Why are we here?
It's a reasonable question to ask in this case, because really, what is even the point of looking into this work? Twice now we have delved deep into the gibbering insanity of this failing series, and found nothing but the antithesis of good storytelling in our path. The reason is simple. Many years ago, another universe was trying to revamp itself and failing horribly. With an ill thought out multi-book story arc, Doctor Who tried to kick-start its own growing universe with Timewyrm. It was a mess of incoherent and poorly planned books, right until the end, where it closed out in one of the most spectacular releases of the franchise. Personally, I was hoping to see the same again here.
Unfortunately, hope is the first step on the road to disappointment.
Rather than the legendary why-the-hell-hasn't-he-been-knighted Paul Cornell, we have been left at the mercy of a madman who may have unintentionally forged a multi-part Necronomicon. This is a man who understands storytelling like Donald Trump comprehends charisma. Everything plastered onto this paper is a poorly ham-fisted attempt to ape storytelling devices of other books. A man whose Aftermath trilogy is the Chinese knock-off of an epic saga, falling apart at the seams even as the creator drunkenly swerves about trying to steer it towards its intended goal, almost fighting against the very thing he was hired for. A man whose only skills in life seems to be riling up hordes of hipsters on social media with cries of homophobia and injustice, while basking in sheer narcissism.
Ladies and Gentlemen, what we have is Chuck Wendig. Brace yourselves, this is going to be painful.
Now, to give credit where it is due, this book does seem to at least try to give some indication of improvement over past releases. In fact, in some regards it is a hundred times better than its past book. The problem is that zero multiplied by a hundred is still zero, so what we end up with is something which might pass as a sub-par start if you were feeling charitable. Rather than invoking sheer incomprehension and extreme pain, what we get is intrigue and mild pain. It's difficult to get through, poorly crafted and almost destroys the very atmosphere it's trying to set-up, but any opening with Palpatine issuing secret orders right before Luke shows up is going to get the reader's attention.
In addition to this, this trilogy at long last tries to actually do what it was supposed to bloody well do in the first place(!) and builds a road towards The Force Awakens. We get some insight and a few brief moments of something which might be interesting if given to a better writer in the future, and it does at least grant a brief look into what Jakku was like before the big war went down. Yes, it's three books late and it's forced in at the end, but quite frankly i'm going to count its presence here alone as a win.
Finally - and this is an even bigger double edged sword than the rest - Jar Jar shows up and is verbally slapped about for his stupidity. The good news is that we're shown him living as a homeless man, wracked with guilt over his actions in bringing the Empire about, and is on the receiving end of some righteous karma as a result. The bad news is that we have to read about it, and Wending teases the reader with suggestions something horrible is going to happen only to promptly forget about him entirely, making the whole thing rather unsatisfying. It certainly doesn't make up for having to read Jar Jar's insipid dialogue here, which managed to burst a whole new layer of veins in my already bleeding eyes.
If this sounds back-handed for the "good" bits it's only because i've been forced to actively hunt down anything remotely decent here. This is also all I can honestly praise, with the rest falling into the kind of swirling mass of near unreadable garbage that it might well be the fabled singularity of science fiction suckitude; an ancient manifestation capable of ruining any setting no matter its strengths.
Now, let's start with the other half of those moments praised AKA the really bad bits which followed on from them. Take the road to The Force Awakens for example. We all know the conflict between the Empire and the New Republic ended in a big battle over Jakku right, so surely this should be the big focus? Well, not if you're this writer it seems. Instead most of the book pushes to sideline everyone besides Wendig's pet characters, reducing their roles further and further while actively pushing the spotlight onto his crew saying "No, no, you want to see these guys instead!"
His efforts to sideline the big actions in the broader galaxy eventually veer into an almost surreal tone worthy of parody. We get brief mentions or asides of stuff going on in the universe, even signs of a big battle with the Empire, before the book smash-cuts to a trivial meandering scene with his pet creations. Few of these ever actually tie into the big grand finale in play until the very end, resulting in scene upon scene of what's effectively dead air. It's Tarantino in reverse, where you're not left enjoying the wordplay, just screaming at the book to shut up and get back to the important bits. Or, in the rare moments when it isn't doing this, it's brushing off everything else and downplaying the abilities of others until the Wendig bunch are the only competent people in the galaxy.
