Monday, May 15, 2017

JOURNEY TO STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS: Aftermath: Empire's End by Chuck Wendig

The final episode of Chuck Wendig's AFTERMATH saga concludes the overall story with the same basic formula used by its predecessors. We watch the New Republic's final battles with the Empire unfold through the perspective of Wendig's core characters, featuring a little peripheral interaction with legacy characters just to remind you that this is a STAR WARS story. Thankfully, this book deviates from its predecessors in that it does not begin with a legacy character about to have his own adventure, only to be captured immediately so the AFTERMATH gang can swoop in and rescue him.

This book is more interesting because Wendig has built the story up to the point where it can follow the action of the second book instead of rebooting concept. It is also a lead-in to the infamous Battle of Jakku. We saw a little of this battle in Lost Stars, but that book was so wrapped around its two main characters that the same events could have been happening anywhere for any reason. Wendig has the opportunity to actually advance the narrative of the new expanded canon, which is what this book effectively accomplishes.

Before we get into the story, there are a couple of items introduced in the book's non sequitur interludes that are pretty interesting for followers of the new canon:

Because Life Debt more or less ignored this even though the book was supposedly about the liberation of Kashyyyk, Wendig offers up a conciliatory addendum to the story of Chewbacca's fight to save his family. Almost all of that story happened between scenes in Life Debt while we spent our time reading about Norra Wexley and her ragtag bunch of bickering Breakfast Club drama queens, but Empire's End introduces us to one of the liberated wookiees, Lumpawaroo. Lumpy, who now goes by Waroo since he has grown up to be a young adult male and an actually canonical character, is on the run from Imperial forces who are still trying to maintain control of the planet. He is saved from his flight when he is miraculously reunited with his father, Chewbacca.

Slavery to the Empire was nothing compared to the real horror of the occupation:
The Imperial Public Broadcasting System. 

This is significant because Lumpy was first introduced in the STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL. While the special also introduced Boba Fett in a standalone animated segment, the rest of it was deemed unwatchable by fans and George Lucas did his best to erase it from existence. Lumpy appeared in subsequent entries in the early Expanded Universe, what you would technically call the LEGENDS canon but what is technically-technically pre-LEGENDS material. He was featured in The Wookiee Storybook, a children's book about the Chewbacca family that was released shortly after the holiday special and disappeared just as quickly. He also appeared with the rest of the family in the old Marvel STAR WARS comic, which was also deemed non-canonical when the Expanded Universe was re-launched in the 90's.

Lumpy was legitimized by the LEGENDS canon when re-introduced in the 1996 novel Tyrant's Test. After Chewie's death in the infamous 1999 novel Vector Prime, the Chewbacca family was featured quite prominently in a Chewbacca comic book, telling stories of Chewbacca's early adventures. When those stories were branded as part of the LEGENDS canon, Chewbacca was resurrected but Lumpy and the family were once again downgraded to non-canonical status. His inclusion in Empire's End has restored him once again to a state of actual existence in the overall story.

Empire's End also touches on another sore spot for the STAR WARS mythology, one that unfortunately has always existed in the core canon (and probably always will):

"Meesa baaaaaack"

Hearing that the fate of Jar Jar Binks had been revealed in this book made me a little nervous going in. I know he is reviled even more than the holiday special and he literally destroys every scene he's in, but I never wished him any ill will in the story. Like anybody who bothers me, I just wanted Jar Jar to go away and find happiness someplace else. Given the amount of raw fan hatred, I feared for how Jar Jar might fare in the context of the new canon.

But not to worry, JJ; Wendig and the story group at Lucasfilm found a fitting medium when deciding a proper punishment for the Gungan Senator who handed supreme power over to the Emperor. It's not an altogether happy ending, but it's about as good as Jar Jar deserves. It seems the rest of the galaxy (and particularly the other Gungans) did not take kindly to Jar Jar's contribution to the rise of the Empire. He'd already been exiled for being a local screw-up when introduced in EPISODE I. I guess this is why Padme thought it would be a good idea to make him part of her staff, which apparently gave him authority to speak for her whenever she was off fighting space monsters in gladiator pits. In EPISODE II, Palpatine and his Vice Chair Mas Amedda manipulated Jar Jar into putting forward the motion to give emergency executive power to Palpatine.

