To hear Mark Hamill and Johnny Carson banter about it on The Tonight Show in 1977, the magic ingredient of the original Star Wars movie was the utterTo hear Mark Hamill and Johnny Carson banter about it on The Tonight Show in 1977, the magic ingredient of the original Star Wars movie was the utter black and white of its morality. Good versus evil. Light versus dark. A swashbuckling morality play with no gray area. In the late 70s, coming out of the Vietnam War, such clarity in the guise of sci-fi fantasy must have felt blissful.
Yet when Lando Calrissian attempts to play the Rebellion and the Empire off each other in The Empire Strikes Back, the morality of Star Wars heads into a murky area. Though Lando ultimately picks a side, a torch of moral uncertainty passes to and from Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker as they strive to convert each other to their respective sides—both claiming to have the galaxy’s best interests in mind. Most recently, Disney and Lucasfilm’s Rogue One revels in moral ambiguity.
Everything I’ve said above applies to Aftermath: Empire’s End, the final installment in Chuck Wendig’s trilogy of novels bridging the storylines of Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Like the makers of Rogue One, Wendig dramatizes moral uncertainty with zeal. His characters grapple with the close resemblance of justice and revenge. The begged question is quite fair. Why do we forgive aggressive and violent political tactics used by the Republic that we condemn when used by the Empire?
The ensemble of Empire’s End features a bounty hunter, an ex-imperial loyalty officer, and an X-Wing pilot who finds herself fighting the remnants of the Empire off the books. In tow are her technologically precocious son and his likably lethal battle droid Mister Bones. Just as Han, Luke, Leia, and Chewbacca found themselves swept up in the political intrigue surrounding the first Death Star, this newer ensemble finds themselves inexorably drawn to the planet Jakku. There an epic battle plays out over the last roughly 100 pages of the book. The resulting wreckage serves as the backdrop for early scenes of The Force Awakens.
Wendig’s ensemble seems utterly beset with nuanced ethical quandaries. We know they’ll win the battle (not a spoiler; it’s in the title folks). But we don’t know if they’ll come out of it with their consciences intact. All the while the novel’s broad strokes paint a picture of a New Republic which could easily become a new Empire, albeit driven by good intentions.
One of the best moments for me comes as two minor characters converse about the nature of the Force. One lets slip a notion that, “…maybe there is no dark side.” This idea doesn’t become the thrust of Empire’s End, but it underscores the murky nature of the post-Lucas Star Wars universe.
Wendig also does a great job developing the character of Sinjir, who struggles to come to terms with his Imperial past. Notable as one of Star Wars’ first openly gay characters, Sinjir also scores the novel’s main romantic subplot. This may be a deal breaker for some fans. However, I felt Wendig entertainingly drew out the same universal sexual tension George Lucas relied on to fire up Han and Leia’s adventure in the original trilogy.
This may be the last Star Wars novel I read. I admire how Wendig avoids enslaving his cast of characters to the film canon. He lets Sinjir and the gang have their own adventures. Of arguably greater value, he strikes a tone that is both thoughtful and playful. Still, there are too many books I want to read for me to invest too much time watching the Star Wars machine feverishly spin new plot threads, only to tie them obsessively back into the original storyline for the cheap thrill of it. Folks, take it from an old-school fan, it’ll never be more amazing than the first time we heard Darth Vader say, “No, I am your father.” It just won’t. Does that make me a bad fan? A good fan just needing a break? Or a fair-weather fan somewhere in between?
I recommend Empire’s End to those who read and enjoyed the previous two Star Wars: Aftermath books. For everyone else, I recommend the first Aftermath novel....more
“And then, as if by miracle—or by the Force or whatever bizarre cosmic authority governs the weave and weft of the galaxy…”
To a Star Wars fan there ou“And then, as if by miracle—or by the Force or whatever bizarre cosmic authority governs the weave and weft of the galaxy…”
To a Star Wars fan there ought to be no question what or whom governs the galaxy. It must be the Force, or perhaps those who use it. Yet Chuck Wendig, author of “Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt”, lets float some skepticism through his third-person narration. Critical to note though, the narrator’s quote above closely follows the cunning mindset of Sinjir, an ex-officer of the evil Galactic Empire.
Sinjir, who also appeared in the first Aftermath novel, teams with a small ensemble of good guys. Their struggle takes place directly following the events of “Episode 6: Return of the Jedi.” Sinjir and the gang hunt down enemies of the New Republic like so many Nazi war criminals on the run. And as the plot escalates, Sinjir feels as if he is contending with the very galaxy itself.
