Aftermath: Empire’s End – Jonathan’s Review
Aftermath: Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig is the latest and final book in the Aftermath trilogy. It picks up right where Life Debt left off. The Empire has gathered at the backwater planet of Jakku under the guidance of Gallius Rax. Grand Admiral Sloane is now an outcast from the Empire but our crew of heroes is still tracking her down. There is political turmoil in the nascent New Republic after the attacks on Liberation Day. The galaxy is ready for the end of a long civil war.
There are plenty of open ends coming into Empire’s End. Even though this is the longest book of the trilogy at 423 pages, it seemed a tall order for Wendig to successfully wrap up the threads laid out in the middle chapter. But Wendig utilizes all 423 of those pages to their fullest, delivering a tight, focused story that doesn’t let off the throttle the entire way. This book was difficult to put down. Without work getting in the way, I may not have.
One of the ways Wendig accomplishes this is with his writing style. If you’re reading this review, you’ve probably read the first two books and most likely have formed an opinion about the third person present style he uses. Empire’s End is the best example of that style. There is some absolutely beautiful prose in this book. The naval battle above Jakku in particular was very well written and immensely engaging as was a particular scene with Sinjir. The biggest strength of the present tense is that it places you in the moment. Everything is happening right then and there. It’s not a recounting of past events. It’s not a history book. Wendig’s own personal style is very staccato. Many of the sentences are short and sharp. Placed with longer sentences, they create a driving rhythm to the prose. It’s almost musical in nature and it’s an excellent way to pull the reader along.
The only thing that broke the rhythm of the book were the interlude chapters. I wrote about this in my Life Debt review and I feel the same way about the interludes in Empire’s End. They were hit or miss for me and sometimes felt like distractions from the rest of the book. Although, I will say that sometimes it was nice to have a breather between the fast-paced chapters of the main plot. Some of the interludes I enjoyed very much, including the return of Eleodie and the Technicolor Dream Cape. The way that interlude ended leaves the door open for an original story featuring my new favorite pirate. The interludes on Christophsis and with the Acolytes of the Beyond were also interesting given their apparent connection to the recent movies.
But the real meat of the book involves the characters we’ve been following for the past two books and none stand out more than Sinjir Rath Velus. Sinjir has been my favorite character for the entire trilogy and he doesn’t disappoint in Empire’s End. His character arc from disgraced, drunken Imperial to somewhat respectable (and drunken) member of the New Republic is satisfying. This book really highlights his growth as a member of society and the relationships he forms. There is one scene in particular where Sinjir, well let’s just say he demonstrates that he is capable of forming strong bonds with people. He cares in a very Sinjir way. It’s one of my favorite moments in the book.
Norra Wexley also shines in this book. She is a woman on a mission, driven by her desire for revenge (or is it justice) over the Liberation Day attacks. She is driven past the point of logic in her desire to hunt down Rae Sloane and is unaware the former grand admiral had nothing to do with the attack. The small, but vital bit of information provides for some great character moments late in the book.
Rae Sloane, like Norra, is driven by revenge. She wants to take down Rax and, rightly so, take back her Empire. Sloane is my favorite Imperial and that doesn’t change in Empire’s End. Her desire to rule doesn’t come from a place of selfishness or malice like Palpatine, Vader, or Rax. She, right or wrong, is a true believer in the order and efficiency the Empire can bring to the galaxy and correctly identifies those who would abuse it. She is a compelling villain, or just antagonist, because her motivations are completely realistic. She is doing what she thinks is best for the galaxy and she won’t let anything get in her way.
Gallius Rax, however, is not doing what is best for the galaxy. He has another agenda. I can’t say much in this review about him but the way his plan unfolds is an excellent experience. It sheds light on both the Empire of old and the First Order that we see in The Force Awakens. Do yourself a favor and stay away from spoilers if you can because the plan is revealed slowly, piece by piece, which makes the end that much more satisfying.
Other than the original characters, I liked that there wasn’t a huge focus on the movie characters. A little bit of Leia, a little bit of Han, a sprinkling of Lando. A little bit goes a long way. Leaning too heavily on established movie characters was one of the downfalls of the old Legends books. In fact, the movie character with the largest part was Mon Mothma, recovering physically and politically from the attack in Life Debt. I’ve been wanting to see more of her every since Rogue One came out and Wendig delivers in this book. Her maneuvers to reestablish herself politically give insight not just to the politics of the early New Republic but also to how she must have led an underdog rebellion.
As the last book of the trilogy, Empire’s End seeks to wrap up the story started in the original Aftermath and it does that nicely. But people coming into this book thinking they will learn all the secrets of the galaxy may disappointed. Because while the book does provide a fairly tidy end to a galaxy-wide conflict, it ultimately asks more questions than it answers. The very end of the book alone opens up dozens of new story directions. This is the greatest accomplishment of Wendig in my eyes: being able to craft a large political plot while staying focused on the core characters. The book tells us how the Empire ends, sure, but more importantly it tells us a great story about an unlikely group of heroes and friends.
Which brings me to some final thoughts about the Aftermath trilogy overall.
Normally, I end my reviews with a section where I ask whether I would recommend the book to new fans and long time fans of Star Wars books. The answer is yes to the entire trilogy and I have recommended these books many times. But now that the trilogy is over, I wanted to ask myself another question: Do I consider the Aftermath trilogy good because it is full of facts about the Galaxy Far Far Away or because the story stand on its own merits?
I ask the question because as somebody that likes worldbuilding, I’m often guilty of reading fiction to learn “facts” about the universe that story takes place in. I like big, connected universes. I like in-universe facts and consistency. I like, even though I hate the word sometimes, canon. It’s why I was able to dive into the old Legends universe as a kid and it’s why you’ll often find me excited about ship types or planet names or some other irrelevant fact. I like worlds that have history. This essential Star Wars lived-in feel is something that Aftermath does very well, but worldbuilding doesn’t make a story by itself. Facts don’t make a story by themselves. So if you remove these random facts, if you take away the Expanded Universe references, and the interludes, and boil it down to the core characters and plot, is this a good story?
Yes. Yes it is.
And as I said above, it’s a good story because of the characters in it. Ultimately, the overall plot is a history lesson. It’s something that happened to get us to the state of the galaxy we see in The Force Awakens. It fills in some gaps. And this story could have been told many different ways. At the most basic level, the overall plot, it could have been a short blurb on StarWars.com. But the narrative is compelling because while the plot is happening, people are living. It has three dimensional characters with varied motivations trying to make their own path through a chaotic galaxy swirling around them. The trilogy tells the events of the fall of the Empire, yes, but the story is Sinjir Rath Velus. The story is Norra Wexley. The story is Rae Sloane. The story is the characters and the characters are some of the best Star Wars has to offer.
So do yourself a favor and go read these books.