We’re so excited to write about Life Debt that we’re doing so on our phone, since we’re currently away from our computer for a couple weeks. Oh and fair warning, there will be spoilers after the cut – we won’t spoil the end or plot beats, but we will discuss characters.
RAE SLOANE was always going to be the subject of this piece — she’s far and away my favorite character of the new canon. I’m not the only one – she’s very popular with fans: Megan Crouse and Catrina Dennis have both written great pieces about her recently. Her popularity extends to the authors, as Chuck Wendig, Greg Weisman, and Jason Fry have all used a character originally scribed by John Jackson Miller in their stories. It’s been an organic thing – we don’t think there was any pre-planned intention to make her the central recurring character of the new canon, a character some compare to the old EU’s Pellaeon (we tend to think she’s far more interesting, but we disliked Pellaeon even back in the EU days). She’s had a full character arc as a result of her multiple appearances, and here she is at the apogee of her career: a Grand Admiral of the Galactic Empire. While she started as an interesting Imperial character, she essentially represents the Empire now.
Before reading Life Debt, our idea for this piece was to compare SLOANE’s position in the Empire (and the arc that led her there) with Pellaeon’s. The comparisons the Aftermath epilogue caused folks to make between those characters and the mysterious admirals who commanded them made it seem like a good idea, and they do share some general plot beats. While we’ll still talk about that a bit, the novel made us realize it’s more interesting to compare SLOANE with Leia – both as characters as well as visionaries towards a new galactic order.
Both Leia and SLOANE came to their own conclusions after Endor. Aftermath opened with Leia’s speech to the galaxy – a speech announcing a new era and ushering in the New Republic. SLOANE realized during the battle itself that the Empire must adapt, change if it was to recover from that debacle – “Levers of Power” and Aftermath neatly show the development of that thinking. Both Leia and SLOANE have interesting relationships with mentor figures – Mon Mothma and the mysterious fleet admiral respectively – and those relationships are reflected in the plans they have for the galaxy.
If Aftermath was a space opera romp in a backwater region of the Outer Rim, Life Debt is a story with significantly higher stakes. Grand Admiral RAE SLOANE and Princess (and General) Leia Organa represent two different visions of a new galaxy. We see them struggle to convince others of the rightness of their ideas, just as they struggle with the opposing side in the war. They’re both very compelling – as characters and as representatives of an ideal. It’s little wonder these characters are my favorite film and new canon characters respectively. For the rest of this discussion, let’s start getting into the plot… Spoilers from here out.
Two sides of the same coin
SLOANE herself makes the observation that she and Leia are, in effect, counterparts on each side of the war. They are the symbols of the Empire and New Republic, even as Gallius Rax and Mon Mothma exercise the actual reins of power (Grand Vizier Mas Amedda is the de jure Imperial regent, but he’s essentially a figurehead – and it’s utterly delightful that the novel takes the time to explore the intricacies of the Imperial ruling apparatus. I appreciate it, but also digress). They’re more than symbols though — they’re idealists. They’re both fighters, driven to support a cause and unwilling to suffer fools or those who discredit their side. There’s a Right Way to do things. They are mirrors in terms of loyalties and upbringing: Leia’s privilege led her to fight the Empire while SLOANE’s hard upbringing led her to value the Empire. They’re both contrary to stereotype in that sense, which is why they both stand out.
Let’s start with Leia Organa, as she came first and she was our original favorite Star Wars character. From her very first appearance in the Star Wars saga, she was the idealist and the one most committed to the Cause. The old EU took that as a commitment to duty and emphasized Leia’s skills as a diplomat. The new canon Leia is just as driven, but she’s a fighter through and through. She has Anakin’s passion, tempered by Bail’s righteousness. As the New Republic discovers what kind of government it will be, Leia stands as a symbol of hope – but she’s more than that. She’s an active voice in what that future itself should be. She quite ardently believes that the New Republic needs to be heroic, that the hope it represents is a tangible thing and not just talk.
RAE SLOANE is just as passionate. She’s a true believer in the Empire, but not in the fanatical way that a Yupe Tashu or a Verge worships Palpatine and not in the blind fascistic way that an ISB thug or COMPNOR zealot might. For SLOANE, the Empire is not an end, but a means: a means to a better galaxy. She truly believes that – and not in an abstract, hypothetical way. No, for SLOANE the Empire is a concrete, measurable good. It brought order and peace to her homeworld Ganthel. Now the Empire’s order is lost, and SLOANE realizes it’s because the Empire itself went awry. She deplores the slavery and cruelty of the Imperial past – she rejects it. The Empire represents the common good, and can only be that as long as it is good. The individualism of the New Republic is an anarchistic threat, SLOANE believes, and yet the Empire made it happen by driving people away and by putting ambition and self interest above good governance. The result? Civil war caused by both the New Republic and those ambitious and cruel splinter Imperials.
Leia and SLOANE have much in common. They’re symbols of a different way. SLOANE even admits great admiration for Leia – she single-handedly changed the galaxy by fighting for her beliefs. They both passionately argue for their points of view across the HoloNet. They’re also different – and not just in their overall goals of freedom versus order or liberty versus good governance. Leia was one of the Rebellion’s earliest heroes, while SLOANE was at the margins of the Empire. But even that’s a similarity: both worked hard to get where they are now. Circumstances changed for the rebel princess and the temporary captain. Now look at them! One can’t help but be proud. They really are the symbols of the best parts of the side they fight for.
