Star Wars: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig – Spoiler Free Review
|Book Name:||Life Debt|
|Publisher(s):||Del Rey (US) Century (UK)|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Audiobook / Ebook|
|Genre(s):||Fantasy / Science Fiction|
|Release Date:||July 12, 2016|
The second volume in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy—filling in some of the timeline between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens—Life Debt differs from its predecessor in tone, scope and style. Life Debt is a widescreen, traditional Star Wars tale set smack in the eye of the storm raging in a galaxy far, far away. I’ve written about Aftermath before, and I think that while some of the stylistic choices could be off-putting, I found it to be an excellent series that was a worthy “grand opening” of the new EU.
Life Debt is not Aftermath. Life Debt surpasses Aftermath in every way.
The online hate heaped upon Aftermath—and Wendig personally—was disappointing, unjustified and not entirely unexpected. Star Wars fans (myself included) don’t deal well with change. Disney’s scuttling of the prior EU left Wendig in an unenviable position. He was cast as Sammy Hagar to Tim Zahn’s David Lee Roth. But the eruption that ensued was unwarranted. Star Wars fans quick to jump all over Wendig—particularly the fans that made the short-sighted choice to abandon Aftermath altogether—missed out on what was clearly the opening salvo in a major offensive. The Star Wars EU is all new, all different but still amazing and Wendig and Aftermath are a major part of that.
Life Debt finds the main characters of Aftermath in the employ of the New Republic. Mother/son duo Norra and Temmin Wexley, bounty hunter Jas Emari and the acerbically charming former Imperial officer Sinjir Rath Velus have been pegged to hunt down and retrieve Imperial war criminals that have dispersed across the galaxy. They are soon drawn into a not-entirely-sanctioned operation to find and rescue Han Solo—at the personal request of Leia Organa. As is wont to happen in the Star Wars universe, what begins as a relatively simple search-and-rescue operation escalates into a conflict with the fate of a planet—and perhaps the entire fragile New Republic—at stake.
Meanwhile, the remnants of the Empire have begun to solidify under the rule of Admiral Rae Sloan—and her shadowy benefactor Gallius Rex. Rex is a cipher and enigma and is quickly revealed to be the one truly pulling the strings. Sloan’s search for answers regarding Rex parallels the search for Han Solo and, as expected, the two plots mesh nicely together by the end of the book. Wendig uses Sloan’s search to give the reader a peak into what life is like in Imperial space post-Endor, and the view is ugly.
Han Solo, Leia, Wedge Antilles, Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar are prominent characters in Life Debt. Solo’s desire to liberate the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyk drives the story and gives it its name. This is not a Star Wars tale with familiar characters making cameo appearances. This is canon. This is the proverbial “what happens next,” and it all meshes together beautifully with The Force Awakens. I can’t help but wonder what the reception would have been had Aftermath been similarly presented. Life Debt benefits from being released in a post-TFA world, whereas Aftermath was handcuffed in an effort not to spoil the movie.
Wendig’s gift is being able to seamlessly weave subtle and sometimes-heartbreaking character work in with galaxy-spanning action and adventure. The characters he created for Aftermath were rich, complex and flawed. In Life Debt, those characters grow and evolve in ways that are instantly relatable and feel remarkably true. While they aren’t all human, they are all imbued with a humanity that is instantly recognizable and utterly familiar to anyone with a pulse. While all of Wendig’s characters have emotional arcs, Sinjir and the Wexleys deserve special mention.
Sinjir, in particular, shines in Life Debt. Of all the characters introduced by Wendig (and remember, this includes a homicidal battle droid named Mr. Bones), Sinjir is the one I’d most like to see on screen. He offers moments of levity and despair in equal measure, and his internal struggle is far more interesting than any external conflict in which he finds himself. I find the outcry over his homosexuality disappointing. It is just one facet of this rich, complex character and while it is a subtle part of his arc in Life Debt, it isn’t ignored. In fact, it adds a level of depth and texture to an arc that could easily have been formulaic. Sinjir may very well be Wendig’s Thrawn.
It isn’t a perfect book. As with any Star Wars novel, things get a bit tropey and predictable at times, and there was no real sense of peril for a large portion of the book. So much care and effort went into certain stories that others perhaps didn’t get the attention they deserved. Jas Emari’s arc, in particular, was rather rote. I don’t really fault the book or Wendig for it, though. A little predictability here and there didn’t detract from my enjoyment.
Without spoiling any of the reveals…there are reveals. Some large, some small. Life Debt has direct connections to all of the Star Wars movies, as well as The Clone Wars, Rebels and several other “New EU” novels. There is a ton of meat on this particular bone. Much as the interlude chapters in Aftermath set up Life Debt, it seems clear that stakes will be even higher when Empire’s End completes the trilogy in 2017. So for those Star Wars fans critical of Aftermath for allegedly not explaining anything, rest easy knowing that answers come fast and furious in Life Debt.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the shift in writing style that has occurred between Aftermath and Life Debt. The idiosyncratic voice that dominated Aftermath is notably absent from Life Debt. Whether Wendig made the choice himself or The Mouse made him do it, I think it was a smart move. Life Debt is far more accessible and I think the prose serves the story. Aftermath was a Chuck Wendig book set in the Star Wars universe. Life Debt is a Star Wars tale written by Chuck Wendig. I can’t imagine how difficult and daunting it must have been to take this project on in the first place, but to see Wendig’s willingness to adapt his style to the larger story took even more courage, and Life Debt is better for it.
Life Debt clears the high bar set by Aftermath with room to spare. It has something for every flavor of Star Wars fan, and the love and respect Wendig has for Lucas’s universe is palpable. Life Debt is visceral, action-packed and fortified by character work that is as human, complex and nuanced as anything in the old EU—Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy included. Life Debt is essential reading for any Star Wars fan post Episode VII.