In Empire's End, the good people of Naboo remember this, and so Jar Jar is mostly a lonely and despised drifter who spends his days trying to entertain children with his buffoonery. He makes friends with a young boy who also feels like a misfit and that's about as good as it's going to get for him.

"Meesa thankin' yousa fa nothin', Chuck."

But, as with the other books in this series, the interludes have nothing to do with the actual story. Here's what happens in the story:

Norra Wexley and her team of misfit toys continue their search for Grand Admiral Rae Sloane, who only barely escaped them at the end of the previous book. The search leads them to Jakku, where they find an Imperial fleet already waiting for them. Even though all the in-fighting amongst the core characters is always centered around trust issues that crop up because they never work with each other to solve problems as a team, Norra takes it upon herself to jump ship and finish the mission alone. One of the reasons for this is that she doesn't want her son Snap to get hurt. If that's the goal, it seems like making him part of a New Republic commando team whose purpose is to track down the galaxy's most dangerous fugitives was probably a poor decision. Having a sudden change of heart at the site of the Imperial fleet, Norra locks in a hyperspace  jump and ejects in an escape pod. Jas Emari manages to get in the pod with her, but the others are forced to retreat. Before they do, Snap sends his delightfully psychotic battle droid Mr. Bones on a second escape pod to protect his mother.

Snap and the others report back to the New Republic and tell them about Jakku, but the Senate declines to take action.More whining and in-fighting ensues over what to do next, while the story goes on without them.

But don't worry: Norra and Jas are on the case. For their part, they immediately get themselves captured by Imperial forces on Jakku and the story goes on without them.

The most frustrating consistency in all of the AFTERMATH books is that the real story, the interesting one, seems to only be told in occasional asides. Norra is a boring protagonist. She's a dummy who does and says dumb dummy things, always doing the wrong thing and crying about it later and never learning from any of her mistakes. The STAR WARS saga is currently being dominated by strong female protagonists, so Norra's fragile sensibilities and constant self-doubt stand out against the likes of Rey, Jyn Erso, or even Shara Bey, the mother of Poe Dameron who starred in Marvel's Shattered Empire comic (which showed some of the immediate consequences of the Empire's defeat at Endor, much like the AFTERMATH books are charged with doing). Norra is powerless to commit to anything, whether it's her dedication to the New Republic or her son, her feelings for her mind-controlled estranged husband or her feelings for Wedge Antilles, her role as the leader of her squad, and even for her intentions in tracking down Rae Sloane. Like her team and the books themselves, Norra seems to bounce back and forth based on what is happening right in front of her and doesn't have any focus when it comes to what she actually wants to accomplish.

The real protagonist of the story becomes Rae Sloane, who is a stronger female character even though she tends to get jerked around by her male influences almost as badly as Norra. Sloane settles on a goal, though, eventually resolving herself to stop Gallius Rax from whatever he's planning to do with her Empire.

To this end, Sloane is traveling with Brenton Wexley, who also wants to track Rax down because Rax turned him into an assassin for the Empire by putting a mind-control chip in his brain. Unfortunately, they are taken prisoner by acolytes of Niima the Hutt not long after arriving on Jakku and the story goes on without them.

Meanwhile, Jas escapes captivity by breaking off her horns and using them to cut her bonds, because one character arc has to upswing to account for another's inevitable collapse. Following this same logic, Mr. Bones catches up to Norra and rescues her around the same time, so they are able to resume their pursuit of Rae Sloane.

Sloane tries to make a deal with Niima, but the Hutt already has an arrangement with Rax to steal children for his cause. Sloane promises to take Niima to the superweapon that Rax is excavating if she’ll give her the opportunity to defeat Rax, even though she isn't actually sure if the weapon really exists at all.