Take the opening chapters for example. What we get from Han and Leia is something out of a bad rom-com, with more than a few painful jokes about Han being overly worried (and insisting that Leia consume a small jungle's worth of fruit) and covering her impending pregnancy. This is delivered with the kind of forced, farcical smugness of a daytime television drama show, and the only entertaining bits suggested stem from the New Republic having some difficulties in establishing its new domain.
Apparently no one else is actually keeping a close eye the Empire though, and rather than suggesting that the Republic is doing its best, the new characters are shilled with several insane victories in quick succession to make up for its failings. This starts with managing to track down the one bounty hunter with knowledge of Jakku being the Empire's staging ground, threatening to torture the information out of him, getting to Jakku to confirm the Imperials are there, escaping a fleet of over a dozen Star Destroyers, then simultaneously bringing word to the Republic and starting scouting/resistance efforts on the surface.
Now, such a series of stunts would indeed be quite impressive were it not for two things: One, this is front-loaded within the first fifty pages. You barely get anyone re-introduced at all before it tries to breeze through the actual set-up necessary for this book to work, with a few extremely forced emotional moments shoved in amid the action. Two, the book is trying so hard to make them look impressive that the story makes the New Republic increasingly incompetent with every passing chapter.
Now, not knowing about a full scale assault fleet and a super star destroyer on a remote world? It's questionable that they would overlook this to be sure, but it's a big galaxy, so let's give them the benefit of the doubt. However, the rest of the book keeps pushing things further and further until you're left uttering the line "You have got to be fucking kidding me!" at every passing chapter. It eventually becomes so bad that, to try and justify the Resistance and greater involvement of the new characters, the New Republic repeatedly opts to veto and blocks efforts to break the military force holding Jakku hostage. The story would honestly make more sense if every politician's line was replaced with "#YOLO!" for the entire book!
Oh, if you're hoping that the politics of the book might actually offer some greater insight to the tale or even interesting counterpoints to various subjects, don't kid yourself. Bloodline's mangled attempts at political intriguer were bad enough, but here we're left with such a stunningly simplified and utterly moronic take on politics that it couldn't pass for a bad episode of Yes Minster. The ploys are so obvious you'll be predicting the twists five chapters in advance, and the few you don't pick up on will come so far out of left field that they might as well come with an asterisk with small notes stating "The Force did it!" The story doesn't evolve or develop here, it just bulldozes through everything to try and get from point A to point B. This is something which would usually elicit anger at one author destroying another's efforts to build the galaxy, were this not the same author!
So, what about the characters then, do they work well at all? Nope. No, not in any way. On the one hand we have a few returning faces who end off generally bad on the whole. Han and Leia's chemistry dissipates in every scene until you're left with a weeping pile of cliches over actual characters, both of who are usually pushed to one side in favour of the newer figures. Chewbacca is initially so far outside of the story that his own plot might as well be stuck in an entirely different book for the first act, and the wookiee himself is little more than a walking plot device to help shove things along when he does get involved. Wedge and Mon Mothma are no better, treated once again as excuses for the plot to pile humiliating abuse unto them; with the former kicked so far upstairs he's practically a joke, while the latter seems to be suffering from amnesia. At least she presumably is, as the political leader of the Rebellion apparently can't get anyone to agree on anything, with the book presenting her as an ineffectual failing leader.
