Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Star Wars: Aftermath Life Debt by Chuck Wendig (Book Review)


Everyone is allowed to make at least one monumental screw up in their life. Really, so many creators tend to primarily learn from their mistakes that second chances have almost become expected to allow a series to grow and develop. Even if an initial installment was a complete disaster, failing in such an inexplicable way you have to wonder if the creative force behind it was perpetually drunk throughout the whole thing, there's still hope they'll listen to criticism and improve. Star Wars: Aftermath Life Debt is the first book which has not only made me genuinely regret keeping such an open mind, but question how someone like Chuck Wendig can maintain a successful career as a writer.

Life Debt fails to improve upon almost any of Aftermath's shortcomings, but it even manages to invent a few entirely new ones along the way. While readers won't be treated to him openly pissing on the Thrawn trilogy in the introductory pages, the poor direction, awful characterisation, meandering plot and inhumanly bad prose manage to hit rock bottom and still somehow keep sinking. We're looking at a book so excruciating to read that, were someone to inform me that Beelzebub were involved in its creation, it would only answer several burning questions.

The plot is the sort of thing we would normally go into next, but like Aftermath the blub is a complete and utter lie. The very title itself is an obvious reference to Chewbacca's long standing debt to Han Solo, and the story even references an attempted liberation of Kashyyyk going horribly wrong. This is supposed to be the core focus here, with the series' merry band of personal heroes trying to hunt down the missing Captain Solo and recover him. Instead, the book drags out this plot, shoving it into the background and driving the spotlight squarely onto Wendig's creations, trying to force the audience to love them. It becomes so bad that, by the halfway point, there has been so little headway that you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a two-parter plotline.

Once again the structure here is abominably bad, almost thrown together rather than truly planned out. While Aftermath at least had some vague reason for this thanks to being churned out in a scant few months, but here there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever. The story will jump around seemingly at random, trying to build the idea of a bigger plot or universe, but it is so wildly disconnected and downright unwieldy that it merely becomes confusing as a result. While many other authors can and do succeed in pulling off a multitude of semi-connected stories across a book, Wendig fails to leave the spotlight on anything long enough to actually let it develop. Countless scenes are often so rushed, so sped up and pushed past so quickly, it robs any sense of drama from the tale. At one point Wedge (yes, he's in this and we'll get to that in a minute) is jumped by a very large and hostile assailant in a traditional dramatic closing moment. Barely two pages later, and the book cuts back, instantly resolving the whole problem in a matter of seconds. Congratulations, you almost managed to hold the tension long enough to make the reader actually care.

If it seems as if this whole point of structure is being harped upon, consider this for a moment - Were Wendig to write A Song of Fire and Ice (or Game of Thrones if you wish) novel, he would be bouncing back and forth between characters continents apart every five paragraphs. Were he to write a Gaunt's Ghosts novel, moments such as the build-up to Bragg's death or Cuu's rampage would be skipped entirely, and the murders involved likely listed offhand by a character later on. It doesn't just destroy any sense of pathos, it annihilates it, crushing down any broken remains which might leave the reader engaged in the book or reasons to give a damn. This sort of thing almost ruins it from the very start, as it doesn't even take the time to explain who the hell anyone is, where they are, or set the scene before it speeds off into the plot. Even the inciting incident, the moment which drives Leia to task the heroes with finding Han, is pushed past so quickly there isn't even time to properly reintroduce the character to the readers.

Even if you were holding out for halfway decent descriptions, you're sadly out of luck. Wendig seems to treat details as an unnecessary bonus to scenes, and never stops to actually try and paint an image within the reader's head. Like a child forced to write an essay about the subject they hate, he does the absolute bare minimum, bereft of any enthusiasm or even engaging language. So many scenes are are nebulous, non-descriptive and bereft of atmosphere that the hanger of a Star Destroyer, tropical atoll, and even a full on space battle feel practically identical to one another. Rather than doing enough to create the idea of a varied universe, or even broad vibrant environments, he just leaves so many scenes bereft of detail that you'll likely end up wondering where in the hell everyone is on each page. 

Worse still, this trend once more bleeds into the battle scenes, which prove to either be incredibly sub-par or are skipped over entirely. The opening dogfight is so badly paced and put together that it's almost a non-entity within the book, and even the act of a small corvette being chased by an Imperial Star Destroyer carries all the weight and drama of an average stroll in the park. Oh, and for those briefly interested in that latter bit, the book skips both the chase and following battle scene between chapters. Even the very act of taking down seemingly all but two Super Star Destroyers is left to little more than an offhand mention, and big battles are skimmed past at every turn. Yes, the author is actively trying to avoid the very thing Star Wars is most known for. 

