Let’s face it: we were biased against Chuck Wendig from the beginning.
In mid-2014, the Star Wars franchise jettisoned the longstanding “Expanded Universe”–all of the novels, comic books, video games, and other material which developed the galaxy well beyond the six movies. In fairness, Star Wars had always been jettisoning stuff–first the prequels, then the Clone Wars cartoon. These were “more official” sources of material which often openly ran roughshod over years and years of fan-beloved material. Still, the Expanded Universe often went to great lengths to reconcile conflicts in the story, acknowledging that it all happened…from a certain point of view.
So summer 2014 hurt, when those of us who’d invested into decades of novels and comics were suddenly told those stories didn’t count. The sequel films were going to go their own way, and broader audiences didn’t want to be weighed down with the backstory of marauding aliens or the Solos’ three kids, or Luke’s redheaded wife, or Chewbacca’s death, and so forth. Anything post-2014 would be part of a singular canon, but the stuff before that–while ripe for the plucking later–would no longer matter.
So in late 2015, we got the first big push towards the sequel trilogy, which included Chuck Wendig’s novel Aftermath. At the time, we hated it. One, we just weren’t used to Wendig’s style, and it was very unorthodox compared to how Star Wars novels to date were written. He uses lots of seemingly unrelated interludes, heavy use of parentheticals, and most frustrating, a present-tense active style of writing. Wendig seems to be consistent with current popular styles in contemporary fiction, but to us older curmudgeons, we hated it.
But probably the bigger problem was our built-in resistance to this story. Aftermath–in conjuction with Disney’s Lost Stars and Marvel’s Shattered Empire–began to tell the story of how the Empire fell after Return of the Jedi. How annoying. We older readers knew how the Empire fell–there was the Truce at Bakura, the Empire’s resurgence under Thrawn, Palpatine’s cloned resurrection…really, who was this upstart Wendig to rewrite history as we knew it?
Well, anyway, time heals all wounds, and besides, we saw The Force Awakens and really liked it. Aftermath, for all its jarring changes, was setting up something that we didn’t know we’d enjoy. We’re used to this weird, alternate future now where C-3PO has a red arm and Han and Leia’s crazy son Jacen is named Ben instead.
Aftermath makes a little more sense now in light of The Force Awakens–most specifically in that the kid Temmin Wexley turned out to be Greg Grunberg’s character in TFA. But beyond that, it was difficult to warm up to this new, unfamiliar set of characters Wendig was serving us: Norra, Temmin’s mother, an exhausted Y-Wing pilot; Rae Sloane, the surviving Imperial admiral looking to restore her fallen glory; Sinjir Velus, a defected Imperial spy, and a few others. This was a whole new expanded universe, and not our characters.
But if you stuck through the rest of Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy–the sequels Life Debt and last month’s Empire’s End, you did start to warm up to them. Norra Wexley became a symbol of those who finally wanted to see the Empire laid to rest; Sloane became emblematic of wanting the Empire to go on in perpetuity. In a way, you felt for both of them–even Sloane, despite her standing with the side of galactic evil.
But what’s better about Empire’s End is that it’s the novel that finally begins to tie together the disparate ends of the Star Wars timeline. Even after The Force Awakens, we had limited information about the 30-year gap between Return of the Jedi and the new movie. Lost Stars and Shattered Empire gave clues that the Empire went nuts and fell apart with a last gasp at the Battle of Jakku (obviously a critical location in The Force Awakens), but the “how” and “why” weren’t really clear on how the Empire morphed into the First Order.
Empire’s End is a delicious read which doesn’t fully peel back the curtain, but it at least give you enough of a peek to understand how the change happened. In doing so, Wendig ties together some of the seemingly inexplicable parts of 2015’s Journey to the Force Awakens project. It turns out that the post-Endor Imperial chaos in Marvel’s Shattered Empire was actually Palpatine’s last-ditch temper tantrum. In flashbacks, Wendig shows Palpatine as a master chess player with the galaxy has his game board, but not one who was willing to lose gracefully. Palpatine anticipated the possibility of loss, and his intention was to leave the board in pieces if he were ever taken off the table. Jakku culminates this–it wasn’t just a final battle, but an effort to put the Empire into a full berserker rage that would destroy as much as possible and let the next Empire pick up the pieces.
Wendig portrays the Battle of Jakku not just as a final military operation between the Rebellion and the Empire, but as the death throes of a dying beast. Certainly, he provides nods to Lost Stars and the ground perspective of the battle from Star Wars: Battlefront, but he also provides wonderful narrative descriptions of the clash between fleets that took place above. Even better, he provides an emotional punch to the story–the description of how the Rebels took down the Empire’s Super Star Destroyer is one of the more gripping pieces of Star Wars writing we’ve seen in a long time.
But most importantly, Empire’s End serves as the beginning to the First Order with some very obvious markers of the villains we see in The Force Awakens. The First Order enters its literal infancy in the story, but there’s overt clues of what makes it what it is. An minor yet important character from The Force Awakens appears in the Imperial retreat, and we come to understand how a throwaway line in the movie about the source of the First Order’s Stormtroopers. By the end of the book, Wendig establishes a clear lineage between the death of the Empire and the birth of what would come decades later. If the First Order seemed like nothing but a recycled Empire in The Force Awakens, Wendig at least creates a satisfying explanation for why they’re so related.
In other words, Empire’s End is the novel that firmly puts Chuck Wendig into the canon of notable Star Wars authors, up there with Timothy Zahn, James Luceno, John Ostrander, and others. He’s an adjustment, to be sure, but in the, ahem, aftermath of this novel, readers might actually find themselves hopeful that he writes another one.