Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath is the first of a trilogy of novels depicting the fallout that followed the destruction of the second Death Star and the consequent de-stabilization of the Empire. It’s a tough writing gig for a lot of reasons. First, this is the official rebooted canon that Disney is putting forwarded after retiring the old Expanded Universe. With Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy (which originally took on the task of continuing the Post-Jedi saga in the nineties) being labeled as “STAR WARS Legends” and relegated to the uncertain annals of non-canon, Aftermath is the book that would appear to be taking the place of Heir to the Empire. Not an enviable position for Wendig. Zahn’s original trilogy of novels is so beloved that it is almost as sacred to fans as the films (and in the case of the prequels, probably more so). Giving the impression that this book is intended to replace Heir to the Empire is not fair to the story or the author. While Aftermath is not Heir to the Empire, it has gotten a lot of unfair criticism from fans who would like it to be.
Some of the same fans who might have thought this would be a good idea.
The larger story revolves around Wedge Antilles, who stumbles onto an amassed fleet of Imperials, gathering under the leadership of Admiral Rae Sloane. Sloane has formed a new central seat of power called the Imperial Future Council (whose first act in the near future will hopefully be to form a subcommittee whose sole purpose is coming up with better names for things). This committee is composed of the Empire's remaining high-ranking officers and officials, one of Emperor Palpatine’s former Dark Side advisers, and a wealthy slaver named Arsin Crassus. Their goal is to establish a practical and stable framework of government, mindful not to repeat the fatal arrogance of the Emperor.
"Imperial Future Council? Are you, like, totally married to that name, or is there some give there?
This is just one ghost's opinion, but I'd workshop that around before getting the stationery printed."
Just in case you get the impression from the beginning of the story that Wedge may get to be the hero of this one, that would be a negative. Before Wedge can do anything to stop the Imperial Future Council, he is taken prisoner. He will remain a prisoner for the rest of the story and only have a minimal influence on its outcome.
"Thanks for nothin', Chuck."
Like Greg Rucka’s Shattered Empire comic series, Aftermath takes place shortly after the Battle of Endor. The story unfolds on Akiva, which you are in no way required to know is the home planet of Snap Wexley, the Resistance reconnaissance pilot responsible for acquiring schematics for Starkiller Base in EPISODE VII. Our hero (or one of them) is Norra Wexley, who is Snap’s mom. It’s appropriate that these early stories focus on the parentage of the EPISODE VII heroes. While Kylo Ren’s parents are the stars of the original trilogy and there is much speculation as to whether the same is true for Rey, it becomes equally important for us to understand that more peripheral characters like Snap Wexley and Poe Dameron are also the children of this war. Poe’s mother is the focus of the Shattered Empire comic in the same way that Snap’s mother is the central character of this story.
After the rebel victory at Endor, Norra is returning to Akiva to extract her son from the planet, which is still under Imperial control. Young Snap, known here as Temmin, is a 15 year old kid who was abandoned at the age of twelve when Norra ran off to join the rebels. His father was taken away by Imperials and presumably killed when he was even younger than that, so he’s just an angry little man throughout the course of the book.
Little Snap has run afoul of a Sullustan crime lord during his time as a trader/scavenger on Akiva, and when Norra finds him he’s well on his way to being murdered by a gang of toughs. Temmin’s only defender is possibly my favorite character in the book, an old battle droid who's been rebuilt and re-programmed to be a psychopathic killing machine named Mr. Bones. Norra shows up in time to whisk Snap away, but he’s made his life on his own and doesn’t want to be hauled off to some Alliance-approved world or to become part of his mother’s war. This disparity of objective eventually leads to Snap’s capture by the crime lord’s goons, allowing this story thread to become intertwined with another that’s been running parallel to it.
While all this has been going on, bounty hunter Jas Emari has been hunting Crassus (the slaver working with the Imperials), but when she spies his meeting with the Imperial Future Council, she realizes that several of the members have sizable bounties and she will need extra firepower to get them all. This side effort puts her in the way of the crime lord as well, but a stranger from her past intercedes to help her out of that jam and they become the gangster’s prisoners too.
Jas is the niece of the Zabrak bounty hunter Sugi, who first appeared in
the "Bounty Hunters" episode of The Clone Wars TV series.
Jas’ would-be benefactor is yet another character who has been running along a parallel story thread until this circumstance serves to bring them all together. He is Sinjir Rath Velus, a former Imperial Loyalty Officer who had a change of heart during the Battle of Endor and, driven by occasional and uncontrollable bouts of conscience, deserted his post and has been living out his days as a drunk ever since. Unfortunately, he happens to be in the bar where Jas has been taken captive and recognizes her from a moment they shared back on Endor that isn’t fully explored or explained in the story.
Eventually they all escape and hook up, on the run from the crime lord and the Empire. During the course of their adventures they start an uprising on Akiva by distributing a propaganda video falsely depicting an Imperial Officer murdering an unarmed civilian. Eventually rebel commandos and a small fleet sent by Admiral Ackbar arrive and Akiva is saved.
There’s a lot I like about this book. I like that the Empire tried to control Akiva and other worlds by spreading propaganda to downplay the rebel victory at Endor, even going so far as to produce false reports that the Emperor was still alive. I like the new characters introduced in the book for the most part, particularly Sinjir. He’s the first genuine effort to introduce a prominent protagonist from the LGBT community in a STAR WARS story. Some fans criticize the book for the number of casual references it makes to LGBT characters, but I think the fact that it isn’t a big deal is what makes it work. Some fans were upset that the movie starred a female and a black character, so there’s no accounting for some of the reactions that come from fans.