Wendig tries to make up for the poor presentation and lack of real world-building with an incredibly scattershot approach to things. Details are dropped at random relentlessly spammed throughout the book, until they overwhelm any real sense of immersion. It's one thing to have events bring up bacta, compare certain descriptions with common in-universe items or even draw up comparisons with certain species, in order to create a sense of this being another world. It's another thing entirely to effectively drop them at every single opportunity, until it stops being subtly immersive or engaging, and becomes so frustrating you'll end up desperately trying to mentally edit out entire sentences at a time. There is also this odd obsession with scent and taste which quickly becomes the author's primary focus above all else. Really, skipping basic details which would stem from sight or sound, Wendig seems to use this as his fallback method of trying to flesh out a scene. The problem is that the descriptions are equally as sparse, and often fail to add any sense of immersion to any scene, so this effort fails as well.

Still, all that could be saved with great characters, right? My friends, you are dead out of luck on that front as well. Let's start with the official figures first, given they are those hardest hit here. While the likes of Mon Mothma, Ackbar and a few other big names are thrown in, they might as well be listed as "Important Person X, Y, and Z" for all the impact they have. Sure, it tries to use them well as a sense of building a bigger and broader universe, but they are so firmly pushed into the background, so often out of the limelight that their existence seems like a concession more than a true addition to the book. It should also go without saying that each is so bereft of any real personality, that they could be switched for just about any other established figure and you wouldn't blink an eye.

The only big name exceptions who stay anywhere near the spotlight are Wedge and to a much lesser extent Leia, for all the good it does them. Leia is tied up with New Republic operations and is used as little more than an excuse to try and better show off the political side of the universe with very mixed results, becoming almost a turmourous lump within the story. Chewbacca is also in this as well alongside Han, but like the others they are pushed well into the background, only emerging when the plot has absolutely no way to get around their involvement

As for Wedge though? He's the one who suffers most here. Rather than actually involve or do these characters any kind of justice, Wendig wants to push his personal creations as hard as possible. As such, Wedge - a character who benefited the most from the original Expanded Universe - becomes little more than a joke, and a pale shadow of the heroic pilot people loved. As with Aftermath, he's beaten down at every turn, easily defeated, pushed about and turned into an utter joke for the villains and heroes to prove themselves as being badass around. Upon truly, physically, getting involved in any action, he's almost run over and crushed by a droid, forcing another character to quickly rescue him, and then play second fiddle to someone else as they perform dogfights against near impossible odds. Oh, and then out of nowhere he's turned into the love interest of said Wendig made character in order to make them more important. While it's one thing to prove a new character can hold their own in a book, it's quite another to throw existing and beloved heroes under the bus to try and prove they're worth reading about.

It doesn't help that Wendig's creations are insanely one dimensional and fueled by a toxic mix of cliches and attempted fan pandering. By the end, you'll likely be remembering them by their role rather than actual names, listing each off as "the former Imperial" "the bounty hunter" "the kid" and "that sodding droid again". When it does push for actual character development or inner thoughts, it registers on the Frank Miller scale of banal inner dilemmas. Well, minus the whores of course. Here's one such example of a mother thinking of her son:

"Is that what she wanted for him?
He's young. He's only fifteen. (Though she's reminded: His birthday is coming up soon. Time moves fast, and it only gets faster when you have children.) He just took out two TIE fighters. No - he killed two pilots. Two lives, snuffed out. The problem isn't whether they deserved their fates; those pilots signed up for war and knew what came with it. The problem is what that makes Temmin. It haunts her, suddenly. Will it haunt him? Is he too young to understand what's happening? Will one day he awaken to ghosts in his head, or will he toughen to it too quickly - will it kill the kindness inside him and make him mean like Jom Barell?"

Yes, Life Debt is an entire book of that. Are you beginning to understand just why this review is so negative? In small doses this sort of thing can work, but it's an unending torrent of navel gazing, barging into scenes and disrupting their flow. The above example? That was thrown in right in the middle of a supposed fighter battle, for what little we actually saw of it anyway.

There is also a stab at developing the Imperial side of things via a viewpoint character, seeing how it is sliding into anarchy, but this quickly becomes almost hilarious. Many of the stabs at a cloak and dagger tale of varied political elements, betrayals and power plays are so laughably obvious that the characters seem like cartoon villains. These are the sorts of foes He-Man would have been fighting in the 80s, not the kind of space Nazi you would expect to be serving at Vader's beck and call.

