Every time a teaching term ends, I go a little crazy. I end up with actual free time, and I plunge right into doing all the things I can’t do when I have 250 students and no marking support. Most of these “things” involve reading. It needs to be fun reading that will allow my brain to recover from the towering stacks of papers full of comma splices and random leaps from present to past tense and back again. This time, a bit unexpectedly, that reading has concentrated on two Star Wars tie-in novels, Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath and Claudia Gray’s Bloodline.
I’ve never really been one for tie-in novels. When I was a kid, my parents wouldn’t let me and my sister watch Star Wars, which they called “too violent,” so I never got into the Star Wars extended universe; by the time I finally viewed the movies, I was twenty-one and in the middle of an English degree, and I probably had a bit of a snobby attitude towards the tie-in books (I did love the movies very much). When I thought of this kind of literature, I thought of novelisations. I read a few of those when I was younger because I read basically anything book-shaped that came anywhere near me, and I didn’t like them; they seemed shallow and poorly written.
I’m therefore pretty unfamiliar with the conventions surrounding tie-in novels. I know they can vary in quality, and I know that the Star Wars EU novels (or Legends, as I suppose they’re called now) cheerfully contradict each other and take the stories off in all sorts of directions. The new canonical books are probably a bit more consistent…for the moment. At any rate, I wanted to try them out, and now that I have, I may as well review them.
Both novels are part of what is being billed as “the journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” with Wendig’s novel (the first of a trilogy) set not all that long after the battle of Endor, while Gray’s takes place 26 years after the same battle. Wendig’s novel was released in September of 2015, so yes, everyone has already commented on it, but Gray’s came out in early May of 2016. They make an interesting contrast, both in their writing styles and in the subjects on which they focus.
Star Wars: Aftermath, by Chuck Wendig (2015)
Over the past eight months, I have caught rumblings about this novel online, but I haven’t read any of the reviews. I know some people love the novel, while others hate it. Few seem to occupy the middle ground. I can see the reasons for both the love and the hatred but may be venturing a bit out into the middle ground myself, albeit closer to “love” than to “hate.”
Aftermath follows several different characters, some familiar from the original Star Wars movies (and at least one from The Force Awakens) but many new, as they come together to deal with what seems to be one of the Empire’s last gasps before its fall. The Rebellion has become the New Republic, but the Empire is still lurching along, not acknowledging the authority of the “rebel scum” and exercising some power over certain worlds of the outer rim. A chance discovery by Wedge Antilles, who is hunting down rumours of Empire activity, sets off a chain of events that draws in Norra Wexley, a former Rebellion pilot, her angry genius son Temmin (who will become The Force Awakens‘ Snap Wexley), a bounty hunter named Jas Emari, and Sinjir Rath Velus, an Imperial deserter. We also get the point of view of Rae Sloane, who is trying to bring together a number of Imperial higher-ups in a last-ditch effort at unity, and we occasionally check in with Admiral Ackbar, who (amusingly, and no doubt deliberately) sees everything as a potential trap. The chapters in which the main story is told are intercut with shorter “interludes” in which we glimpse snippets of action from all over the galaxy, mostly the experiences of ordinary people affected by the war.
The book is a page-turner, especially early on, though the effect diminishes a bit as it progresses. One of its greatest strengths, the focus on many characters and thus the portrayal of the aftermath of the war as chaotic and far reaching, is also one of its greatest weaknesses. Norra, the character with whom we spend the most time, seems a potentially deep well, but as the story goes on and more characters join the mob, less and less attention is paid to her. Wendig deals sensitively with her nightmarish memories of the war and her guilt over her abandonment of her son — an abandonment that the fifteen-year-old Temmin doesn’t entirely understand — but doesn’t have the space to develop her further. The same goes for the other characters. Temmin, Jas, Sinjir, and Rae all have interesting backstories, and their personalities are finely drawn enough to seem to be governing the plot instead of the other way around, but they all sort of crowd each other out, to the extent that it’s a little difficult to get invested in their fates. We ultimately don’t know them well enough to be on the edge of our seats about whether or not they survive.*
The interludes are part of the problem here, even as, again, they work in favour of the novel’s overall effect as a portrayal of the confusing period near the end of a long, vast war. While the interludes themselves act as nice little character studies, they also distract from the main story line and can seem like a nuisance to get through. Frankly, I’m a little torn on the subject of the interludes. Some of the characters covered in them are so intriguing that I wish they would get more than one segment each, but at the same time, I tear through them so I can get back to the protagonists. There is a tantalising glimpse of Han Solo and Chewbacca, who will be turning up again in the second novel in the series, Life Debt.