When I cracked open my copy of “Life Debt,” I gave myself a supplementary reading exercise (cuz I’m an English Major and reading for enjoyment just ain’t enough). My plan was to track references that illuminate what the galaxy means to Star Wars characters. As a space enthusiast and NASA geek, I often ruminate on what our real-life galaxy means to humanity. By comparison, what does the Star Wars galaxy mean to its heroes and villains? Like me, do they find the cosmos romantic?
Not especially. For Star Wars characters, space is largely just a means to an end. For Imperial officers scrambling to retain power, for rebels founding a New Republic, for exotic lifeforms whatever their persuasion, and certainly for droids slaving away, spacefaring holds all the charm of an Earth-bound freeway commute.
Star Wars characters seem disinclined to exhibit Carl Sagan sentimentality of the Pale Blue Dot kind. I’ll quash a possible exception right off. Think back to Luke Skywalker gazing longingly at the twin sunset on Tatooine in “Episode 4: A New Hope.” He isn’t marveling at the astronomical glory of the nearby stars. Rather, Luke desires to fly beyond them in a quest for human glory as an Academy cadet.
Getting back to “Life Debt,” Wendig’s characters do see metaphorical value in the galaxy. In addition to all the cosmic star stuff—planets, stars, and nebulae—the term galaxy refers to collective culture with its ships, governments, and warring factions. Star Wars characters are more than just occupants of the galaxy; they are the galaxy.
Sinjir provides a vivid example. Over the course of “Life Debt,” he and his teammates find themselves caught up in Han Solo’s quest to free Kashyyyk, Chewbacca’s home world. Learning of yet another violent outbreak, Sinjir finds himself acutely depressed. But does he blame Imperial forces for his disillusionment? No. Guess who he blames.
“Disappointment that the galaxy confirmed for him its worst self.”
Sinjir’s disappointment overturns a sense of hope Wendig proffered earlier in the novel through a bounty hunter named Jas. She joined the New Republic because of its winning potential: “Even still, she tells herself that she’s here because right now, the New Republic is the winning side. They don’t have the whole galaxy pinned down and buttoned up all nice and neat yet, no, but the stars are drifting in that direction.”
Is the galaxy a utility or an antagonist? It seems to depend on who is speaking and how things are going for them. The galaxy contains, perhaps even determines, individual and collective fate. Characters like Sinjir and Jas fret over what the galaxy holds in store for them. When the galaxy shakes and falls into disarray, Star Wars characters take it oh so personally. How dare you, galaxy! For me, it called to mind the disenchantment with which folks today utter the slang phrase “Mericuh” instead of America.
I’ve been anxious for “Life Debt’s” release, so I set out to race ecstatically through it. However, I kept needing to put it down and take a break. To be clear, the novel’s sometimes tiring effect stemmed from something other than literary weakness. Note my 4-star rating. Rather, the novel hits quite close to home. Wendig’s galaxy, in principle and theme, is not far, far way. Especially in its Interludes—chapters that function as stand-alone short stories—“Life Debt” reflects reality. In the love, fear, anger, and violence of Wendig’s prose, I see types from our non-fictional world.
To the extent that “Life Debt” mirrors real life, it falls short of escapism. Perhaps this is why I found the novel less fun than I’d hoped. Nevertheless, I enjoyed witnessing the deepening bond of characters like Sinjir and Jas as they followed in Han Solo’s footsteps. Like “Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back,” “Life Debt” showcases tightly woven ensemble action. And like that classic film, “Life Debt” contains plenty of swashbuckling fun and humorous banter. Just don’t expect pure popcorn fare. In a candid and often intense way, Wendig manages to keep this fantastical galaxy substantive....more
It feels like a spoiler to say that Herman Koch's The Dinner is a psychological thriller. It starts out as conventional family drama. Its destinationIt feels like a spoiler to say that Herman Koch's The Dinner is a psychological thriller. It starts out as conventional family drama. Its destination in the land of thriller, about halfway through the story, felt like the book's big twist. Surprise, this is not a domestic melodrama; it is something far darker and more dangerous! Yet, since the first third of this novel was so damn tedious and unlikable in its culinary context, I'll risk the sin of spoiling. This novel becomes a psychological thriller. Get ready to be shocked.
