Life Debt – Jonathan’s Review
Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig is the sequel to his first Star Wars novel, Aftermath, which kicked off the new era of post-Return of the Jedi content last year. Life Debt picks up where the last book left off, with its motley collection of characters forming a team and hunting down high-value Imperial targets for the New Republic. Meanwhile, Rae Sloane, now a Grand Admiral, continues trying to consolidate power in a fractured Empire.
It doesn’t take long to realize Life Debt is a much broader and more open story than Aftermath was. The biggest reason for this is the fact that the first book came out before the release of The Force Awakens. The movie itself was shrouded in secrecy to maintain some surprises and its general freshness so it wasn’t surprising that the first book was more intimate than many thought it would be. The first book was also necessary to introduce a cast of new characters so a lot of the book was devoted to setup. With the movie released and the characters established, the gloves are off in Life Debt and it’s a better book for it. Wendig made the most of what he had to work with in Aftermath and he does the same in Life Debt. It’s just that he had much more to work with this time around. The political maneuvers are more intricate and wide-reaching, so the plot feels denser and more impactful than before. Everything in the main plot–no matter how trivial–matters to the future of the New Republic and the Empire.
The characters also benefit from the setup that the first book provided. The same characters that were featured in Aftermath make their return in Life Debt but there is more time devoted to them interacting with each other this time around. I really liked the group before and that doesn’t change here. The team dynamic really helps the characters pop.
Sinjir Rath Velus remains my favorite character of the bunch and it will be hard to unseat him at this point. In a book full of shadow governments, assassination attempts, and the horrors of slavery, his particular brand of humor is welcome and necessary. His character arc, in conjunction with the relationships he maintains, is one of the most fun Star Wars book experiences I’ve had in years. His friendship with Jas Emari is especially good and oddly heartwarming.
Speaking of Jas Emari, hers was a character that didn’t do much for me in Aftermath. She wasn’t bad, but nothing really stood out and she faded into the story as she was outshined by the other characters. Her characters turns around completely for me in this book. I haven’t counted, but it felt like she has more page time this time around and that certainly plays some role in connecting with her more. Still, she really comes into her own as a character and a lot of that credit goes to Sinjir. Their interactions are the best in the book.
The only character that doesn’t click for me is Jom Barell. He didn’t make much of an impact in Aftermath to the point of almost being an afterthought. It is much the same in Life Debt, though he at the very least is featured more. His interactions with Jas are fairly amusing but there isn’t much past that. Still, I can’t complain much with the diverse and complex cast of characters Wendig has put together.
Life Debt also makes heavier use of characters from the movies. I’m glad that Wendig waited to utilize established characters more in this book for two reasons. First, it was necessary for the main group of characters to stand on their own in the first book so that we were able to get to know them better. And second, Aftermath was a much tighter narrative and their presence wasn’t as necessary. Politics take center stage in this book so it makes sense to have characters like Mon Mothma and Leia Organa play a more prominent role. A word of warning, however: though the book is named Life Debt and the cover features the Millennium Falcon, this book is not primarily about Han Solo and Chewbacca. Yes, they are in the book. Yes, the play an important part in the plot, but the story is not theirs alone. This actually makes the book better in my opinion, but I know some fans may have the wrong idea.
The interlude chapters are another thing carried over from the first book. These short chapters serve to tell bits of story happening outside of the main plot. Some are related closely to the story and some are seemingly unrelated. I was a big fan of these in Aftermath because they helped set up the state of the galaxy. They serve much the same purpose in Life Debt but they don’t work quite as well for me here. The plot is more intricate in this book, so the interludes feel like distractions most of the time. This is especially true in the latter stages of the book which are otherwise fast paced. The best interlude chapters take place at the beginning of the book (especially my favorite one about a cool pirate with an equally cool ship). That being said, I would like to see the interludes return for Empire’s End but maybe front-loaded a bit more so as to not distract from the story when it picks up.
I’ve spent the entire review talking about characters on the side of the New Republic (or at least New Republic adjacent) but the real strength of this book lies on the Imperial side of the conflict. At the end of Aftermath, we see Admiral Sloane meeting with a mysterious fleet admiral. There has been a lot of speculation on the identity of this admiral and we finally learn his/her identity in this book. At least, the identity he/she claims. This fleet admiral, although technically subordinate to Sloane’s rank of grand admiral, is in control. He/she is manipulative, scheming, and seems to have roots throughout the galaxy. His/her presence presents a danger both to the New Republic and to Sloane herself. The fleet admiral’s scheming gives us the chance to see multiple factions of the Empire and sheds more light on the downfall of the Empire and, likely, the rise of the First Order. This is the part I’m most excited to see play out in the last book, Empire’s End.
Overall, Life Debt is a wonderful book, fun from start to finish and never a dull moment. It is both a better individual story and has more overall impact than its predecessor, a book I also loved. All of my complaints about this book are minor quibbles and that’s really how it goes with excellent stories. When there is not much to criticize, we can only pick on minor details. I don’t like ranking things, especially when there are a large number in one category, but I will say this: Life Debt is one of the top Star Wars books out there and it stands out in an increasingly excellent top end.
Would I recommend this book to somebody new to Star Wars books? Along with the first book, absolutely. These two books are an excellent way to get into Star Wars literature. And unlike the old staples of the Legends timeline, there’s something here for everyone.
Would I recommend this book to fans of Star Wars books? Absolutely. I know a lot of fans who weren’t fans of the first book that fell in love with this one. Fans of the Legends timeline should like this book as well as it carries the weight and galactic consequence of something like the Thrawn trilogy. I implore fans who didn’t like Aftermath to give this one a shot. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.