One thing that can be said for Wendig’s characters is that they’re diverse. The important characters are probably just about evenly divided between male and female, which is unusual enough to seem refreshing. It’s difficult to talk about racial diversity in the Star Wars universe, but the humans who turn up are certainly a variety of colours, and there are non-human characters as well. Same-sex relationships are simply accepted calmly in Wendig’s story; Norra’s sister is married to a woman, and Sinjir declines Jas’s matter-of-fact invitation to her bed because he prefers men. It’s also nice that Rae is not the same sort of cackling villain as Palpatine; she is ruthless but practical, and she has reasons for the choices she makes, even if those choices ultimately have problematic motives. Almost everyone here is a person, not just a character type, though, again, there are so many characters that some of the less important ones do descend into stereotype.
Perhaps the novel’s greatest weakness is that while the stakes of this story should feel very high, they kind of don’t. The representatives of the Empire involved in the big meeting just sort of bicker for hundreds of pages, and while the heroes have plenty of moments of derring-do, they rarely feel genuinely in danger, even in oh-no-Character-X-must-be-dead bits. A betrayal that should be completely devastating is waved off and swiftly forgotten, likely because the plot is crowding it out. Oh…remember that bit about the personalities of the characters governing the plot? That fades over the course of the novel. By the end, the plot is paramount, and characterisation seems incidental.
Fortunately, there are still two novels to go, so these characters will have the opportunity to grow beyond what is essentially an origin story. I’ll certainly be picking up Life Debt when it comes out in July, despite some elements of Wendig’s style that rub me the wrong way (for instance, his tendency to slip from the present tense into the past even when the story doesn’t call for it, and his even more grating but thankfully only occasional tendency to use jarringly inappropriate words as speech verbs). The whole idea of the Aftermath trilogy is an intriguing one, and the galaxy in turmoil Wendig has painted here is worth exploring.
Star Wars: Bloodline, by Claudia Gray (2016)
The existence of Bloodline is actually the reason I decided to try out the tie-in novels in the first place. I know nothing about Gray, but I do have an interest in her novel’s protagonist, Princess Leia. Leia fascinates me because of how little the films tell us about her. She’s an important character, but she’s not the Chosen One, though considering her origin story, she could be. She starts as a damsel in distress, if a feisty one, and slowly descends from action girl to pining love interest, then pops back up in The Force Awakens in an intriguing role that had better be explored more thoroughly in the next two movies (assuming she survives the first of them). The last time I watched Return of the Jedi, I was frustrated by how little she did, but that frustration extends to the other films as well. In A New Hope, Leia is tortured for hours by Darth Vader, then restrained by him as she is forced to watch her planet destroyed. Neither the torture nor the destruction is ever mentioned again; instead, Leia is the one who comforts Luke as they flee the Death Star. It just seems as if there should be a lot more to Leia than the films ever admit.
Gray appears to share my feelings. Her Leia, now in her late forties and a member of the New Republic’s fractious Senate, is a fully realised character who is still haunted by her memories of Alderaan and her inner conflict over Darth Vader being her birth father. Unlike Luke — who never appears here, as he is off somewhere with Ben, the latter of whom must be ominously close to his own turn to darkness — Leia can’t separate the idea of Anakin Skywalker from her memories of the man who tortured her and acted as Palpatine’s most brutal enforcer. The memory of Vader is also important to the story’s other characters, some of whom are too young to have been affected by him directly; he looms, Hitler-like, over everything that happens, representing for the people of the New Republic the worst of the Empire. At the same time, some of these people are beginning to forget just how bad the Empire was.
The story focuses mostly on Leia, who is a respected member of the Senate’s Populist faction (those who believe in the autonomy of individual planets). The Populists are mired in bickering with the opposing Centrists (who advocate for stronger government and a powerful military), rendering the Senate virtually ineffective. Leia, on the verge of quitting in frustration, instead initiates a fact-finding mission to root out what seems to be an increasingly powerful criminal cartel. She is accompanied by the ambitious Centrist Ransolm Casterfo, whose relationship with Leia gets off to a bad start when she discovers he collects Imperial relics and admires many aspects of the Empire, apart from Palpatine and Vader themselves. As the mission continues, Leia and Ransolm forge an unlikely alliance that slowly blossoms into genuine friendship, but it all threatens to come crashing down around them — along with the New Republic’s government itself — when a key piece of information about Leia’s own past emerges. In the meantime, the mission is revealing that matters in the galaxy are much less stable than they might at first appear.