Even the new heroes are no better, and you'd be hard pressed to summarize them beyond their general role and species. This is amateurishly shoved into the rushed opening, which might as well be summed up as "Exposition, Expoisition, Exposition, By The Way We're Mother And Child, Oh Shit, It's The Empire!" for all the effect it has upon the reader. There is little to no re-introduction of anyone here at first, and what little we do get not only doesn't make you want to root for them, but comes across as forced and flawed. Starting with the above example first, what we get is little more than a page-and-a-half of exchanges between the two before they start getting shot at. It boils down their relationship to, once again, a lot of cliches about the mother being protective and the son wanting to prove himself. This is a terrible way to introduce the characters to a new reader as it displays none of their depth or dynamic. Or, at least it would, were there anything more to actually be had between the two.
Matters are only made worse with the rest of the bunch, who are introduced ready to torture information out of a bounty hunter. Not a very nice hunter to be sure, and one protagonist is established to be somewhat immoral to justify this, but there's an almost gleefully sadistic tone to the scene. The story quickly goes into details about smashing his hands, cutting off his hands, poisoning his blood, ripping out his bones, and threats to devolve into a Star Wars snuff story. Thankfully they don't go ahead with it, but it is made very clear to the reader they would have happily reduced the man to a bloody wreck. Now, this sort of angle could work with a kind of Suicide Squad style story, but scene after scene keeps treating these guys like unambiguous heroes. So, yes, apparently the shining paragons of hope of this particular tale happily condone torture; either by actively practicing it or happily turning a blind eye to the act. Feel free to pick your narrative poison!
Of course, it hardly helps matters that half the time you can't tell one person from the other. It's always essential in every book that each character have their own voice, their own personality quirks or even just basic ideas they represent to help them stand out. Without it, the reader just starts to see one person in every single role. You can probably guess what happened here. If not, please allow me to sum up the length and breadth of this book's emotional spectrum with one word: Snark. We have a lot of it. A ton of it. A veritable smorgasbord of sarcastic terms and moments thrown in between lines to try and turn everyone into Deadpool. Don't believe me? Please read the following:
"I'm sorry? Am I short-circuiting like a wet droid? What are we talking about here exactly?"
"Hardly, I quit drinking Kowakian rum, because even though it tastes like the sweet, syrup of pure liquid stardust, it invokes the kind of hangover that makes you feel as if you've been romanced by an irascible rancor. It is the kind of hangover that makes you plead for death while hiding in the darkness under your bedcovers or even under the bed itself. No more Kowakian rum for me."
"You insignificant spec of insect waste-"
"Your mind is wandering like a child in a toy market."
"I'm going to either give you these credits, or i'm going to throw you out the hole in that wall over there. You can leave here with some extra currency in your pocket, or with two broken legs. Maybe even two broken arms."
"Your son, Armitage. I know you don't like him. I suspect you hurt him - psychologically or physically, I don't know, and I don't care. You will leave him alone. And you will teach the boy everything that you know. Are we clear?"
Those words were spoken by an Imperial defector, a battle droid, a bounty hunter, a combat eager son, an Imperial loyalist, and a character from the old films. Really, can you even begin to guess which one might be which? It becomes so bad that the only one who ever stands out is the bloody combat droid, as the author drops all pretenses of turning him into a poor man's HK-47, and has him speak exactly like HK-47 for the entirety of the last act. This runs throughout the entire book, and you'll be forgiven for not only losing track of who is who in each conversation, but who is even in the damn scene because of this. Or, for that matter, where the hell the scene is even set. If the dialogue was bad, the environmental descriptions and planetary establishments are downright unforgivably atrocious. Usually these boil down to perhaps one or two sentences at the start followed by nothing else.
Star Wars is infamous, of course, for having films full of single-biome worlds, but the book takes things a step further by practically defining scenes by just a scant few details. If it's set on a forest world we just get "there were some trees nearby" or with a desolate planet nothing but "oh, there was a lot of sand" accompanied by a few background oddities. The story is much more obsessed with the minor odd or strange details, or background people who help make them up, rather than actually describing where they are or what it's like. In fact, the rare exceptions such as the lengthy outline of Nakadia's environment are so broad that it loops back around to being damn near useless, obsessed with nation scale details without ever bothering to outline anything nearby. Combined with the story's habit of bouncing about, from one end of the galaxy to the next, after extremely short chapters (or even mid-chapter in a few unfortunate cases) you can be left reading about an entirely new world and not realise it for several pages.
