The era of lock down secrecy during the preceding years before the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, left many wondering if any information would ever make it’s way out outside the major films. The comics, novels and companion books that were part of the Journey To The Force Awakens, left us concerned that the literary vehicle to deliver new insight into our saga would be running on empty. Novels like Tarkin, Lost Stars and Aftermath, although great, revealed very little about the major characters and story present in the new chapters of our saga. They established some backstory of the demise and chaos of the fall of the Empire but little else. This year however, things have begun to change, as novel’s start to fill in the gaps and present wonderful rich backstories about our new trilogy. Claudia Gray’s marvelous novel, Star Wars: Bloodline was the first out of the gate, presenting us with an incredible prologue to the events in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I am ecstatic to write today that with the second installment of Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars Aftermath “Life Debt”, this new information continues on and in a big way.
Star Wars: Aftermath “Life Debt” is a work that flows and paces like an orchestra being conducted by Led Zeppelin. It draws you in and floats you through subtle moments, abrupt crashes and leaves your brain meat bloody and bruised through action sequences. It’s melodic at times which warms your heart and makes you relate to the chaotic feelings of our characters like that harmonica in Kashmir. Loud, lost, echo-ey and gritty. It’s intrigue will make you raise the book closer to your eyeballs and saturate your mind in a venom of Star Wars bliss. Once again Chuck Wendig brings the fun back into Star Wars.
You can really break this novel into two major parts and a few minor ones. The first is a great look behind the scenes of how the Imperial Remnant lay out the plans that will inevitably create The First Order. The second part is the search for Han Solo by our Heroes and the Liberation of the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk. We will delve deep into spoiler territory in this review and skip some others. But be fair warned, written below there be Dragons.
Right off the bat, in the first scene of this story we are introduced to a hugely important character in the new Star Wars saga. His name is Galli and he’s a pale skinned, black haired orphan who is chasing the contrails of ship preparing to land on his inhospitable world of Jakku. This scene takes place thirty years before the events in Star Wars Aftermath “Life Debt” and it’s implications are immeasurable to our saga.
He decides to abandon his chore of scrubbing solar panel arrays and runs till his muscles almost give out to witness an Imperial shuttle land on the dusty Plaintive Hand plateau. A ancient holy site of the Consecrated Ermite of Jakku. There he witnessed Adviser Tashu, exit the shuttle and lead a half dozen droids in marking a large area that will soon be excavated. A seemingly important archaeological dig of great importance.The droids immediately begin the work as Adviser Tashu begins to leave, but not before young Galli, looking for a better life, stows away aboard the departing shuttle.
The importance of this moment is only realized until you get to the final pages in the book which completes this scene. This is rather unorthodox but I am quite literally jumping ahead to the very last pages of the book here. Because to understand who Galli is, you must understand not only where and when he comes from, but who he meets on that Imperial shuttle. Stowed away in the cargo hold like a skittermouse between containers, he is found and asked to come face the true person in charge of that ship. A shuttle by the name of Imperialis, which almost leaves the hot landscape of Jakku, until it realizes it has a stowaway. The man in charge, draped in black is none other than The Emperor himself. In a moment that is truly sincere, soft and kind in that Palpatine way, he gives this young stowaway a choice, either to die or to conduct a task that will lead him to greater things. A true “purpose” for his life. Galli of course accepts the task presented before him and he stays behind to protect this new dig site on Jakku by the order of Emperor Palpatine. An excavation site that will assuredly have a great importance in the next installment of the Aftermath series “Empire’s End”. Here we witness in the very first and last pages that Jakku, is once again the crucible of importance to our saga. With Rey and now Galli coming from the seemingly unimportant wasteland of Jakku.