All this is, of course, made infinitely worse by the present tense approach Wendig has taken to the book. This was a big criticism of Aftermath as well, and many readers complained this made the novel downright unreadable as a result. However, present tense in of itself isn't the problem. While certainly extraordinarily hard to nail down, some novels such as Know No Fear have succeeded in pulling it off, presenting engaging novels and details through it. Here though, combined with the awful descriptions, bad characterization and poor plotting, it serves as a kind of multiplier, making every shortcoming seem all the worse as a result. Combined together, it makes Aftermath: Life Debt seem like an extraordinarily poorly penned young reader's novel, the kind which relentlessly talks down to its audience; not the supposed flagship trilogy intended to kickstart a new universe. 

"Terrible" doesn't do this book justice. There is likely no word in the English language which can wholly describe its unmitigated failure, and sheer lack of any redeeming quality. While it might not fall fully to the levels of certain other tales, this is the kind of story bound for that special literary hell usually reserved for Gloria Tesch creations and the Gor novels. Having assisted in murdering the old Expanded Universe, Wendig now seems to have set his sights upon maiming the new one while it is still in the crib. If the future is being forged from these novels, Star Wars will become a malformed, broken thing worthy only of a mercy killing.

If you have any love for Star Wars, any at all, do not buy this novel. In two decades of reading science fiction of all forms, from the works of children to the Dune saga, I have rarely encountered a book so inept as this creation. If you honestly want to see a good Star Wars novel set in the new universe, Twilight Company is still out there and is more than worthy of your hard earned cash. If you want a better one besides that, the old Expanded Universe is still there and damn near every novel - even Darksaber - is leagues above this book in terms of good storytelling. Each and every one of you reading this could have crafted a better novel than Wendig, and honestly I actually encourage you to do so. Try practicing your own skills for a bit, try experimenting with your prose or to craft a short story, then apply to Disney for work. If they're allowing a trilogy so poorly crafted as Aftermath to be their flagship release, they'll likely accept damn near anyone for future books.

8 comments:

  1. Yikes, and I thought Crosscurrents was bad. (If you've never read Star Wars: Crosscurrents, don't bother. It was a mediocre novel, regarding a lost Old Republic Jedi or Sith or someone, with an awkward then-and-now POV, and dialogue that sounded the same no matter who it came from.)

    I might try Twilight Company because I enjoy a good story about humble soldiers in a big galaxy. Otherwise, I fear for the quality of future Star Wars books.

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    1. Admittedly, never did read Crosscurrents but have heard very mixed things about that one over past years. That said, a lot of the criticisms there do sound a lot like the stuff from Dawn of the Jedi: Into the Void, which was near unreadable a lot of the time. Not nearly so bad as this one but difficult to be sure.

      Anyway, yeah, Twilight Company is coming out in softback soon so I still reccomend it. It's not outstanding by any means, but it's the closest thing there is to a Star Wars Gaunt's Ghosts style book.

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  2. I'm still waiting for the one good new EU novel to come out, however I'm wondering if it's possible to edit together a good one from the material we currently have, removing the long-winded passages, adding in tension from events taking place at the same time but elsewhere in the galaxy, or even just making the good parts into a book that's just a compilation of short stories looking at what the characters did after the destruction of the second Death Star.

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  3. Speaking about science fiction, what are the best books set in post-apocalyptic/cyberpunk scenarios you have ever read?

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    1. Apologies for the late response, but I had to think about this one for quite a while. In all honesty, most post-apocalyptic environments i'm usually drawn to are more akin to wastelands or even steampunk themed realms. However, Snow Crash I think would be my answer thanks to having a few post-apocalyptic qualities to it, thanks to the collapse in government, mass poverty and America almost devolving into a corporate run warlord state. Dima Zales' Oasis is another good one from what I recall, but it's been quite a few years since I read that book. It's far more apocalyptic than Snow Crash though.

      This is, of course, without getting into things like comics or manga where i'm usually more familiar with this sort of stuff though.

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  4. So, you excited for the next Wendig novel?😋

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    1. As we speak I am stockpiling alcohol for the end. I'm going to give it every chance to succeed it deserves, and will praise it if it works well, but history is most definitely against it.

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    2. Good luck. I gave the first one a quick page through. Woo wee, where you right. Hopefully he'll end semi-intelligently.

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