Kyle’s Review of Aftermath: Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig (Non-Spoiler)
Chuck Wendig has brought us to the end of the line with his last entry in the Aftermath trilogy, Empire’s End. While the cover and title give any casual Star Wars fan a sense of what to expect in this book, there are still plenty of great surprises and revelations in this novel. This review, however, will remain completely spoiler-free.
This probably goes without saying, but don’t even try to read Empire’s End without having read the two previous installments, Aftermath and Aftermath: Life Debt. Our reviews to both of those novels can be found here and here. Empire’s End wastes little time back tracking those events and there were several times I had to take a few seconds to try and recall if certain characters or events were being described for the first time. That’s not a complaint, it just speaks to the fact there is so much going on in this trilogy, and it will make a second read of each entry well worth it. Chuck Wendig is a very talented writer, and if I were to compliment his greatest strength, it would be his ability to juggle all of the characters and events unfolding in these three novels.
The only spoiler in this review will allow is one already given away in the title: this is the end of the Empire. Yes, we know that decades later the First Order will seemingly take up where the Empire left off, but this is the end of the Empire. If there is anything this novel does, it underscores the void felt by so many of the Imperial officers in the absence of the banner they pledged their allegiance to, and their realization that it can never be what it was before the Battle of Endor. The sense of loss shared with most every Imperial is mostly coupled with the ambition to take control of whatever last straws they can cling to. That may be a poor metaphor, because few of these Imperials give off an air of desperation. Most of the Imperials are very confident that their effort to carry on the flame of the Empire is the only way.
The difference between the Empire that falls and the First Order we meet down the road is underscored by the conflicts between those who would grab power. The failure of the Empire is accepted and a “scorched earth” approach to rebuilding it is shared among the two who would be leaders, Gallius Rax and Rae Sloane. While Sloane is preoccupied with a journey that would take her back to Rax to claim vengeance for the betrayal in Life Debt, she is driven by the desire to take control and rebuild whatever the next version of the Empire is. Rax, on the contrary, only takes steps to further the vision he feels he has a mandate to carry out. Neither of them seem to have any illusions about whether the New Republic is now the dominant force in the galaxy.
One thing you can look forward to in this novel is learning a lot more about who Gallius Rax is and how he came to be. Where Life Debt may have left you hanging with his introduction to Sheev Palpatine, Empire’s End will answer most of those questions. Rax has been waiting his whole life for the Empire to fall, not in anticipation, but to fulfill a purpose engrained in everything he grew to be. Rax went from a scavenger on Jakku to one of the top Imperial officers. In Empire’s End, Rax comes across as a much more hands-on officer, and by the end of the book, the reader realizes how far he is willing to go to fulfill a destiny handed to him as a child. Yes, we learn a lot more about Gallius Rax, but with that said, there is still plenty of room to fill in the blanks down the road if the Lucasfilm Story Group chooses.
Grand Admiral Rae Sloane is, in my opinion, the star of Empire’s End. Sloane shows that she is willing to do anything to get back her command in the Empire. As self-serving as that goal sounds, there is a noble selflessness in Sloane’s pursuit to get back to the top of the mountain. Yes, the Empire is a hideous, totalitarian government that has kept it’s thumb on the galaxy for much longer than it ever should have, and I’m not denying that. Yet, Sloane shows the humanity that often gets lost in the portrayal of the behemoth that is the Empire. Sloane does not want power for the sake of having power and controlling those below her. My impression is that she sees herself as some sort of steward to the Imperial remnants. Wendig’s portrayal of Sloane is so well written that often times I had to remind myself that what she really wants is a pretty terrible thing; but it goes to show, that adversarial empathy is something that was rare to find in the Star Wars Universe, and I’m glad it’s showing up. Rae Sloane is a great example of the nuance and complexity that exists in the conflict between good and evil.
By the conclusion of Empire’s End, I felt I understood why the First Order was a more sinister and unhinged version of the Empire. I kept recalling a moment in the Marvel Poe Dameron comic, where Captain Phasma resents the First Order being compared to the Empire. The ones who come after the Empire are taught by those who survive Empire’s End, and you will see why the events in this book leave a lasting impression on those who will help usher in the era of the First Order.
The Wexley family is again caught in precarious positions on both fronts of this final conflict between the Empire and the New Republic. Norra continues her matriarchal role of the Wexley family. By Empire’s End, it should be pretty obvious to the reader Norra is afraid of nothing and will do whatever it takes. In Life Debt, Norra was dealt a devastating loss, which she attributes solely to Rae Sloane. Norra seeks retribution in Empire’s End, and like Rae, she frequently demonstrates her selflessness while caught up in what could be interpreted as a selfish impulse for revenge. Norra maintains through some incredibly rough patches of the story, all while trying to protect her son, Temmin, and trying to reconcile that her husband, Brentin, could be lost to the Empire. While Norra pursues Rae Sloane, she manages to be the hero the New Republic needs in the galaxy’s convoluted state. Norra is fearless in every danger Empire’s End throws at her, and her courage is only rivaled by her maternal instinct to protect her family, especially her son. The Wexley family is once again put through hell in this concluding novel, but you’ll see Norra backs down from nothing.
