It’s no secret that many fans consider Wendig’s first venture into the world of Star Wars – last year’s Star Wars: Aftermath – to be the biggest disappointment in 2015’s lineup of canon novels. Although I didn’t hate the book like some did, I have to say I count myself among those who found the book lacking. So, needless to say, I was completely blown away when I discovered that Wendig’s middle entry into his post-ROTJ trilogy not only fixed a lot of the problems with the first book, but gave me one of the most entertaining stories in the Star Wars canon so far. Read on for the full review. Spoilers ahead…
Let me get straight to the point – I loved this book. Despite Wendig’s initial knee-jerk reaction to criticism over his first book, it is glaringly obvious that he took that criticism to heart when writing his follow up novel. Gone are the ridiculous sentence fragments that plagued Aftermath, and the real-world references that ripped me right out of the story in that book are a distant memory.
The story in Life Debt is well-conceived, the characters are compelling, and the action is edge-of-your-seat exciting. Wendig does not abandon his signature third-person-present-tense prose, but the narrative is so tight that his unique writing style actually complements the story quite nicely and is not a distraction like it was in the first. Although, in retrospect, I feel that the problem with Aftermath was not the tense in which it was written, but the way in which it was executed, which has been greatly refined in Life Debt.
It is also abundantly clear when reading Life Debt that the chains of ultimate secrecy have been broken since the release of The Force Awakens, and Wendig seems to have a little more room to play in this novel, an opportunity he was not afforded when writing the first part in the trilogy. In contrast to Aftermath, instead of a collection of half-cocked interludes and inferences into what might take place in the next film, Aftermath: Life Debt is presented as a complete and satisfying story with characters that you actually care about.
The format of Life Debt is virtually the same as Aftermath – with the narrative going back and forth between the heroes of the Republic and Imperial Grand Admiral Rae Sloane, whose character has come a long way since her introduction in the Rebels era novel, A New Dawn. After every few chapters there are interludes, much like what Wendig did with the first book.
However, this time around it is clear that Wendig is actually going somewhere with these side stories as many of the interludes from the first book are continued, with some of them even getting a little payoff in the main narrative. It will be interesting to see how these interludes wrap up and tie in to the overall story in the trilogy’s conclusion, Empire’s End, come January.
The story is a continuation of the characters and plot lines set up in the first book, so I still recommend that you read it as well before jumping in to Life Debt. As enjoyable as I found this book, it does suffer slightly from the fact that it is an interquel, that is – it picks up on an ongoing story and ends with the feeling that there is still much left untold. However, as the middle book in a trilogy, all of this is no doubt intentional, but some readers might feel a bit lost at first if they have not read the first book.
That being said, I think the book can still be understood and enjoyed for the most part on its own, and the story does actually have a beginning, middle and end of sorts, despite it being the middle chapter of a larger story. Just know going in that it’s definitely not written as a standalone novel.
For those keeping up with the canon novels or those who enjoyed Aftermath, this is a must-read. For those who hated Aftermath or who found the book a disappointment, I say give Wendig one more shot, and you might be surprised. Life Debt is leaps and bounds above the first entry in the trilogy. I wasn’t really looking forward to reading this book initially, and I began reading it solely for canon knowledge. However, not long into the book I realized that I was reading something entirely different than I had imagined. The pages practically turned themselves, and by the end, I found myself very much looking forward to part three.
I would give Life Debt a solid 8/10, and I highly recommend it as an essential Star Wars read to any fan. If you haven’t read the book and still intend to do so, stop now. From this point on, I will be touching on some spoilers from the book…
Jelena (LadyMusashi) also recently posted an excellent review of this book (here). In her review, she shared a few spoilers, but mostly steered clear of story points. I strongly recommend that you check the book out for yourself, but if you are just not into reading but still want the story details, here is a simple breakdown of the overall story in Life Debt, as well as some speculation on my part about how this book may impact the future of the SW universe:
Spoilers! Spoilers! Spoilers!
The book begins with a prelude on Jakku three decades before, during the Clone Wars era and in the final days of the Old Republic. We are introduced to a young boy named Galli who, desperate to leave the planet, stows away on a beautiful ship that is occupied by Palpatine’s advisor Yupe Tashu.