Wait 'til they hear about Poe and Finn...
In any event, I thought that worked well and Sinjir’s the only real stand-out character. Norra and Snap are kind of generic archetypes. Norra is the troubled hero trying to weigh global troubles against her personal responsibilities. Snap is a rebellious angry young man who is so unlike the character we (admittedly only briefly) see in the movie that until I looked him up on Wookieepedia I thought he was Snap’s brother or something. He is exclusively called Temmin throughout the book, so there is nothing but behind the scenes reference material to indicate that this is the same person in both stories. Jas is the typical cool bounty hunter type that I have always hated, so she doesn’t really do anything for me. So Sinjir and Mr. Bones are the only characters that distinguish this from any other story.
I also like the pace of the action and all their adventures along the way. The tone is sometimes darker than I would like and Wendig, like many authors of STAR WARS novels, tends to use more modern vernacular than I would like in the dialogue. This is a difficult issue that no one agrees on and for which there are no defined rules, but some words and phrases don’t seem STAR WARSEY to me, especially if they’re rooted too deeply in modern American pop culture. But that’s not enough to take you out of the story.
Wendig also explores a lot of interesting ground in terms of spirituality’s role in this universe. Yupe Tashu, Palpatine’s former adviser, is very cool and scary because he’s a Dark Side zealot, a true believer in the absolute cruelty of the Sith, even though he himself has no control over the Force. This seems to me to be an echo of Snoke’s character in the film. He advises and controls Kylo Ren, but Han says that Snoke only wants Kylo for his power. That would make perfect sense if Snoke were like Tashu, and was a sadist who believed in the Dark Side without himself being a Sith.
You have to admit, Palpatine rolled with a pretty creepy posse.
Any one of these guys could be Snoke. Especially the dude on the right.
It also hints at a broader interpretation of what the Dark Side and the Light Side of the Force are, because Tashu states that they are not representative of pure good or pure evil. He’s not a very credible source on the subject, since he is pure evil, but it hints at the idea of the gray, which Alan Dean Foster references in the novelization. That reference, quoted from the ancient Journal of the Whills, suggests that only by embracing both the darkness and the light can a Jedi find true enlightenment through the Force:
"First comes the day
Then comes the night.
After the darkness
Shines through the light.
The difference, they say,
Is only made right
By the resolving of gray
Through refined Jedi sight.
Journal of the Whills, 7:477"
There are other representatives of this idea that the Force has supporters who are not practitioners of its power. In one aside from the story we see Dark Side acolytes purchase what they believe is Darth Vader’s lightsaber. Like Maz in EPISODE VII, they believe the object itself has spiritual significance because of the man who wielded it. Unlike Maz, who wanted to pass on Luke's lightsaber and the Skywalker legacy to a new generation, the Dark Side acolytes want to destroy Vader’s saber so it can be rejoined with him in the after life. Pretty wild stuff. This seems to echo statements in the Visual Dictionary that there is also a Church of the Force, which has followers that believe in serving the Light Side even though they are not Jedi. Lor San Tekka is supposedly one of these.
Some things I’m not so nuts about in this story: In order to establish scope, there are constant interludes giving us glimpses of other story threads that have nothing to do with this book. We see rebel orphans on Naboo, Dengar trying to start a bounty hunter union on Coruscant, a cameo from Han Solo and Chewbacca whose only purpose is to set up the story of the sequel (which sounds like it will be an awesome book but has nothing to do with this one), and even a mysterious stranger purchasing what seems to be Boba Fett’s salvaged armor from a Jawa sandcrawler on Tatooine. Not that these asides aren’t interesting, but this book is introducing us to too many new concepts and characters already, so it can’t afford to break away from the narrative to confuse us with information we don’t need. It takes us out of the flow of an already complex central story that has its fair share of new names for us to keep up with. I definitely would have dialed it back if I were trying to draw new readers into the new canon they’re developing here.
I can see the need to go wild with it. Now that Disney has wiped the slate clean, the STAR WARS universe is a little light on background story. Pumping out new material is the best way to remind us of the richness of the canon even in the absence of the old Expanded Universe. But slow down, guys. You don’t need to blow your wad all in one place. Neither the core nor the expanded canon were created overnight, and you can’t rush these things.
All in all, I really think that this is a fun book getting a bad rap from some folks. It’s not Zahn, it’s not Heir to the Empire, and it’s not going to be able to make everything right overnight for everyone who’s feeling the loss of those old characters and stories. But it’s not a slap in the face to the stories that came before it, either. In fact, I’m pretty sure Wending gives an actual nod to those books at the very end of this one. Admiral Sloane reports back to an unidentified Fleet Admiral who for all the world feels like he’s going to turn out to be Thrawn. Given that along with reports that Thrawn will return to menace the crew of the Ghost on STAR WARS REBELS next year, it sounds like Zahn’s contribution to the STAR WARS universe is neither forgotten nor unappreciated.
That means this is just the first chapter in an all-new expansion of the STAR WARS universe that will give us all the best parts of the old one and an all new direction moving forward. I’m hoping that somewhere along the way the events of the Thrawn trilogy can be reintroduced to canon (minus the small detail of Han and Leia having twins named Jacen and Jaina rather than a single son named Ben), but other than that I’m really excited to see where everything is headed.