(This is not a spoiler-free review.)
At last, post-ROTJ content. At last, we’re back in a time in the Star Wars galaxy that I’ve so missed and been so eager to return to.
I can see twelve-year-old Rocky, at the local public library, grabbing Heir to the Empire off the revolving book rack, reading a few pages, and then that night diving into the book and getting thoroughly hooked. I can remember how it felt to be back in a galaxy at war, one where the nascent New Republic had a chance but not a definite one, where the Empire was something of a wounded animal but still a dangerous one, where we didn’t know much about the parameters of the universe we were in, where every new character and plot twist was met with delight. Where I couldn’t wait for the next chapter.
I’m back to that again. What do you mean, I’ll be waiting a year for part two? I need to know who the Fleet Admiral is. I want to know so much more about our heroes’ backstories. I want a Mister Bones toy. I want more of this particular era and writing style, something I haven’t really expected to see since I was last twelve and in the library, looking for books that had been published years ago.
Aftermath is different. The writing style is unusual for Star Wars, so much more casual than I expected. The flow of the present tense actually fits very well, letting the story tell itself, in a way. Rhetorical devices aside, I got about one chapter in before knowing that I was back where I belonged in Star Wars. What’s strangest to me is being back in a time in galactic history that I’ve almost forgotten about; it’s been years since we’ve been in the immediate post-ROTJ timeframe. I’m so used to being what, thirty to forty years ahead of this? It’s easy to forget just what the political situation of the galaxy is, and how difficult of a task the New Republic is facing. The Empire is still powerful and present, and it would be far too easy for one powerful party in the Empire to pull enough forces together to deal with the New Republic. It’s clear that the court of public opinion has chosen in favor of the New Republic on many a planet, but it isn’t an easy fight. Reminding us just how precarious the New Republic’s foothold is, and the enormous task of turning a small group of insurgents into a functional government, is never neglected. The sense of urgency, the idea that even small acts by one small Rebel cell may have far-reaching fallout, is maintained quite well. We get a quick and clear picture of where the galaxy is following the Battle of Endor.
We’re in the middle of a galaxy in chaos. The Empire has fallen; the Emperor and Darth Vader are dead, and it’s clear that the Empire is fighting to make this not a well-known fact. However, the Rebel Alliance has spread the information as far around as they can, and there have clearly been enough dissidents that the galaxy as a whole knows what has happened. And the Empire is in such a difficult political position with this- there is no clear person to take the throne and be the Emperor now, but all of the feuding politicians and military officers aren’t going to come to agreement on who should be in charge. We’ve seen this before, and I know I commented as I was reading that I half-expected Daala to show up, kill the feuding warlords, and walk away with Sloane to take over the Empire together. The very fact that I can feel the influences of Legends while this book maintains its own separate circumstances post-Endor, is a good sign. This is the universe we know and love, and there are so many stories to tell in it.
Rae Sloane has grown all the more as a character since we last saw her. She is now an Admiral, and unlike some of the other Imperial officers we used to know, she actually seems to be competent. She’s very clearly the Imperial everyman, the one who we can sympathize and identify with. This is a vital part of Star Wars storytelling- humanizing the villains and making them as compelling characters as are our heroes are. For that matter, all of the Imperials are well-constructed characters; some are cowards, some power-hungry petty tyrants, some genuinely interested in the ongoing well-being of the Empire. Fleshed-out villains with motivation are an excellent seed for the rest of the trilogy, and just the presence of the fleet admiral is a good sign that the continuation will be good. Remember how long it took in the Thrawn trilogy before our heroes actually knew Thrawn’s name? Maintaining the mystery and slowly discovering all the relevant information makes for good storytelling. And I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure if Sloane was bluffing when she mentioned “there is another,” and at first I laughed at the use of the line. By now, I’m intrigued that there are more powerful Imperials out there. What exactly is the political situation of the Empire? We have just enough information to be very interested and to sit around on the internet and speculate.
Ensemble casts are another thing that Star Wars has always required. Right now, we have a great one on both the heroes’ and the villains’ side. Each of the characters has some backstory and more to them than we anticipated, and I suspect we’re nowhere near done learning about everyone. Each plot twist that brought up more backstory was absolutely perfect, including many instances where I paused reading and just went “what? is that real?” and re-read the sentence a few times again, letting it sink in. The flow of the story is something I haven’t seen in a good long while, and it feels so much like some of the old Bantam-era books.
Let’s also talk about diversity. Recently, I was thinking about some of the things I loved the most about the New Jedi Order, and one of those things was diversity. There were lots of women and plenty of characters who were nonwhite or could be read that way. Of course, in the earliest 2000’s, including a non-straight character would have been difficult at best, but we later did see a bit of that in Legacy of the Force. And now, we’re in a universe that is diverse. It looks real. I didn’t keep a precise count, but there are about even numbers of male and female characters. There are non-straight characters, and best of all, the plot doesn’t revolve around their sexuality. Norra’s sister Esmelle is married to a woman, and no one thinks it’s unusual at all. We find out, in a small aside, that Sinjir is gay. It’s handled as being normal.
I’ve raved on Twitter and Tumblr about the feeling of being twelve again. So much of Aftermath is like coming home again to a fandom that I keep walking away from. I’ve been on semi-hiatus from Star Wars for a while now; I’m just a dedicated post-ROTJ fan. And now I’m back, thanks to reading a book that reminds me of why I fell in love with this universe in the first place. This book feels to me like a sort of spiritual successor to the books that first made me fall in love with Star Wars- the adventure, intrigue, the flow of the story, strong ensemble casts where every character had something to add.
Present tense is unusual, but it helps the story flow. We know the basic framework of where we are in the timeline, but it’s been fleshed out, and we’ve likely met a lot of characters who are going to show up again. The feel of early Bantam-era is so present- we’re in a huge galaxy with so much unknown, and the writer’s world-building responsibility is vital. Chuck Wendig is doing a great job of that world-building, as well as giving us an impression of a galaxy at war, in turmoil, trying to figure out where it’s going. The New Republic is facing a nigh insurmountable challenge, to form a democratic government after the last one spectacularly imploded. As is the Empire, for that matter; they are trying to hold on to the last remnants of their power before everything can blow up in their faces. That kind of delicate balance of power, and just how fragile the Empire is right now, bring me right back to the Thrawn trilogy and the number of warlords who slowly broke the Empire apart as the New Republic attempted to stand on its own two feet.
You don’t have to keep things in the same timeline to feel like they’re in the same universe. One of my major concerns going into Aftermath was how the book would fit into wider Star Wars continuity. Nowadays, we can tell people new to the EU that there are two ways through all the books that they can take, and both are equally valid- and now, we can say that both have a post-ROTJ chronological place that feels very similar. Aftermath is starting a new era for Star Wars, but doesn’t lose the things we loved most about an era that many see as the best of the old EU. Tone and theme feel so much the same, even if the cast has been updated a bit for 21st-century audiences who expect a more realistic ensemble cast (and are now pleasantly surprised). Though we see little of previously-established characters, we don’t need to. We’re in a new era of Star Wars, and even though it pays good homage to the old one, this is clearly a brave new world.