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Sunday, 5 March 2017

AFICIONADO REVIEW: 'AFTERMATH - EMPIRE'S END'

The enemy falls, and an EMPIRE'S END. Image: Century Publishing.

STAR WARS: AFTERMATH- EMPIRE’S END

By Chuck Wendig

Published in the UK by CENTURY

Reviewed by Scott Weller

"Every end is a new beginning"

The striking image of an explosions wrecked Imperial Star Destroyer surrounded by caught in its amber-like wake TIE fighters, all presumably crashing down to the far off world of Jakku, makes for a startling and truly iconic cover image in selling eager fans on the concluding part of Chuck Wendig’s ambitious trilogy of books set between the landmark events of RETURN OF THE JEDI and THE FORCE AWAKENS: the AFTERMATH saga, revealing an Empire’s End and a finale battle between good an evil located on the soon important wasteland world of Jakku. But does this important, officially Lucasfilm sanctioned concluding book itself live up to such evocative and truly exciting imagery? And will it also stand the test of time that past well-received and successful Expanded Universe trilogy conclusions have done?

Wendig’s band of distinct, all-new heroes immersed in our favourite saga’s galactic history have certainly had their physical and psychological measures tested to the extreme in this quirky, adult, and at times exciting trilogy. Now the end of the road for them is in sight, and a new set of destinies unfolding - though not necessarily for the better in some cases– through the upcoming and decisive hand dealt by the soon legendary Battle of Jakku. As the book starts, however, Norra Wexley and her unique and loyal friends now Imperial hunters are continuing their search for the powerful Imperial fugitive Admiral Rae Sloane, believed responsible for the assassination atrocities committed against the New Republic, and the almost death of leader Mon Mothma in the very heart of her realm on Chandrila, on what should have been a joyous Liberation Day for the galaxy.

Former Rebel poster girl Norra Wexley is after Imperial blood.

Darkly fixated on her quest for Sloane, Norra – a dedicated yet emotionally haunted former Rebel pilot, is edgier than ever after the events that saw her once missing presumed dead husband being controlled and used as an assassin on Chandrila, presumed manipulated by the Imperial leader- a prey who can’t hide forever. However, Norra’s soon in for a personal and emotional shock by the time she reaches Jakku.

The Sloane quest also opens up problems for some of her loyal teammates, too. The ever efficient and resourceful Jas the bounty hunter, herself with a bounty on her head from the Hutts, soon chased by a unique cadre of memorable rivals led by the grandly named Mercurial Swift, no less! The other members of Norra's disjointed "family" along for the ride, to help as best they can and bringing their special skills to bear, include the drily sarcastic former Imperial Loyalty Officer, the edgy but ultimately reliable Sinjir Rath Velus, who always pretends not to have a heart but actually does, particularly so. (In my mind’s eye, if anyone ever played him on screen I’d pick Walton Goggins, even if he would have to fake the British accent all Imperial actors are required to have!) and her ever loyal and overly cnofident fighter-pilot-to-be son, joining her in action and danger whether she likes it or not,Temmin (aka Snap), mostly joined at the hip with the darkly comic all-singing, all-dancing all-murderous former battle droid Mister Bones (getting to do his merry little “thing” with a stormtrooper or three!). Finally, returning for the later part of the book, comes one-eyed former SpecForces commando Jom Barell, eager to do his bit in the massive skirmish ahead.

Han Solo, improvising with his blaster!

Meanwhile, our legacy hero in former smuggler now Rebel “inspiration” Han Solo is bored, now separated from Chewie and missing his co-pilot following the astonishing events at the incredible liberation of Kashyyyk, whilst his wife in the forthright Leia Organa is on the cusp of giving birth to a son. Han should be at home with his new family, but adventure and excitement will win out to come knocking at his door. Of course he won’t be able to resist, soon allied with the desperate Sinjir and the needy Temmin to rescue their mother and Jas from their discovery of the Imperials en masse at Jakku.

Former Admiral Rae Sloane takes a stand.

Paired with an unusual ally, the fugitive fan favourite Rae Sloane has also arrived on Jakku in secret, with her own quest for revenge during her undercover search for the mysterious Gallius Rax, the commander who betrayed her and deposed her, now overseeing the final gathered Imperial forces she was once to have commanded - a fleet stolen from her and shaped in a way not to her liking at all - preparing to launch the most ambitious attack yet on the Republic via above his former home world. It is in the heat and sand that Sloane will attempt to find out his background and, most importantly, the legacy and secrets he holds there dating back to the time of Palpatine’s twisted evil. But is Rax already aware of her motivations and planning a final unique confrontation of his own?