Let me forego any further criticism of the characters and story construction so that I can focus on the elements of the book that I found to be truly exciting.

Its predecessors offered little hints and tidbits of what the STAR WARS saga is becoming, but Empire's End builds to events that appear to have a major impact on the new expanded canon and possibly even the story that is unfolding in the new film trilogy.

Gallius Rax's plan is actually a contingency Palpatine put in place before dying. This is another similarity to Timothy Zahn's earlier works - this was the underlying story of the HAND OF THRAWN duology. Having recruited Brendol Hux, the Commandant of the Arkanis Academy, Rax puts him to work with a continuation of his psychotic recruitment program. Hux basically gathers up children, strips them away from their families, and teaches them to be cold-blooded killers.

Remind you of anyone else we know?

Rax, of course, wants to use these recruits as the foundation of his new Super Empire (led by a Shadow Council with members "of the first and highest order", according to Rax). Now Rax and his Sith advisor Yupe Tashu are gathering the children on Jakku.

We learn a little more about Gallius Rax's background here too. Having grown up on Jakku, he drew children away from the orphanage where he lived and killed them once they had served their purpose. That purpose was and still is the preservation of a sacred site on Jakku that was of particular interest to Palpatine. While the orphanage was run by Anchorites, a local sect whose religion had been dedicated to the Light Side of the Force for a thousand years, Rax poisoned some of the other orphans' minds against that teaching and convinced them to reject it.

Remind you of anyone else we know?

Returning to Jakku as a Fleet Admiral of the Empire, Gallius Rax murders the Anchorite who ran the orphanage as a sort of sacrifice to their enterprise. Satisfied in the brutality of the act, Yupe Tashu declares their mission to now be officially blessed.

Here's something cool in the book that we also see in the Marvel STAR WARS comics. Emperor Palpatine has these sentinel droids with mirror dome projector faces who speak in Palpatine's voice. That's a neat idea, especially when he's dead. It gives the sense, as intended, that he is still controlling events.

"Can you hear me now?"

What exactly is Gallius Rax doing on Jakku? The Empire’s defeat will probably serve Rax’s goal of shedding the dead weight and strengthen the elite, but that runs afoul of the Emperor's posthumous intentions. Even though Rax wants to see the New Republic defeated and wants to clear the board of everybody but the best Imperials, he is following through on a contingency plan put in place by Palpatine before he was killed. The crux of this plan is, apparently, to lure as many warring forces as possible to Jakku, then blow up the planet and destroy everybody there. If he can’t control the galaxy and he can't take it with him, then it’s Palpatine’s intention to have it burn.

Apropos of nothing, here are the official plans for the
construction of Palpatine's tomb.

Just to point out another similarity to Timothy Zahn's earlier works: This is not unlike Palpatine's contingency in the LEGENDS canon. In the original THRAWN trilogy, Mara Jade is programmed as a not-so-subtle sleeper agent to assassinate Luke Skywalker in the event that Palpatine is killed.

Palpatine’s Contingency in the new canon is a bit more convoluted. The ancient site on Jakku isn’t just a doomsday device to ignite the living core of the planet. It’s also an ancient alien observatory from which Palpatine hoped to unlock the mysteries of the Unknown Regions of space. It was there that Palpatine meant to continue the glory of his Empire. The purpose of this is unclear now that he's gone, considering that Palpatine believed an Empire was useless without its Emperor and wanted to blow everybody up.

Yupe Tashu, who was one of Palpatine’s advisers and also served on Rae Sloane’s short-lived Imperial Future Council, believes that the purpose of the Contingency is either to literally resurrect Palpatine or to carry on his legacy. He accompanies Rax into the ancient site and performs a Sith ritual as his part, but then Rax throws him down a hole they’ve drilled to the center of the planet. Emperor Palpatine once confided to Rax that Jakku used to be a verdant world, rich with life, and the core of the planet was still rich with living energy. Tashu’s murder at the end of the ritual seems to serve as some sort of sacrifice in a much more direct way than the murder of the Anchorite, because this act is the catalyst for the destruction of the planet’s core.