Now that you got a glimpse of the beginning and the very end of this novel, it’s time we delve into the meat which is the middle. It’s not long into the book where we are introduced once again the mysterious Fleet Admiral on the Super Star Destroyer Ravager. Here this pale being alongside Fleet Admiral Rae Sloane is architecting the delicate and intricate web that will be the foundations of The First Order. His deliberate ongoing machinations to whittle down the Empire to a sharp blade is compounded in “Life Debt”, when he once again delivers vital information as an informant to the New Republic. Information that leaves Remnant Admirals dead and Star Destroyers blown to bits. This mysterious Fleet Admiral, who is now named in “Life Debt”, is none other than Fleet Admiral Gallius Rax.
Gallius Rax is a mystery to Admiral Rae Sloane, who begins to lose trust in her leader behind the curtain. Rae is now the face of the Empire and the one publicly shown as it new leader. A face and little else, as she feels her power and reach slipping. A concern that quickly goes from simmer to boil as she decides to delve deep into Rax’s past to find answers. Little is known of Fleet Admiral Gallius Rax, he is a specter with little to no information about his past. He appeared on a Naval roster twenty years ago at an unusually high rank of Commander and immediately signed up for the Naval Intelligence Agency. He worked at the rank of Commander yet sent all his reports directly to Emperor Palpatine, bypassing his superiors. Many of those reports gathered by Sloane have been redacted with little to nothing to go on. Rae Sloane was able to make out that his work predominantly dealt with the Outer Rim territories and that’s about it.Gallius Rax is a being with no past, but plenty of power, medals and authority in the Empire. He is an enigma, not present on any databases or catalogs of any kind. The kind of archetype character that works for a secret division of some intelligence service, that saves the world countless times, gets the medals and no one ever knows what you did or who you are. Gallius Rax is that character. A person who just happens to be in charge of everything, yet no one knows who he is, but for a rare few. Her search for answers inevitably puts her at extreme risk with her Boss but she is determined to stop him. Rae believes his plan and execution of an Imperial resurgence is uncharacteristically not the Empire she knows and loves. She inevitably wants him dead to assume control and run the Empire the way she sees fit.
This is compounded when Fleet Admiral Gallius Rax informs her of his plan to keep her as the Face of the Empire while a new Shadow Council, made up of elite decision makers, will run things behind the scenes. She will be the face and voice of the Empire but little else, except one more person seated in this hidden council. The first person to be selected for this new Shadow Council is none other that Brendol Hux, the famed Commandant of the Imperial Academy on Arkanis and father to Admiral Armitage Hux, played by Domhnall Gleeson in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. “Armitage is a weak-willed boy. Thin as a slip of paper and just as useless” as mentioned by his Father, but alas, has great potential. Armitage is a circumstance of his Father and some kitchen woman and not his of Wife Maratelle. Just like Jon Snow, he’s a Bastard. Bastard or not, Rax instructs Admiral Sloane to do whatever is necessary to get Brendol and his boy out alive from the planet Arkanis, which is under siege by the New Republic.
Outside of the continuous culling of the Imperial Remnant we witness from Gallius, we get a new glimpse into his foundational plan for The First Order. He needs the specialization of Commandant Hux to train his New Order. More than that, he deliberately tells Sloane, that the Empire needs children. Lots of them. In order to win the future they will need souls to to fill the roles of the First Order in the coming decades. Gallius Rax’s plans are long, detailed and complex. From the construction of new weapons and an army, to the politically hamstringing of systems and securitization of money, he is no doubt Supreme Leader Snoke. Not in a million years would I ever believe that Star Wars: Aftermath “Life Debt” would contain the backstory for Supreme Leader Snoke, but it does. They never confirm it of course but the person described in these pages could not possibly be any other person. From his cool, calculating and big ego, sits a being that could never or would never bow to anyone else in this time and place of the Star Wars saga. His decisions and deliberate machinations here and now, a few years after the Battle of Endor solidify that this mysterious Fleet Admiral is Supreme Leader Snoke, or at the very least the precursor to him. Perhaps just like Anakin befell to Lord Vader, Gallius Rax will become Supreme Leader Snoke. There is no room here for someone to just walk in and take the mantle. He is the architect, he is the master puppeteer. The one who is ready to fill the shoes of his former Master.