Mentors to a point
SLOANE’s mentor, the mysterious fleet admiral, is identified as Gallius Rax, a character who isn’t Thrawn or even really a cypher for Thrawn. We always thought his first appearance made that clear, but if it didn’t: this novel did that he’s no Thrawn stand-in. Still, he shares some superficial traits with the Thrawn of the EU, with a dash of Isard and a pinch of the Emperor Reborn for good measure. Leia’s mentor is Mon Mothma – and she’s as Mon Mothma as she ever was. Both Rax and Mothma are the actual leaders of their respective governments even while SLOANE and Leia are symbols (and in Mothma’s case, she’s the legal leader too). Both have ideas for the future that are a little more pragmatic, a little more end-oriented: and yet they have their flights of fancy too. And both have ideas of the future that their best students strongly disagree with. It’s fascinating that these opposing pairs are so different and so alike.
So. Rax – who is he? In truth, we don’t know much. He’s a true wunderkind, brought into the Empire from a young age. His close association with Palpatine, career in the Rim, and his position outside the normal chain of command will remind folks of Thrawn, as will his passion for opera (though he got that from Palpatine, unlike Thrawn’s personally developed taste in art). His backstory is a catalogue of references – from stowing away on the Emperor’s yacht Imperialis (from the recent Lando comics!) to the greatest of his many medals, the Emperor’s Will (a very, very appreciated reference to the game TIE Fighter; the Emperor’s Will is my own icon on this site).
So he looks and feels like Thrawn in a certain light. But he’s not Thrawn, and SLOANE is not Pellaeon. See, Thrawn embodied a new, honorable Empire that inspires Pellaeon. Rax, on the other hand, has a ruthless and vicious idea of power that causes SLOANE discomfort at best and disgust or outrage at worse. Rax likens his tactics to opera and people to players. He hides information. He fights dirty. This isn’t SLOANE’s Empire – this isn’t how she believes the galaxy should be won, or run for that matter. She detests the games, she abhors dishonorable tactics. She wants to show the Empire’s might – and let’s suffer no illusions, she fully believes in peace through threats and force. But she wants it out and in the open. The Empire’s majesty is good for the galaxy. Rax is different – he does slash and burn, but he hides his ideas and his goals.
Tellingly, Rax holds Coruscant in no particular esteem. In fact, he despises it. For SLOANE, Coruscant is a symbol – of Imperial unity and of government. It’s bureaucracy, and that keeps the galaxy running. She appreciates the constitutional figurehead, Mas Amedda, and his ability to administer the Empire. Rax sees it as dead weight – or worse, impure and corrupt. He wants to hone the Empire, purify it, baptize it by fire. He wants to cut the dead weight. SLOANE represents the ideal Imperial, while Rax looks like he’s building the embryonic First Order. I hate the First Order as much as I love SLOANE, so I suppose I hate Rax.
Whoops — we’ve spent quite a bit of time on Rax and SLOANE. We tend to do that – as well as lapse into the singular on occasion. So, what about Mothma? Well, she’s an odd one. She wants peace, disarmament – sounds almost too idealistic, doesn’t it? But where she and Leia butt heads is Mothma’s pragmatism. She sees the New Republic as a practical, working government. Yes, it was ushered in through heroism and has this beautiful story of individualism – but Mothma is practical. A great, peaceful, free republic of individuals means compromise. A republic means politics and process.
While Rax is becoming unmoored from even the semblance of Imperial civility, Mothma is constraining the old free-flow of the Rebellion. There are many problems to be solved, things to be done – but regular government means rules. Consent. Mothma doesn’t love being hemmed in, but she loves doing things the right way. Leia burns for justice – she just wants things done. Neither are necessarily wrong. Mothma’s method is democratic and collaborative but also means concessions. Compromises. She’d make peace with the Empire if she could. Would Leia? She’d stand by if politics wouldn’t allow a course of action, believing that to be the greater good.
There’s not a split between Leia and Mothma, not really. They trust each other, unlike the Imperials. They merely differ in their methods. They’re still friends and still believe in saving people and establishing a just Republic full of hope and light.
Someone has to lose
I started off saying Leia was like SLOANE, but to a certain extent Mothma and SLOANE believe in the right means while Rax and Leia believe in the right ends. But in the end, one will win out. Mothma will get her idea of the Republic. SLOANE and Rax, whichever way things turn out, both lose the war. But maybe in the end Leia and Rax were both winners, knowing what we do about the Resistance and the Republic.
Chuck Wendig did a fantastic job with Life Debt. The first book in this series was a fun adventure that introduced excellent characters (all of whom are developed and are so much more fun in this volume, even if we didn’t so much as mention them) and I’ll always be thankful he decided on his own accord to give SLOANE such a big role. But it’s this second book that takes things on another level. Not merely in the scope of action (though it’s nice to be out of the TFA spoiler box) or the use of much more EU and SW lore overall, but in the level of character and ideas. And it’s not just the characters we’ve discussed – Sinjir, Bones, Jas, and the Wexleys are all fantastic in this book.
Empire’s End can’t come soon enough – though we fear what it might bring. We – I – hope not to be heartbroken.