The Aftermath trilogy takes place a very short time after the destruction of the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi. The Empire is in chaos and crumbling. The Rebel Alliance has become the New Republic and is seeking to put an end to the galactic conflict once and for all. Imperial leaders are on the run and many factions have formed within the remnants of the Empire.
The events of Life Debt take place a couple months after those of the first book. Following the rescue of Wedge Antilles and the disruption of the Imperial gathering on her home planet Akiva in Aftermath, former rebel pilot and veteran of the Battle of Endor, Norra Wexley and her team of unlikely companions, find themselves employed by the New Republic to pursue these Imperial deserters, in attempt to bring them to justice.
Her team is made up of the characters that we were introduced to in the first book: her teenage son Temmin (a.k.a. “Snap”) Wexley (portayed as an adult by Greg Grunberg in The Force Awakens) and his droid “Mr. Bones”, former Imperial loyalty officer and overt alcoholic Sinjir Rath Velus, free-spirited Zabrak bounty hunter Jas Emari, and hard-nosed Republic commando Jom Barell.
The narrative is driven by a plot set up in one of the interludes in the first novel. Heroes of the Rebellion, Han Solo and Chewbacca, have gathered a rag tag team of smugglers and soundrels to liberate the Wookiee’s homeworld of Kashyyyk from Imperial enslavement. Unfortunately, the duo is betrayed by their contact and stumble upon a trap which leaves Han on the run and Chewbacca in Imperial captivity.
Troubled by Han’s last transmission and having been unable to contact her husband (whom she married in a private ceremony on Endor), the newly pregnant Leia Organa calls upon Norra and her team to find him.
Meanwhile, Grand Admiral Sloane continues to try and rebuild the Empire in the rose-colored image that she has always imagined it to be. With the Emperor’s right hand, Mas Amedda, a mere figurehead with no real power to speak of, Sloane has now become the real face of the Empire, but she is ever growing in her awareness that real control belongs to the mysterious fleet admiral that we were introduced to at the end of Aftermath.
Claiming to be only an advisor to Sloane, it becomes clear that the fleet admiral – who we now know as Gallius Rax – is actually the one pulling all the strings and holding all the cards. Much like Sidious did with Count Dooku in the Clone Wars, Rax constantly manipulates Sloane into doing his bidding, all the while making her look like the one in charge.
Rax assembles a group of Imperial leaders, that consists of the most influential surviving figures in the Empire, in attempt to reunite and rebuild. He calls this little cabal his “Shadow Council” and slowly begins to move the pieces into place that will no doubt become what we now know as the First Order. Unorthodox in his ways, the others remain wary of Rax, but ultimately agree to work together for the common goal.
Impatient with Rax’s secrecy and troubled by the unknown details of his past, Sloane sets off to discover the truth about who Rax is as her distrust in him continues to grow. She heads to an Imperial records office on Coruscant where she discovers an old image of a young boy, that she discovers is Rax himself, alongside some prominent Imperial leaders, the Emperor included.
Meanwhile, Norra and crew continue their search for Han Solo which leads them to Irudiru where they finally cross paths with the former rebel General, who has been desperately chasing threads to find his long time friend and companion Chewbacca. The team decides to help Han in his search for the Wookiee.
Their search takes them to Kashyyyk, where they find Chewbacca and a host of POWs from the Rebellion era in an Imperial prison. One of those prisoners just happens to be the long lost husband of Norra and father to Temmin – Brentin Wexley. Norra and her reunited family take the Millennium Falcon, loaded with the former prisoners, to the Republic capital world of Chandrila while Han and the rest of her crew stay behind to liberate Kashyyyk from Imperial control once and for all.
A month later, Norra and Temmin are struggling to re-establish a relationship with Brentin, who has been changed drastically under Imperial captivity from the man he once was, oftentimes appearing distant and disconnected. In the meantime, the efforts to liberate Kashyyyk continue with the Chewbacca-led insurgency on the Wookiee planet.
It is revealed that a lot of the Republic’s recent victories over various Imperial factions were accomplished with intel from Gallius Rax himself, under the guise of the mysterious “Operator”. Rax plays on the Republic’s desire to weed out the Imperials in hiding to achieve the elimination of any would-be rivalries in the Imperial ranks. He reveals this to Sloane as a show of trust and convinces her to contact the Republic to reveal herself as the Operator.