So, we have poor characters, poor environments, poor storytelling, poor dialogue, and a plot which is fueled by the sheer stupidity of others to make the author's pet favourites look better. Some of you might be wondering, well, if it at least does the world-building any justice.
The world building here consists of quite frankly one of the most bizarre mixes of great-but-mishandled and downright terrible ideas I have ever seen. Time and again - like so many of Disney's creations - the book opts to loot bits and pieces from the old Expanded Universe and treat them like its own. The problem is, rather than keeping them in a decent state, apparently no one can help but meddle with them, resulting in a number of self-contradictory ideas or retcons thrown in purely for a cheap gag. Or at least what I assume was supposed to be a cheap gag. The problem is that it's hard to tell when the book is being serious or not.
Take, for example, the big driving plan behind this whole event: Palpatine's fall. Apparently, like all good villains, the Emperor had a contingency plan ready to be rolled for the moment of his defeat. Okay, not a bad idea and the Expanded Universe has something to work with, so what's Palpatine's come-back plan? Nothing. Nope, not one thing. Nothing to maintain the Empire, nothing to restore his rule, nothing to establish a dynasty. Apparently, rather than pulling ye olde clone trick, his plan was to blow up the entire galaxy. His reasoning? No empire incapable of defending its Emperor deserves to exist.
Yes, this is in the book. Yes, apparently this is supposed to be some great grand ending to the whole thing, despite it showing up with little to no prior establishment in any way. There is no word in English, German or Mandarin which could possibly describe the sheer unrelenting stupidity of this reveal. Believe it or not, but the execution is even worse, as that's lobbed in at the last moment as well. Having read this twice over now, folks, we owe Kevin J Anderson an apology. At least his stuff never reached levels so inhumanly bad that I am left questioning if a book's publication was some kind of Springtime for Hitler stunt in the making.
When Empire's End does try to add in new things, it also keeps making the same old mistakes over and over again. A big one back in Aftermath was how everyone knew about the Jedi, the Force, the history of the Republic and things the Emperor was established to have wiped out back in A New Hope. A very basic mistake to be sure, but one which could be forgiven if you have a trilogy to go back and fix it with, right? Nope, wrong. Instead, if you're the creator of this series, you double down and make this error as dementedly egregious as possible!
Rather than there just being a few sects or people left who know about the Force, there are entire bloody cults! Everywhere! By this book if a character walks down a road, they're going to stumble across three different Force cults without even bothering to look under a rock. Part of the book delves into this, trying to make them menacing and threatening, but rapidly turning them into something the average Chaos Magos would just laugh at and call them adorable. We're given the impression that these things were bubbling under the surface for an age, kept barely in line and only just about hidden away from the world. Why didn't Palpatine stamp them out, to prevent the obvious competition rising to threaten his power-base? Because without them we wouldn't have yet another inane sub-plot adding bugger all to the book past padding out its word count.
So, the characters, dialogue, descriptions, actions and depiction of the factions are all terrible, topped off the kind of world-building which serves to only punch plot holes into the setting. Out of anything - anything - here, many of you are likely asking if at least the combat proves to be halfway decent.
Long and very large answer:
In almost twenty-five years of enjoying science fiction, in six of actively covering and reviewing media of all forms, I have personally never seen battles this anemic. There is no structure to them, no build-up, no effort to present the scale of events nor even to stage engagements one sweeping fight at a time. Even the vast general descriptions which some authors can get away with don't come into play here, until the entire - supposedly bloody huge - Battle of Jakku might as well just be a massed fighter engagement with a couple of capital ships.
Of course, you probably don't believe this, do you? How could anyone possibly screw up the one thing Star Wars is best known for - the Wars!? Well, apparently you hire the guy who spent most of the last book actively avoiding writing battles. Having seen how this plays out, I can understand why:
"One of the Star Destroyers - the Punishment - turns its nose drastically starboard. It turns right towards the Starhawk Amity. And the Amity has little room to maneuver given its proximity to both Agate's Concord and to the battle raging all around it.