Within Life Debt we witness his direct tie to Lord Sidious, when Rae Sloane discovers an old photo while digging for information in the Halls of Imperial Registers in Corruscant. She comes up empty, except for an old photo of the shuttle Imperialis at an Imperial Docking Bay. In this old picture lies Wullf Yularen, Dodd Rancit, Terrinald Screed, plus three others: Grand Vizier Mas Amedda, Emperor Palpatine and a boy. A boy on the cusp of being a young man. His hair is dark and his skin pale with a marking or tattoo on his hand. A boy she suspects to be Gallius Rax and which is confirmed in a surprise confrontation with Mas Amedda in his office at night in Corruscant. The stowaway boy from Jakku, all those long years ago, who has been under the wing of the Emperor and elite of the Empire, the perfect successor to start The First Order .
It is so refreshing to see Lucasfilm make use of the new novels to fill in backstory and give depth to the characters in the film. I love the movies, we all do, but filling in the gaps with a novel and great writer makes for a more complete Star Wars experience. There is more to the devilish schemes of Rax and Sloane in Star Wars: Aftermath “Life Debt”, which includes a coordinated attack at the heart of the New Republic and the repositioning of Rax’s Imperial assets on Jakku. All of which I encourage you to read and enjoy for yourselves.
Now onto our heroes, who after reading “Life Debt”, are nearer and dearer to my heart an order of magnitude more than they were in Star Wars: Aftermath. Norra, Sinjr, Temmin, Jas, Jom and Mister Bones are like the crew of the Ghost in Star Wars Rebels, only infinitely cooler. This squad and their backgrounds lend to an amazing story telling experience that is downright hilarious, serious and engaging. They are simply great fun and we catch up with them in their new job of catching wanted Imperial prey. Just like Nazi hunters in our own world, they scour the Galaxy bringing former war criminals to justice for the New Republic. This incredible band, made up of all the archetypes you would want in a rag tag group. The former Imperial interrogator, the bounty hunter, the straight and narrow mother hen, the techy kid and his side kick psychopathic killing droid. For Star Wars: Aftermath “Life Debt” they are sent on a precarious and off the books mission to find Han Solo. The former General in the New Republic who has turned in his Commission and gone AWOL, to liberate the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk. A desperate move that ends up in betrayal and gets his favorite co-pilot and friend taken by the Empire. Han is miserable and more importantly angry in manner never seen before. He is rocked to the core at the capture of Chewbacca. Han during a communication with Leia falls into trouble and the call goes dark. Leia hoping for his quick return to the holo message struggles and worries when it does not come. Leia now fears something has happened to Han and asks the crew of the Halo to find him.
With some cunning detective work and myriad of sources, the group led by Norra Wexley find Han Solo or better yet, Han finds them. Working together this ragtag group find the prison Chewbacca is being held and work to set him free. This scene is conducted at a fantastic pace with really great and colorful imagery. The fight against the prison and its droid defenders is one that I wish was on the big screen, as Mister Bones and the group inevitably win the day. With the massive Droid protection system our heroes battle it out in the halls and rooms of this ancient ship turned prison. They free not only themselves and Chewie, but scores of Rebellion soldiers and leaders imprisoned in a nightmarish stasis for years. A freed group that is eventually brought back to Chandrilla by Norra and her Son in the Millennium Falcon for medical attention and recuperation. A group that will be honored with massive celebration and parades in the coming weeks.