From start to finish, The Dinner is well written (and translated). Yet it relies on one of the cheapest and easiest tools for suspense. We are told almost immediately by the first-person narrator that there is a secret. Well of course I'm going to keep reading then. Throughout the novel, the narrator hints at more tactical secrets, secrets he is keeping first and foremost from us the readers. Little choice but to read on.
What saves the novel from being cheap and easy is increasing depth of character. Add to that the temptation to change sympathies as new revelations take place. All of this feeds on the increasingly irresistible need to know how this dangerous situation will turn out. Again, I feel I am spoiling The Dinner just a little by saying that. I wisely opted not to read the dust jacket flap material beforehand. I went into the novel almost completely cold. This allowed me the maximum amount of surprise as the story unfolded.
I have said almost nothing about the plot. All you need to know is in the title. It's about a dinner. The less you know the better. Suffice it to say that by the end there will probably be things you wished you did not know. Notwithstanding being weirded out, you might proclaim as I did on Twitter, "Great novel."...more
Paul S. Kemp’s Lords of the Sith does more than provide bridgework between the movie plots of Stars Wars Episodes III and IV. It also a bridges theirPaul S. Kemp’s Lords of the Sith does more than provide bridgework between the movie plots of Stars Wars Episodes III and IV. It also a bridges their disparate storytelling styles. In this novel, the stately bureaucratic world of Episode III provides a framework which is quickly torn asunder--quite entertainingly--by the Wild West outer rim of Episode IV. This book comes as close to being the Star Wars novel I’ve hoped for since the now long ago and far away Heir to the Empire Trilogy by Timothy Zahn.
In Lords of the Sith, we encounter an early attempt at a rebellion against the Empire. We follow a younger, more acrobatic Darth Vader. He flanks a quite nimble Emperor Palpatine eager to take his eerie needling personality on the road. They head for Ryloth, a planet key to Galactic Trade...no, no, don’t tune me out. This novel is no trudging prequel mired in trade negotiations. We get just enough political background to justify Vader and the Emperor taking a Star Destroyer to Ryloth to quell insurrection. Almost immediately, battle breaks out and does not stop until the novel ends.
As for the nascent rebel band scheming on Ryloth, I did not find any of them especially memorable. Isval, a hot-blooded second in command is easily the most interesting. She reminds me of a younger, impetuous Luke Skywalker, though without being a brat. The cast is not especially large, which serves the novel well. We get to know a few people, spend appropriate amounts of time witnessing their internal monologues, before embarking on the next action sequence.
As stories go, Lords of the Sith owes more to Episodes IV through VI than the prequels. It’s a relatively lean ensemble piece. There is even a bit of romance, similar to what we see between Leia and Han in The Empire Strikes Back. Isval and the rebel leader Cham struggle to keep their feverish attraction at bay while chasing Vader and the Emperor to the surface of Ryloth. Most of this novel sees Vader and Palpatine on the run, but eager to make tactical stands and show off their Sith abilities. Making them, and their loyal soldiers, the novel’s prey, creates occasional odd moments of worrying about their safety.
This is an exciting novel. It does not obsess with tying every tiny string of subplot together from the movies it fits between. The plot is simple, the characters interesting if conventional. Perhaps its greatest weakness, in my mind at least, is its relative lack of humor or charm. Everyone is very serious and broodingly aware of their place in the galaxy. The novel is exciting, but it lacks the character-driven charm of Episodes IV and V. Yet, this is something I feel all Star Wars novels I’ve read lack. Capturing that charm may be impossible, given it was created by an ensemble of talent, not solely by George Lucas. So I suppose the next best thing is a really good chase across the deep of space to an exotic world tailor-made for adventure. Lords of the Sith is precisely that. ...more
There is something every Star Wars novel I have ever read lacked, all the way back to Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilSeeking a Particular Charm
There is something every Star Wars novel I have ever read lacked, all the way back to Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy (which I liked). They have all lacked that particular charm the original trilogy bore like a fingerprint. This unique charm was achieved by a particular ensemble of actors, writers, designers, and directors who collaborated to generate a trilogy which could only have been made, and only have succeeded so remarkably, in the particular cultural period that birthed it--late 70s/early 80s. That particular charm has never, and I predict will never, be repeated again—at least not in any way that could be termed pure.
The only hope then for new Star Wars tales is to find their own particular charm. Enter author Chuck Wendig and his novel Aftermath--a sequel to Episode 6: Return of the Jedi and prequel to the upcoming Episode 7: The Force Awakens. (Did anyone else miss how sleepy the Force was getting toward the end of Jedi?)
