- Epilogue: The Unknown Regions (Sloane, the Huxs and the First Order)
The best of these are the Prelude, Devaron,The Imperialis and the Epilogue. They are central to the larger villain plot and are compelling. The Imperialis and the Epilogue are particularly satisfying. The Lumpy interlude is cool and the Bespin interlude is interesting and includes the possibility that Kylo may get a cool slug throwing pistol in the films but feels mostly like set up for Lando’s future appearance in The Last Jedi or Episode IX.
The Christophsis interlude is just weird, it makes the Church of the Force seem like an insane cult. We haven’t got a ton of background on the faith yet, but the non-Jedi faithful we have seen in both the Church of the Force and Guardians of the Whills seem much less cultish than this portrayal.
The Coruscant interlude is one that just bothers me personally because I love Mas Amedda’s character design and I am a bit annoyed how much of a punk Wendig has turned him into. Most fans won’t have this issue.
The Liberty’s Misrule interlude features the return of pronoun challenged pirate we met in Life Debt, Eleodie. Leaving politics out of it, thankfully the “Z”s were limited in this passage, but this character and series of interludes seems rather pointless. It is possible that the independent nomadic Pirate Nation will play a role in the saga films. I could easily see Benecio Del Toro as Eleodie or a successor leader of the pirates. If something like that doesn’t happen I have no idea what Wendig was doing with this.
The Tatooine interlude is another head-scratcher. My hope is that these originally were planned to help tie into the Boba Fett spin-off movie but the departure of Josh Trank and the exiling of that project to development hell forced Wendig and the editors to try to salvage this series of interludes that have appeared in all three books. If that wasn’t the plan then again I have no idea why we spent all this time for seemingly zero payoff.
Finally, the interlude that will probably get the most attention is the one in Theed on Naboo featuring Jar Jar Binks. Former representative Binks finds himself an outcast not just of the Gungans but of the Naboo as well as a result of his motion to give Palpatine emergency powers. He is viewed as responsible for the rise of the Empire. Conveniently absolving the Naboo themselves who elected Palpatine in the first place of any responsibility. Jar Jar appears to be a rather pathetic street performer at this point, living hand to mouth, and squeezing what little joy he can from life by entertaining children. It is clear that in this passage Wendig is writing on multiple levels, using the treatment of Jar Jar by the people of Naboo as a metaphor for his treatment by fandom. This is rather clever and I applaud the intent. I do have some issues with how Wendig portrays Jar Jar, which reads to me as almost someone who is developmentally disabled. In the films Jar Jar may not have been the most intelligent character, but he always appeared to me as more immature and clumsy than dumb. Wendig’s portrayal feels like it goes to far in the other direction for me.
Turning back to the main narrative itself we get to see some cool proto-First Order stuff, particularly little Armitage Hux and what is presumably little Captain Phasma. Hux is an odd child and set apart from the rest of the children we see in the book. His characterization helps give some more depth to the character we meet as an adult in The Force Awakens. Baby Phasma and her cadre of homicidal children were both creepy and cool to see. Basically the first batch of what would form the First Order’s fighting force and the programming that Finn would reject. I wish we had seen more of these kids involved in action leading up to the climax of the novel. I thought for sure they would come to the aid of Rax towards the end. Which brings me to the topic of Rax.
Wendig clearly wrote Gallius Rax in such a way that folks would assume he would goon to become Snoke. This is something I was conflicted about since the characters introduction, on one hand I doubted they would actually reveal Snoke’s origins in this way and this far ahead of The Last Jedi, on the other I doubted they would allow such an obvious assumption to be made by a large swath of fandom. Well it turns out that it was a giant red herring and one that Wendig maintained right up to the end of the novel, when you just thought Rax would get a blaster bolt to the head explaining the physical damage we see to Snoke in the film. While I don’t feel cheated by the story, I can’t help but feeling that Rax is an eminently replaceable character, who could have been replaced by any number of self-confident and competent Imperial functionaries. I half expected baby Phasma and her crew of tiny terrors to rescue him. What Rax ends up being is little more than a pawn in Palpatine’s contingency machinations. He is the human equivalent of a self-destruct program aboard a ship, allow some to reach the escape pods to survive and begin what will become the First Order before he destroys what remains.
An argument can easily be made that this ultimate defeat and surrender of the Empire by Mas Amedda works perfectly if the plan is to down the road return and retake the galaxy because it lulls the New Republic into a sense of peace and safety. Of course that presumes that somehow Rax planned to have Amedda freed in order to effectuate that surrender, something that he may have but we have no evidence of. The idea however that even in death Palpatine is still dictating both the board upon which the game is played but also the movement of pieces is very cool and another nice connection between the Original Trilogy and the Sequel Trilogy.
There are other questions about this whole plan, such as how many loyal military figures and crews Palpatine selected and why he selected those particular people to escape? Was Rax’s dismissive view of Grand Admiral Thrawn shared by Palpatine? How was the observatory on Jakku not raided by the New Republic following the battle? It seems clear now that Supreme Leader Snoke is someone who the First Order encounters in the Unknown Regions, but that leaves the large question of what happens to Grand Admiral Rae Sloane?
Wendig does do a good job wrapping up the story for his main cast of characters at the end of the book, it is some of his best writing in the novel and provides some of the best emotional notes.
In the end my feelings on Empire’s End are complicated. It is a book that has passages of brilliance and passages of mediocrity, sometimes within the same chapter. I would be less critical of the book than I am if I didn’t enjoy those highlights and get frustrated at the shadow they cast when they are lacking. Wendig deals with a large cast which can work sometimes, but in this case does not. A narrowing of the cast and a focusing of the plot earlier in this book would have gone a long ways towards remedying much of the books faults. Wendig is undeniably an incredibly talented writer, their is a wildness to his writing that can be invigorating, but needs to be properly channeled. In Life Debt this felt better focused than in Empire’s End, a book that while important and enjoyable was at the same time a rather frustrating read.