Han, the rest of the Halo crew, along with Chewie and some Wookie survivors continue on their quest to liberate Kashyyyk. Han simply won’t come home because he feels he owes it to Chewie to help him get his home back. Han insists he cannot be ready to start his own family without Chewie being able do the same, and so this novel gets it’s name, Life Debt. If I said that Kashyyyk has been turned into a nightmarish hell, I would only only be scraping the surface. The planet and the punishment leveled on the Wookies is downright stomach turning. Chuck Wendig describes the Empire on Kashyyyk in a more dark and gruesome way, that I have ever thought possible in the Star Wars Galaxy. The planet of Kashyyyk, now run by an Imperial Remnant who has been on it’s own for a long, long time is run by Lozen Tolruck, Grand Moff of Kashyyyk. There is no way to say it, the evil of this man reminds me of Amon Leopold Geoth, the Nazi Commandant of the Plaszow camp from the hell of World War 2. You would remember him played by Ralph Fiennes in the Oscar winning film Schindler’s List. This Devil hunts Wookies for pleasure and treats them worse than animals. A meticulous train schedule and production sort of evil who contemplates the possible merging of Wookies and other animals, to improve the taste of their flesh, so it could be sold and consumed for profit. The Wookies of Kashyyyk are imprisoned by a chip in their heads that would hurt, maim and kill them if they were to step out of line. A chip controlled by the Satan of Kashyyyk, Tolruck. They are the workforce of the Empire, slaving their existence away in hard labor and absolute horror. A terror that is consistent as a production line, with Lozen instituting a massive breeding program which produced thousands of Wookies into bondage. The crew of the Halo under the leadership of Han Solo liberate the planet of Kashyyyk and take the fight in a cunning way to Lozen Tolruck. Even in his outright defeat Tolruck instructs the three Star Destroyers in the atmosphere above Kashyyyk to lay waste, in a scorched Earth process that would make Stalingrad look like a kitchen remodel. A move that leaves our heroes empty and hopeless as their plan to liberate Kashyyyk will end in the murder of millions. Until of course they are saved from a pregnant Princess who will have none of it. With the help from Leia and the New Republic, our heroes win Kashyyyk back for the Wookies.
There are few Interludes in Star Wars: Aftermath “Life Debt” , short and sweet that lay the groundwork for what we may read in Star Wars Aftermath “Empire’s End”. We see the arrest of a young Vader Acolyte, stealing a red lightsaber from the basement of a police station, to Cobb Vanth in Boba Fett’s armor saving Malakili from his depression laden walk across the sands of Tatooine from gangsters thugs. His defeated demeanor is of course at the demise of his beloved Rancoor, Pateesa. The large Rancor killed by Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.
Star Wars: Aftermath “Life Debt” is a wonderful read that gives us readers what we have been craving for, insight and backstory for the new chapters in our saga. In such a deliberate and confident manner, Chuck Wendig lays it out for us in a way that is just plain fun. serious and thought provoking. At the end of the book when Han says goodbye to Chewie, there is an incredible feeling of boyhood warmth that surrounds you. Maybe it’s was the searing fever and cancerous cold that I was suffering through while reading that emotional moment, but it sure felt like Star Wars on Christmas morning. The investment and concern for our heroes of the Halo are real and long lasting. I laughed out loud with them and I sincerely worried about them. More so than in Aftermath, these characters are very near and dear to my heart. They come alive in “Life Debt” in a surprising way. Maybe it’s because, this is our second round together or just maybe Chuck tweaked and got the right personality with all of them. The intrigue for the relationship between Gallius and Palpatine is addicting and always wanting. Here at long last lies the merge point that this saga is built on. How evil endures and becomes resurgent.
The intricate web for our new saga has been architected by Chuck Wendig in “Life Debt” to great detailed effect and should be required reading for all Star Wars fans. Where Claudia Gray gave us the gorgeous machinations of politics and the turmoil of Leia, Chuck Wendig gives us the framework and execution of the war plan and it’s master puppeteer. Star Wars: Aftermath “Life Debt” has found it’s place at the top of all the new canon works. Simply, outstandingly great Star Wars.
Great artwork of Emperor Palpatine can be found by the brilliant artist LivioRamondelli on Deviant Art.