But what is Rax really up to? Yupe Tashu was a zealot who probably would have gladly sacrificed himself for the glory of his Emperor, but he seems totally surprised by Rax’s action. The Emperor had no reason to deceive Tashu, so it looks like Rax is the one who’s gone off-book. In fact, Rax’s actions from this point seem to be motivated by a defiance of the Emperor and his final plans. He’s re-writing his role in an effort to take over.

So what was the original plan? Was Rax to be the one who was sacrificed to catalyze the Contingency? Is that why he's so suddenly so petulant and why he suddenly seems so contemptuous of Palpatine’s final solution?

Rax resents Palpatine’s implication that he represents the Outcast, an obscure Chess piece that was phased out of the game long before the game found itself in a far-flung galaxy in the far-flung future to become the game as we know it. The implication that he is an outsider motivates Rax to deviate from Palpatine’s plan. When Tashu finishes his ritual, he says all the necessary sacrifices have been made, but when Palpatine prepared Rax to become the Contingency, he told him the high cost of it would fall on Rax himself to pay.

But Gallius Rax never sees the Contingency come to fruition. He is killed by Grand Admiral Rae Sloane after setting the destruction of Jakku in motion. She takes control of the ancient technology that Palpatine left behind, but she stops Jakku from exploding and escapes. She joins up with Rax’s cohorts, Commandant Hux and his squad of prepubescent psychopaths. They are now led by his son Armitage, who proves himself to be quite the accomplished little psychopath as well. They fly off in the Imperialis, one of Palpatine’s space yachts.

Interesting side note: Another of these yachts was captured and destroyed by Lando Calrissian in the days before he officially joined the Rebellion.

"No need to thank me, galaxy. Blowin' up the Emperor's stuff is just what I do."

Sloane quickly puts Brendol Hux in his place and makes a pact with his son that she will keep Brendol in check so long as Armitage keeps his gang from killing her. From there they all pick up where Gallius Rax left off, traveling into the Unknown Regions to rendezvous with the rest of Rax’s fleet.

The most interesting aspect of all of this is the implication of what will happen next. Not what will come next in the movies, necessarily, but what may likely be the next chapter in the expanded canon that will fill the gaps between Empire’s End and EPISODE VII. Earlier in the book, Rax mused that the only Imperial Commander who had any knowledge of the Unknown Regions was Grand Admiral Thrawn, a mysterious alien who actually came from that part of space. In the new expanded canon, just as in the LEGENDS canon, Thrawn is not present during the struggle between the Empire and the Rebellion because the Emperor sent him into the Unknown Regions to map out as much of it as he could.

In Empire’s End, Palpatine’s interest in the Unknown Regions is focused on a strange dark presence he sensed from it, a voice that only he could hear calling to him. He believed the birthplace of the Force itself may be somewhere in that unexplored void. The ancient observatory on Jakku was used to monitor and map out portions of the Unknown Regions, but Thrawn has supposedly spent decades out there, either exploring or conquering in the name of the Empire.

When Sloane reaches the rendezvous point, she is shocked to see that the Super Star Destroyer Eclipse is among the ships that are waiting to meet her. This ship was reported destroyed in the official record, while the Ravager, which fell in the Battle of Jakku, was thought to be the last of its kind still in operation. The book does not state this, but it’s a fair bet that the Eclipse is being commanded by Grand Admiral Thrawn himself.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves here, internet.

With Thrawn entering the new canon as the main baddie in STAR WARS: REBELS and Timothy Zahn entering the new canon with an all new novel that focuses on the rise of Grand Admiral Thrawn, it's safe to say that Disney has plans to use the character in the future. It's possible that Thrawn could appear in the films, but the end of AFTERMATH suggests very strongly that Thrawn may be the big villain in the next chapter of the new Expanded Universe. If that's even a little true, this book is worth reading just to set the stage for the return of the LEGENDS' greatest legend.

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