This is the book that finally reveals the mysteries of the protégé/prodigy Rax, a figure who finally became emergent with book two and gave hints of his relationship with Palpatine- this being explored further in both a prologue (the leader giving his secret commands to the rising Imperial star should the Rebels find a way to win the Battle of Endor) and in other key storytelling areas. Though you have to wonder, just how many contingency plans did the Emperor actually have up those mighty sleevies of his? 

The ideology of why the Empire needs children is also fully revealed with the ultimate legacy of The First Order.

A political minefield awaits Mon Mothma.

As the Empire shows its baiting strength, the delicate control held by the New Republic faces further tests, as injured leader Mon Mothma tries to restore her skillset credibility whilst also involved in an upcoming re-election bid against an underhand rival- a situation that couldn’t have come at a worse time, and especially when she has become distanced from her once friends: the incredible liberation of Kashyyyk, which, though an impressive adrenaline boost to the New Republic’s rallying cry against the last remnants of the retreating Empire, had ultimately been achieved without senate approval, resulting in all involved having to face penalties of one type or another- a situation that still smarts with our heroes.

As all points convergence on the dustball that is Jakku, and that final epic battle whose remnants will be seen and a legacy begun, characters briefly appearing in the earlier books rise to prominence for this final chapter, whilst Wendig also gets his last opportunity (at least for now) in bringing additional unique grotesques into the STAR WARS universe: a new type of Hutt on Jakku being a standout.

The unique "side trips" that had been so notably successful in the previous books reach their conclusion, too. On Tatooine there’s a battle against slavers at the developing-for- the-better hole of Freedom Town, guarded by that lawman in the Boba Fett armor Cobb Vanth, Chewbacca is joyously reunited with his former slave son on Kashyyyk, political stoolie Mas Amedda’s final duties begin whilst trapped on the civil war ravaged Coruscant, and there’s a deadly journey to Christophsis where members of the Church of the Force go on a special pilgrimage. Plus, what the youthful dangers of the malicious Acolytes of the Beyond are getting up to with dark side lightsabers. Back to the original characters, there’s a fun trip to the newly liberated Bespin, and a cool scene for Lando Calrissian, where he also ponders with robot associate Lobot on what baby present to buy the expectant Han and Leia…

Controversially, Naboo is briefly focused on, and with it the fate of that accidental Gungan hero Jar Jar Binks. Though it’s nice to see him in an offshoot chapter, his ultimate destiny makes for sour reading. Wendig’s prior clear disdain for the character and the Prequels re-emerges here, and I didn’t appreciate it.

Hip-deep in the Battle of the Jakku, as seen in video game form.

Equally, the book’s third part, with the uncovering of corruption, and the aforementioned shady alien senator, slows the book down somewhat- feeling underwhelming and all been done before. By this point we the readers want to get nearer towards the eventual part five, and the final battle of Jakku, which, for the most part, is inventively described (a super star destroyer and Republic cruiser earth fall being a memorable standout) - nice to see Admiral Ackbar back in action on Home One, as well as Wedge with his new bunch of rogues comprising Phantom Squadron. But you really want to see this massive conflict on land and space done for real in a STAR WARS live-action movie- it’s too big for a book or a video game tie-in. Wendig constructs the battle as merely being the surrounding location for our heroes final actions, when a centre stage showcase in is own right somewhere else would likely have been better. The lack of our primary heroes like Han or Luke (barely even mentioned in the book) in this key battle also sours things slightly.

It’s at this important juncture that the revealed villainy of Rax ultimately fails to leave a true mark on the book saga the way that many other on screen and Expanded Universe villains have done previously. At the end of the day there is just not enough believable substance to the character, especially with the contrasting Sloane having become so popular with readers over the last few years- being a much more charismatic and driven personality that readers find interesting in the anti-hero stakes. To his credit, though, Rax does have a nifty white uniform like ROGUE ONE’s Orson Krennic, and may actually have beaten him in the overall style department with his red cloak!

As the battle dries out and the Jakku dust settles, Leia and Han’s baby is finally born, whilst Norra and her remaining friends gather to consider their new roles in the future of the Republic. As for the loyal to the Empire’s aforementioned Sloane? Well, her own equally loyal fanbase will surely enjoy the starting potential of her new destiny out in the mysterious realms of the Unknown Regions by books’ end...

AFICIONADO RATING: Linked to an all-pervasive need for revenge and personal justice for our dramatis personae (both good and bad), the final lead-in strands to THE FORCE AWAKENS are firmly and satisfyingly in place, alongside some additional little nods to ROGUE ONE. Empire’s End was (for this reviewer) a tad disappointing after the very enjoyable and better than expected Life Debt. It will not bask in the kind of continued popularity and glory that past Expanded Universe story wrap-ups have gone on to (like The Last Command has for over twenty years), but the trilogy was overall well plotted. Amidst the side steps of galactic history revealed, Empire's End has numerous satisfying moments - action and emotional - to make it worth your reading time. 3 out of 5


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