We need to talk about Jakku. All signs point to it being Something Big, and in Life Debt, the second in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy, those signs keep coming, adding questions to the ones already posed. Why was Rey left there? (Was she? Is it not entirely possible that’s all a story?) We know the Empire’s last stand takes place there: Why? Why was Lost Stars the story of the captain who crashed a Star Destroyer into the planet’s surface?
And why is Jakku where Life Debt starts?
Technically, this book’s name is Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt, but I’m going to stick with the short version. The most important thing to know about Life Debt is that it’s compulsively readable, the kind of caramel-corn book you just keep stuffing in your face until it’s gone, and even then you’re still searching for crumbs. Wendig’s prose has gotten smoother, but he’s lost none of the present-tense urgency—and with the main characters already established, he has room to build their connections and time to send them off halfway across the galaxy, chasing Imperial officers and a certain missing scoundrel.
But first: Jakku, a dried-up planet on the edges of Unknown Space. Life Debt’s prelude is dotted with details that all seem potentially meaningful: The anchorite nuns on Jakku, barely mentioned at the end of Aftermath, raise orphans? Maybe the planet used to be green? Maybe it hasn’t always been a shriveled husk of a planet, but it is now, as an orphan boy runs across the desert, chasing a shining ship. An overdressed man steps off the ship and tells his droids to “begin excavation.” The boy takes his chance, stowing away. Who he is, and what he has to do with the changing galaxy, is part of a never-fully-revealed mystery hovering around not just this book, but the stories we know come after it. Stories that go back to Jakku, both in this part of the timeline, and a generation later.
This opening nicely sets the stage for Life Debt’s combination of satisfying revelations, breathless adventures, and endless questions about what it all means and how all these characters are going to come to their narrative ends in the third book, the tellingly titled Empire’s End. After the prelude, the first character we see isn’t Norra Wexley, Rebel pilot turned Imperial-hunter for the growing New Republic, but Leia, pacing, awaiting communication from Han. Around the edges, this is their story: the story of a newly married couple awaiting their first child while trying to set the galaxy to rights, each in their own way.
No big deal, right?
So on the one hand you’ve got the mystery of Jakku, and the man there; on the other, a worried Leia, who sends Norra to find Han after their transmission is interrupted; on a third hand (don’t be species-ist; we don’t all have two), Grand Admiral Rae Sloane works to cement herself as the leader of what’s left of the Empire. Wendig never stays with one character or plotline for too long, always cutting away mid-action—an effective, if George R.R. Martin-y, way to ensure binge reading. (It works.) I read Life Debt in two days because I had to know all the answers it would give me: Which relationships are smoothing out, and which coming apart? Which impulsive decision will Leia make next? How many times can Sloane dance her way out of an impossible situation before she snaps? And who else will Mister Bones terrify with a hug?
Mister Bones, referred to by Wedge as a “singing, dancing murder-bot,” is one of Wendig’s best creations, a bonkers battle droid rejiggered by the teenage Temmin Wexley. Temmin is a little less rash here, a little more controlled by the adults on his mother’s team, but he works well as Norra’s moody, sensitive, snappy teen foil. Norra carries both the practical and the emotional heft for much of the story—duty she shares with her Imperial counterpart, Sloane.
Their choices are a push-pull of wills, constantly yanking the narrative forward while each struggles for what she deems important. Norra chases after Han, who’s busy trying to liberate Kashyyyk and find Chewie, and Sloane digs into the backstory of the mysterious man from Aftermath’s epilogue—the one who said of the old Empire, “It’s time for something better. Something new. An Empire worthy of the galaxy it will rule.” Here, Wendig gives us a few chapters from this character’s perspective, doling out just enough information to make it seem like we might understand him and his role. But I don’t think we do—at least not yet.
Meanwhile, Sinjir has a relationship and continues to display a knack for always finding the nearest bar; bounty hunter Jas continues to be the greatest; Mon Mothma seeks to demilitarize the galaxy; and there’s a whole bit about a prison and a prison-maker that pretends to be a diversion but looks, if you turn your head and squint, like a key to bigger things. Carefully, precisely, Wendig nudges his characters together, so that when we get to the big set pieces, everyone is in play in a way that makes sense: Norra and her crew working with Han; the New Republic turning up just when they’re needed, the seeds for a confrontation having been neatly sown; the Empire showing a little bit of its hand here, a little there.
Sloane, suspicious and nosy and grasping, provides the insight into the scrabbling Empire. She’s a surprisingly sympathetic character, much like Lost Stars’ young officers, a reminder that differing ideas about how the world should work don’t always line up with good and evil. Sloane wants order, and the greater good, and obedience in the name of progress. Even Sinjir, at one point, considers how the Republic’s emphasis on individuality, on not blindly following orders, might be a weak spot.
None of this is ground-shaking, mind-changing stuff, but it’s a level of nuance that makes sense in the time period when the story takes place: things are shaking apart, entirely unstable, and no one is quite sure what’s going to happen with power in the galaxy. As in Aftermath, Wendig’s book is dotted with interludes that take us to other places where the fallout of war resonates: Takodana (Maz!), Tattooine, the Alderaan Flotilla, Hosnian Prime, the ship of a non-binary space pirate. Even as it fleshes out original-series characters, the Aftermath series stays true to its name, illustrating the ways the galaxy reacts to, and recovers from, the last war.
Not that the war is over, exactly. This trilogy is the story of the other parts of the war—not the big, unforgettable explosion of the Death Star, but the ways ragged ends get tied up, and the ways people keep fighting. Han, scrappy as ever, tries to fight alone. Leia, the politician, fights from within the system—something we know she’ll keep doing, though the years between now and Bloodline are one big teasing question mark. Rae slowly realizes she’s fighting a battle on two fronts: one against the New Republic, and one within the tattered Empire. Norra sets goals, one or two at a time (she has a handy deck of cards with the New Republic’s most wanted on them) and goes after them fiercely, her team in tow, bickering amongst themselves.
Mister Bones just wants to kill things, but to each his own, even droids.
Life Debt is full of double-crosses, misdirects, long cons, and clues. It’s not the Empire Strikes Back-style downer middle story I half-expected, though it is bittersweet, and many things are in motion that won’t pay off until book three (if then). You can read this book for the whiz-bang adventure, the space escapades and prison breaks, without focusing in on the little things, but I think it rewards a close eye; Wendig is spinning out a mystery while simultaneously filling in the gaps in a story we almost know, and he’s getting better and better at balancing the two. We know we’re moving toward the Battle of Jakku; what we don’t know is why. Why there? What’s there? And how is the New Republic going to win when all signs point to a loss?
If I had to bet, I’d put my money on Norra Wexley. Star Wars is a story in which personal connections drive people to—and through—the worst of situations, and Norra, like so many Star Wars heroes before her, isn’t in this for herself, but for her family, by blood and choice. But the last pages of Life Debt, like the first, hint at things still bigger. Is it chance that Jakku is on the edges of known space?
Star Wars Aftermath: Life Debt is available now from Del Rey.
Molly Templeton didn’t cry in The Force Awakens until Chewie flew the Falcon alone. She has a lot of feelings about Star Wars and would still like to be Princess Leia when she grows up. You can discuss theories with her on Twitter.