Chuck Wendig comes to Star Wars novelizing with a worthy resume. According to his dust jacket bio, he has labored in the realms of novels, screenplays, and game design. On the dedicatory page, he cites The Empire Strikes Back as the first Star Wars movie he ever saw (at a drive-in no less). The question becomes will fans enjoy his particular storytelling style and narrative choices. Happily for me at least, the answer is yes.
A New Trilogy Looks Back While Plowing Forward
Wendig crafts a story about a new ragtag band of Rebels, including one defected Empire agent, each of whom fought in the Battle of Endor or were directly affected by it. They come together in much the same chaotic fashion as Luke et al. did in Episode 4: A New Hope. We quickly realize they have intriguing personal backstories, but the author doesn’t let his action-driven plot become mired in exposition. As the original trilogy taught many of us, including Wendig, if you postpone exposition long enough, it comes out as revelation!
The title Aftermath perfectly characterizes the premise of Wendig’s novel. Just as Zahn discovered in his post-Jedi trilogy (in a now separate and thoroughly alternate canon), a post-Jedi galaxy proves unavoidably messy, troubled, and well…less charming. In the wake of any major battle, even a victory, there is aftermath. There are orphans. There are widows. There are refugees. And there is the tedious restructuring of government to be done.
In a clever choice, Wendig explores this post-Vader/Palpatine galaxy through brief Interludes. Functionally separate chapters, though not part of the central plot, the Interludes portray a range of characters coping with the fallout caused by the Battle of Endor. At their best, these Interludes force happily-ever-after seeking fans to reckon with the significant costs of civil war, however justified it may have seemed.
These interludes are also likely teasers for future Star Wars novels to be written by Wendig and others. They will grow from the root structure of Disney’s coming Episodes 7-9 (along with stand-alone films also in development). Yet a little while and new Star Wars films will arrive with all of the cultural impact of a new Marvel superhero flick…which is to say with dutiful fanfare that feels all too routine.
Wendig the Tinkerer
If Wendig’s narrative architecture emulates that of the original trilogy, his prose style is a spicy jambalaya of ingredients from whatever has worked in novel writing at one time or another. Some of his writing reminds me of the elegant grittiness of Hemingway’s short stories—simple, lean renderings of evocative physical detail. Elsewhere, especially in dialogue, Wendig bleeds lyricism via strings of similes. Some of this speechifying worked for me; some of it felt belabored. But it never stopped being entertaining.
Another key ingredient, sometimes jarring, is Wendig’s use of contemporary slang. The novel is written in urgent, sometimes taxing, third-person present tense. Some of it reads with all the charm of scripted stage directions (methinks this may not be a coincidence). Yet Wendig offsets this dry choice with playful language.
As happens so often in real world speech, an otherwise complete thought is given the needless tag of “so.” Annoying, but that’s how we tend to converse these days, so. In another case, we are treated to this sentence, “Because...gross.” This is not the grammar we learned in school, but it works because...vernacular! My favorite of these slips into contemporary slang comes on page 215 as one character is described as, “nothing but funny ideas, so oops, sorry, too late.”
Here is the kicker. All of the examples I just cited come from the third-person narrator, NOT from character dialogue. This is Wendig’s voice.
The Fate of Canons
At times I felt I was reading not chapters, but a series of Tumblr posts. From whence comes such Millennial (and I don’t mean the Falcon) sassy speechifying? As the author states upfront in his Acknowledgments: “Thanks, in fact, to all of Twitter because without social media, I don’t think I would have ever gotten to write this book.” Will we one day see a Star Wars opening crawl that includes emoticons? Will the next victor in a light saber duel cry out, “Awesomesauce!”
Part of me says, please no. There was something pure about the original trilogy, something that needs to be protected. Another part of me says, why not? We are now three mediocre prequels and dozens of novels and animated specials of varying merit removed from anything that could be termed classic. If Disney’s reign should prove ignominious, another corporation can always buy up the rights and begin yet another licensed canon.
As with the original trilogy, there is much in Aftermath one can choose to be cynical about. One might find they simply don’t like the flavor of Wendig’s storytelling. Yet to me it somehow works quite well. Wendig establishes a compelling ensemble of characters, sympathetic and torn by inner-conflict. For entertainment’s sake, he runs them through a gauntlet of action and suspense-driven chapters. This is a new Star Wars iteration which recycles the best devices of the past and outfits them with a new particular style. If you are hoping for anything else, or anything better, your best bet is just to re-watch whichever movie you loved the most....more