The last part of Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy concluded the story of Norra Wexley, Rae Sloane and others.
While the first book’s epilogue left us with the expectations for a big epic, the second ended with a nice cliffhanger and did a good job of putting the readers on the edge of their seats in waiting for the finale. That finale, however, spiraled down faster than a Star Destroyer shot down over Jakku.
Had To Finish… What They Started
My general impression of the third book is that starts in a bit slower manner, but with the feeling that something is happening and this is only the necessary introduction. That part is good and actually some of the first chapters positively fueled me with anticipation. Sadly, somewhere one-third through the book the story gets mired up in uninteresting nothingness, and stays that way almost until the last scene.
Let me make one thing clear in the beginning. Obviously, the problem with stories that are supposed to fill space between one episode and the next – and that has been the problem also with the old canon books – cannot, by default, bring any great revelations that would completely change the perspective of the movies, or that would be, by themselves, more epic than the movies are.
And that is already a problem. When faced with the task of writing about the fall of the Empire, I can imagine Chuck Wending had several options. One was to write about random civil wars on planets X, Y and Z against pockets of remaining Imperial resistance which nobody would really care about. Another option was to bring a story of his own, with an original plot and new characters, all of which would sadly have to get out of the picture in the end because they aren’t in the movies. This was what he did and continued doing well until the last book. I don’t know if there was suddenly a command from Disney or Lucasfilm that forced him to stick to some guidelines, or whether he had simply bitten more than he could chew and throughout the last book realised that it had gotten out of proportion.
Whatever the case, yes, Empire’s End tells us how did the Empire end (convincingly), what happened to Norra Wexley and her husband (one of the very unsurprising and somewhat disappointing conclusions), how did Snap Wexley end up being a pilot (I still think the droid-builder Snap is a completely different character from the pilot in The Force Awakens), what happened between Gallius Rax and Rae Sloane (decent, but also nothing ground-breaking), how comes the last battle took place over Jakku and what was it that the Emperor had been hiding there (the most disappointing thing of all), and how did the First Order come to be (again. The more I read, the more I am getting confused as to what the First Order actually means. It feels like Lucasfilm gave ten different writers the task to write about the beginning of the First Order, and each of them wrote their own piece while knowing nothing about the others. I mean, what is the purpose of a unified canon, if not to avoid this?).
Unnecessary Deaths, Pointless Violence
One of the things I praised about the first Aftermath book was the lack of unrealistic situations and relative lack of terrible clichés, such as fake character deaths. Looks like in the last volume, Chuck Wendig simply pulled the plug and all such restraint went down the drain.
There are fake deaths here, but probably because this is the end, there are some actual deaths as well. I don’t personally believe in the need to “kill off” characters just because this is the end. But if so, it should serve some plot point, or at least there should be some build-up towards it. What Chuck Wendig does is to kill off several characters absolutely pointlessly. It isn’t even the George R. R. Martin-esque way of somebody dying for the shock value. One character is first “fake-killed”, then shown not to have died, only to die randomly a couple of chapters later. Another character dies off-screen. And another dies just because it is an easy way to resolve a subplot.
Aftermath is a “post-war” story and you are supposed to get the feeling from it that war is terrible and pointless. But even “pointless” character deaths should make sense in the story. On top of that we could argue whether “pointless” has its place in Star Wars. I know: Star Wars canon is diverse and I am not saying there isn’t space in it for more “realistic” stories. There is definitely space for sad stories, but in my opinion, much less so for “nihilistic” stories. That, sadly, Empire’s End seems to be. And what I believe there certainly is not room for is excessive, unnecessary graphic violence.
Now this isn’t any more about the story, but about the way it’s written. And let me repeat: I have been really happy with Chuck Wendig’s writing in the first two books. And I understand that we got into a dark place in the third book. When Frodo and Sam get into Mordor, it also starts to look ugly. But you can make the place look ugly and still make it with good taste!
What happens in this book is that there are descriptions of several dozen soldiers being massacred with a vibroblade, or the description of somebody’s face being sliced in half. Star Wars has always had a “failsafe” against gruesome violence in the fact that blasters and lightsabers are “clean” ways of killing people. I don’t believe there is space in Star Wars for such things Chuck Wendig has shown us in this one.
Jar Jar As He Should Have Been
The best part of Empire’s End – just as of the whole trilogy, in retrospect – are the tiny interludes from different planets which show us the state of the Galaxy after the war. Many of those are brought to satisfying conclusion in Empire’s End. Two deserve a special mention and would be worth reading even without the context.
One of them is a short story of a war orphan nobody wants, who meets up with old, shunned Jar Jar Binks whom also nobody wants. The story is also quite “meta”, because not only does it reflect the feelings of the Galaxy’s inhabitants about Jar Jar, but Chuck Wendig was clearly deliberately drawing on the Jar Jar hate among the fandom. I commend him for the courage to actually write about Jar Jar, and writing it well. Most writers would not touch Jar Jar with a long stick. This one little chapter from Naboo presents the gungan realistically, both faithful to his ridiculous portrayal in the movies and writing him as a character who might actually exist. And it is great.
The other – and even better – is a short piece about Lando Calrissian returning to the Cloud City after Imperial occupation. That one chapter is 500% better than the rest of the book put together. Lando is believable, the scene is realistic, and Lando’s discussion about presents for Han and Leia’s unborn son is just fabulous. I am actually very, very curious (and very, very, very much hopeful) whether this chapter might contain a bit of foreshadowing for the newest trilogy.
The Bitter End
Final verdict? Two great interlude chapters, one epic scene in the end, a decent beginning, lots of fake deaths, heroes running back and forth through the middle of nowhere, absolutely unnecessary excessive violence, at least two unnecessary deaths and one lazy one. Convincing explanation of Palpatine’s secret plan, but disappointing because the setup seemed to build up to something much more epic.
Honestly – big part of the problem here is, I believe, running into the limitations set up by the films. You can’t write a story with too epic plot because your story can’t be more important on the Galactic scale than the film plot. Nevertheless, there are ways around it – like putting the focus of the story on something else – and I had thought Chuck Wending managed to do it. Empire’s End, sadly, showed that he didn’t. Given how fresh the trilogy started, it’s quite a bit of disappointment to have to conclude it like this.