Another character I walked away from Empire’s End feeling I had a better understanding of was Mon Mothma. Mon Mothma embodies a graceful strength that many in the New Republic do not see. The New Republic is not only in it’s infancy during the Aftermath trilogy, but it is being tested by the last remnant of the Empire. As the galaxy waits and watches, the consequences and responsibilities fall into the lap of Mon Mothma. I came away from Empire’s End with a new respect for the leader. Her role in this is similar to what we saw in Rogue One, navigating a military conflict while trying to weave through politics and bureaucracy.
In the same respect as understanding how the First Order would be shaped from the demise of the Empire, I feel I better understand why the Resistance exists apart from the New Republic during the events of The Force Awakens. Between Empire’s End and Claudia Gray’s Bloodline, the New Republic is portrayed as a very fragile entity. There seems to be this fine line of caution underlying every move it’s mechanisms make. Everyone is afraid of repeating the trap of creating a vast military that gave way to the Imperial war machine post Clone Wars, but they also don’t know the best way to address the threat of the Empire. Politics are a crippling factor to any threat the New Republic faces, so it’s understandable why someone like Leia Organa would decide it’s necessary to step outside that arena. That’s a dangerous precedent set, but Leia’s perspective as a survivor of Alderaan makes it clear she is unwilling to wait for action.
Leia’s role in Empire’s End is also a complicated one. The dilemma of having to go rogue to get things done is not like the decisive move to create the Resistance. Leia wants to give Mon Mothma some breathing room, or plausible deniability, so Leia gives commands in the shadows while Mon Mothma deals with the political arena. From the first time Leia blasted a hole in the cell block corridor of the first Death Star, we’ve learned she is never someone to sit idly by while others try to cautiously approach a problem. There is nothing irrational about Leia’s need for immediate action. She is often put in the most difficult positions of having to make heavy decisions in Empire’s End. Alderaan’s demise still shapes the urgency of Leia’s decisions, as I can’t help but think the mantra “never again” must swirl in her mind each time a decision presents itself. That mantra, coupled with the fact she is about to bring a child into the galaxy. There is nothing more urgent than a parent wanting to make the best life for their child.
Han Solo is also coming to terms with the fact he’s about to become a parent. Han does his best to reconcile his freedom and his loyalty not only to Leia, but to the New Republic. He’s faced with a similar dilemma about what he can do to help those who need it, but also knowing that his decision to act unilaterally in Life Debt helped shape the current political climate of Empire’s End. Han is always compelled to do good, no matter what casual exterior he portrays. Han’s abilities have been a bedrock for other characters who face existential and spiritual crises. He is strong and loyal to his friends and those he knows are doing good, and will stand by them no matter what. We see Han juggle the role of hero, husband, and father, while trying to do his best to help those in need.
There are many more characters and stories packed into Empire’s End. As I said here, there will be no spoilers in this review, but I will say that I expect the Cantina discussions to be quite active in the days following the Empire’s End release due to what’s included in the “Interlude” portions of the book. There are familiar characters, continuations, and implications that will certainly be the basis of some serious fan discussions (as well as debates). Between the Aftermath and Shattered Empire stories, fans have been given a pretty clear framework of how the Empire was defeated and the New Republic was able to form; but, there is still plenty of room to fill in the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. My guess is we will have to wait until either after the premiere of The Last Jedi, or the conclusion of the Sequel Trilogy, for a lot of those stories. While on the surface that may seem frustrating, I really think it will be worth the wait. I got the feeling Chuck Wendig knows a great deal more than we fans do and that he held back in certain spots of the Aftermath story. I can’t wait to see what he and other writers do once they are free to tell everything that happened.
My hat’s off to Chuck Wendig for undertaking a very big and difficult task like this. It can’t be easy trying to write a compelling story with such high expectations as we Star Wars fans gave him, as well as the constraints of plot points I’m sure the Lucasfilm Story Group were firm on. In the relatively short amount of time these novels were released in, it’s impressive that Wendig not only wrote a damn good trilogy, but did it while under the pressure of what must have been some pretty brutal publication deadlines. I hope this is not the last Star Wars project Chuck Wendig undertakes, as I feel his writing is a solid contribution to the ever expanding Star Wars canon.
If you have been holding off on reading the Aftermath trilogy, I recommend you give in and treat yourself to these novels. Empire’s End was not only a fun read, it was a breeze to get through. The only reason it took me a few days to read it was because my time was limited. Empire’s End is such a fun read that I imagine most fans would burn through it in a day or two, especially if they had a couple afternoons free to kick back and get lost in the pages. Sure, there are still plenty of questions that beg for answers, but with the conclusion of this trilogy, we certainly know which ones to ask.
4 out of 5 Star Destroyers