It's suicide, Ackbar thinks. He believe it must be an accident, but it seems to be deliberate. The Punishment's nose is like a sweeping blade, and it crashes into the blunt fore of the Amity, shearing though it. Fire blooms in space. Bodies drift. And the Punishment keeps going. Thrusters burn at the back and repulsors fire along the side - the Destroyer becomes a weapon as it cuts the Starhawk in half, debris from both ships cascading outward as lightning coruscates between the two obliterated vessels.
Agate's own ship is right in the middle of it all.
He hurriedly opens a channel."
Believe it or not, but you're often lucky to even get that much. That entire section was preceded by a long, drawn out conversation between Admiral Ackbar and another General on the other side of the galaxy. In the middle of a battle. With no indications of threat, damage or pressing tactics coming into the mix at any point. Oh, and right after that bit? Yep, you guessed it, right back to the communicated conversations between characters! The entire Battle of Jakku, the massive great damn event which ended the Civil War, the thing this entire trilogy has been supposedly building towards, takes place off-screen! I kid you not, there is more stuff following Wendig's creations and between character conversations than anything spent on the ships, the ground battle, the space battle or even the tactics involved. It's treated as just flavour text amid the more "important" stuff of reading some tripe family drama between one character and the Grand Admiral who murdered her husband.
Top all of this off with a non-ending which barely bothers to resolve anything which actually mattered to this series - and pushes to make one of Wendig's cardboard cut-outs the new Empress - and you have a complete cluster-fuck of a finale which shouldn't have made it past the first draft.
At this point, mass recycling this book is permitted, and indeed actively encouraged so it can contribute something of worth to this world.
There has never been a bigger missed opportunity in the history of science fiction. This trilogy, this event which was supposed to kick-start an entire new saga, has been built upon some of the worst storytelling ever to be put onto paper. At least examples like Twilight had the excuse of a relatively overlooked genre with few hits, but this abomination? The author was handed the keys to the kingdom here. He had a fresh slate to start over with all he wanted, a basic request to build towards a new films, an entire library of lore to delve into, and a beloved franchise to milk cash off of. It had every advantage it could have asked for, and it didn't just fail, it failed spectacularly. It dug a grave for itself so deep it basically walked into Satan's domain and handed itself over willingly.
Let me be absolutely clear please - This isn't a car crash of a work. No, no, it's a freight train filled with crashing cars, derailing itself over a sea of megalodons. This is the kind of sheer, raw unrelenting failure that now amount of expertise or training could ever hope to match; and it was supposed to be this universe's Heir to the Empire. I honestly don't know whether to laugh or weep at the fact we have lost so much, and have only gained a stinking turd of a failed story in its place.
So, with all that, you might be wondering why it's gotten so much positive reception in so many places? So many great quotes, so many glowing reviews on Goodreads. Well, there's a reason for that, and it's quite simple: This series is still hiding behind a shield of homophobia. People still believe the lie that all criticism, all derision and mockery of this work is born of blind hatred of gay characters, a lie promoted by Wendig himself. In fact, it was so bad that the first review of this book was up months before its release, and looked like this -
That lie right there, that final mocking declaration of "Oh, you don't praise this? You don't deserve to live you homophobic scumbag!" is the final nail in the coffin. When a book proves to be so bad it requires faux discrimination as a shield against all criticism, it has transcended to a level of moral and creative repugnance I simply do not have the words for.
People, do not buy this book. Really, don't. While I don't condone piracy, I will just say that this is not worth handing over your cash for. If you are masochistic enough to want it, wait for it to come out of a charity book shop, or buy it second-hand months down the line when someone has inevitably ditched it upon realizing the mistake they made. Disney cares only for its coffers, perhaps it's time to make sure they know they can't get away with churning out shit and calling it gold dust.
Verdict: 0.5 out of 10