When contacting the Republic leaders, Sloane also expresses the desire to begin peace talks with the Republic. However, the talks are only a cover in an elaborate ruse concocted by Rax to usher in a planned attack on Chandrila. Rax has secured a massive fleet that has been in hiding for some time, unknown to the Republic and until recently,even to Sloane herself. While on the ground, Sloane will be able to lead the ground forces to victory against the Republic on Chandrila.
The possibility of peace is jumped on by Mon Mothma and the Republic who host a grand celebration in honor of the impending peace time and the recent release of the prisoners from Kashyyyk dubbing the event “Liberation Day”. However, as Sloane waits on the balcony for Rax’s arrival, the prisoners , including Brentin Wexley, suddenly attempt to assassinate Mon Mothma and the other leaders of the Rebellion.
Sloane is outraged that Rax’s ultimate plan of attack was nothing but a coup involving brain-washed ex-prisoners and resolves to put an end to Rax and restore the Empire to the dignity that it once knew. However, she discovers that her trusted aid, Adea Rite, has been sleeping with the enemy (literally), and is forced to kill her to avoid being killed herself.
On the run from the Republic and now the Empire under Rax’s leadership, Sloane barely escapes with her life after having been shot by Norra Wexley. She gets past the blockade surrounding Chandrila, only to discover that another has stowed away on her vessel – the fugitive Brentin Wexley, who appalled at his own actions after having almost assassinated Mon Mothma , is desparate to get revenge on Rax as well.
After discovering that Rax is from the desert world of Jakku, Sloane and Wexley head to the barren wasteland to see if they can find out more about him. However, not long after their arrival, Rax arrives on Jakku himself to use the planet as a proving ground for his new order.
Following the liberation of Kashyyyk, Chewie remains on his home planet to rebuild and find his family as Han returns with Leia to Chandrila to settle down with his own. Leia had previously arrived on the Falcon with her friend and fellow Alderaanian, Evaan Verlaine, bringing with them Wedge and his Phantom Squadron and Admiral Ackbar to save the day. After a heart felt goodbye that was never allowed the pair in The Force Awakens, Han and Chewie separate from each other’s company.
Back on Chandrila, Norra and her team –now more loyal to one another than ever before – head off on one last mission together, to track down Admiral Sloane and bring her to justice.
The book concludes with an epilogue that picks up immediately following the prelude thirty years ago when a young Gallius Rax hopped aboard a shiny vessel in his one shot at leaving Jakku behind him. He is soon discovered by a man in a dark robe who, aware of his presence, calls him out of hiding. The man is of course, none other than the Darth Sidious himself, and the ship he has stowed away on seems to be Palpatine’s personal vessel, the Imperialis.
Sidious, amused with the boy, makes him a proposal. He offers Gallius an opportunity to become someone of great significance, charging him with the protection of an important site on Jakku that the dark lord had been excavating. The mystery of this site’s significance is not revealed, but Palpatine alludes to its great importance and that it dates back over a thousand years, possibly to a time when Jakku was a verdant and more habitable planet.
I am anxious to uncover the mystery of Jakku, which no doubt will give fans much to speculate on as we await the next book and the next episode of the saga. With the introduction of Gallius Rax, many have even speculated that Rax is none other than the Supreme Leader of the First Order himself. Much like Snoke, he leads from the shadows, and he was also a contemporary of Palpatine. The book also reveals that Gallius Rax was on a first name basis with the former Emperor.
However, it should be noted that Snoke, although humanoid in form, is not actually human (this was clarified in The Force Awakens novel when the character first appears to Ren and Hux via the giant hologram). Although there is still room for this theory, it is never mentioned in the book whether or not Rax is a human or a near-human alien. The way the character is described certainly did make me picture him as a normal human man while reading the book, so this could be problematic for this theory.
It is also not hard to imagine how he could have become so disfigured with so many now out to get him following the conclusion of Life Debt. Could this mysterious fleet admiral, now known as Gallius Rax, be the frail looking mastermind of the First Order from The Force Awakens? I think it’s a fairly plausible theory. We’ll just have to wait and see.
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