This novel certainly has the potential to succumb to cliche and a concentration on action over character, but Gray avoids these pitfalls with apparent ease. Like Wendig, she has several protagonists, but this time, the number is not unmanageable. Key point-of-view characters such as Leia, Ransolm, scheming Centrist Lady Carise Sindian, Leia’s aide Greer Sonnel, and reckless X-wing pilot Joph Seastriker all get enough development to remain interesting throughout. Ransolm is an especially skilfully written character; he seems at first likely to be a caricatured foppish, ambitious snake-oil salesman, but our first impression of him turns out to be coloured by Leia’s mistrust. He is certainly flawed, and his internal conflict doesn’t always steer him in the right direction, but he’s also rational and passionate, and by the midway point, he has become a character worth caring about. It would have been easy to portray all the Populists as saints and all the Centrists as sneering villains, but Gray’s world is more complex. Though there are certainly some outright villains, one is also a point-of-view character whose perspective is explained with a certain amount of common sense. Leia’s own flaws are also important here, and her tendency to keep information from even those she trusts, exemplified in an early scene with Ransolm, later comes back to bite her.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this novel is a tragedy; in fact, I think the idea of it as a tragedy is essential to its effect. I’m not really talking about the plot here, at any rate. I’m talking about our knowledge of Leia’s future and how it colours our approach to the story. In ancient Greek tragedy, audiences already knew what was going to happen to the characters on stage; no one was surprised when Oedipus blinded himself. The point was not to be surprised but to live the inevitable tragedy along with the characters. This novel has a similar feel. It is doubtful that anyone who picks up this book will not already have seen The Force Awakens, which takes place some time after Bloodline,** and therefore, there’s a feeling of inevitability about everything that occurs in the novel. We know what’s about to happen to Leia’s son, whom she is still, heartbreakingly, thinking of as one of the people she loves and trusts the most. We know that Han and Leia’s relationship, here portrayed as comfortingly lasting, is going to end. We know all Leia’s struggles in the Senate are ultimately futile. We can see it all happening, and little of it surprises us, but Gray makes Leia so easy to sympathise with that we still want her to succeed, even though we know she can’t.
The most devastating moment of the story, which is foreshadowed by the cover and by some of the posters advertising the novel (avoid these posters if you want to be even slightly surprised, though again, surprise is not the point here), is one that drives to the heart of Leia’s struggle with her own past. Because of the posters, I knew it was coming, but I was still bouncing around in my seat going, “No, no, no!” Portions of this book are painful to read, not because they are badly written (the writing is smooth and clear throughout) but because events bear inexorably down on the reader.
All in all, Bloodline impressed me by working as a story and not just as a piece of the Star Wars universe, though it does that too. Gray fleshes out the active but more distant Leia of the films and gives her the inner life the films deny her. If you are a Star Wars fan, the novel is worth checking out.
Really, so is Aftermath. Of the two, I prefer Bloodline, which I see as better written and more successful at letting plot emerge from character, but Aftermath is also lively and entertaining, and it opens up a rich landscape of possibility for future stories. All in all, I would characterise this first experience with tie-in novels as a positive one, and I’m pretty sure Bloodline is going to be added to my books-to-reread-when-the-marking-is-everywhere-and-I-can’t-afford-to-start-anything-new pile.
*To be honest, the character for whom I was the most worried when I was reading was Mr. Bones, Temmin’s psychotic modified battle droid. Mr. Bones is phenomenal. I want one.
**Common wisdom says The Force Awakens is set around 30 years after The Empire Strikes Back, and math applied to certain characters’ ages (Ransolm, six when the Empire falls, is now 32) tells us that Bloodline happens 26 years after the battle of Endor, meaning that it really only takes place four or five years before The Force Awakens. I am very dubious about this timeline, as it implies that Ben will fall, Luke and Han run away, the First Order rise, and the Resistance become a major force in the galaxy in the course of about half a decade, and it puts Rey’s abandonment way before the slaughter of Luke’s students, but what do I know, really?