Image: Steve Thomas for Del Rey.
I need to vent. If you like these books, I recommend you don’t read this. And I say that as someone who likes a lot of the new characters: this is about the writing.
I’ll also say first that representation is important and it matters. Wendig goes out of his way to include characters of colour and characters from various parts of the LGBTQ+ spectrum. This is good. It is unambiguously a good thing to do, and I don’t take away from it at all. None of it is a distraction from the plot, or from ‘what Star Wars is about’ or whatever. The distractions are all down to Wendig’s bad writing.
Well, that was a lot harder a slog than I was hoping for. I didn’t read any SWEU for years until in 2015 I realised Aaron Allston had written one last X-Wing novel in the old canon (Mercy Kill), and I was always going to enjoy another story about Piggy and the delight that is Myri Antilles. More recently, I wasn’t too impressed by Alexander Freed’s prose in Rogue One, but hell, I enjoyed a lot of other things about it. Catalyst by James Luceno was good though; and you can go through my archive here if you want my opinions on the YA/children’s lit offerings tied to Rogue One. I’m saying all this because at so many points during Aftermath I was going: really?? Is this just the quality of SWEU? Has it always been this bad? If I go and re-read favourites from a decade ago will I cringe and regret it? So, I think having reminded myself that I read and particularly enjoyed Mercy Kill and Catalyst in recent memory, I can safely say: no. This is not the standard quality of SWEU writing. This is just bad writing.
Ah, I hear you clamour: ‘But, I enthuse! Surely you noticed that it was bad…at the beginning of the trilogy? If you didn’t like it, why push through to the end?’
Well now. This is complicated. Partly, I think I was hungry for more stories about a rag-tag crew of found family saving the galaxy from evil (murder droid…hot soldier banging hot outlaw in the ship’s storage room…gorgeous Imperial defector…uh, a badass but traumatised mother and her infuriating son?). And the first book in Wendig’s trilogy did that very nicely, thank you. I thoroughly enjoyed the exploits of Norra Wexley, worst mother in the galaxy, and despite myself I fell head over heels for the smart-arse alcoholic ex-Imperial Sinjir Rath Velus. Also I read the first one because it claimed to be about Wedge Antilles. Spoiler: he’s not actually in it very much. And the second in the trilogy carried on in a fairly entertaining fashion. But this one just…dragged.
Since the first in the trilogy, Wendig’s tortured metaphors have driven me mad. Not least because most of them seem to rely on an animal of some sort, and he runs rings around himself as he tries to figure out the SWEU equivalent of an actual animal, or wanders off on tangents about animals he’s invented. It’s all so jarring. People seem to know metaphors about animals that are only native to one planet — one that these characters have no great familiarity with. Oh, and the present tense. Save me. I’ve read good things written in the present tense (usually fanfic tbh), and this is not one of those things. I’m really not sure what the point of it is, it just became a constant background annoyance by the end of the trilogy.
Even the characters I made myself read this damned book for felt like they’d been twisted into caricatures half the time: I started the trilogy fully prepared to have precisely zero time for Sinjir’s fanbaity badassery, but his eloquence was laced through with enough self-knowing sadness that I was hooked. But by Empire’s End he was starting to sound like a parody of Joss Whedon dialogue; always a quip, never something I could actually imagine a human being saying. He was happily cured by the time his final scene came around, but I still had to plough through what came before, didn’t I? (Everyone I know: no, no you didn’t)
I’ll grant that Norra and Sloane (pictured above) at least had a satisfactory end to their arc. Unfortunately, as there was so much that this book had to get through in order to take us to where we needed to be in the set-up to the sequel movies, the characters’ internal lives were sacrificed. Norra’s situation was dealt with particularly perfunctorily, her various traumas stacked so high on top of each other that there was never a chance to delve into how her unresolved issues after the Battle of Endor had grown. And Jas had it even worse. Sloane, on the other hand, had plenty of time to reflect, and it gave her story more of a punch than I expected. Maybe, then, this isn’t Wendig’s fault entirely, but the problem that comes from having to slot into the saga’s bigger picture; Sloane had a lot of waiting to do whilst the other characters caught up to her. I did enjoy Wendig’s stories the most the further they were from familiar ground, but I was never grabbed by the events on Kashyyyk, and the political wrangling of Empire’s End was simply depressing rather than interesting in the way the various holo-report interludes in the first book were. He also had Lando use the word babe in a way that made my toes curl, and his Han often felt like a clip-joint pieced together from movie dialogue.
Having said that, the end wrapped up fairly nicely, and seemed to be written in a far less tortuous manner than the rest of Empire’s End. Some character deaths were achingly predictable, some were predictable in a tropey way, and some were fairly callously handled. I’m not really sure why some of the characters who died had to die, especially when they seemed to be original to the trilogy, but still fairly minor, unexplored players. I’m not opposed to character death (I live at the bottom of a pit of glorious despair called the Rogue One fandom after all), but there wasn’t enough to go on with some of Wendig’s characters to make their death have much of an impact. Other scenes in the climactic battle were robbed of any excitement by the fact that we know how things end up: we’ve seen Jakku and what crashed there in The Force Awakens. A better writer could probably have wrung some drama from this stuff anyway, but — uh, super strong tractor beams that I never mentioned before!! doesn’t really cut it.
I’m disappointed. I was kind of disappointed in the first one that there was so little Wedge, but then I got behind the new characters. The plot of the second one felt flimsy, but it rattled along easily enough. Empire’s End, unfortunately, got stuck between the demands of the franchise and a horrid prose style. Unedifying. What happened to characters I liked was unedifying, what seems to pass for some SWEU these days is unedifying, reading this book was unedifying. I’m going to try some classic, no-longer-canon SWEU next. But maybe not next, next. I need to read something more reliably good first.
Also I only just twigged that Snap Wexley is in The Force Awakens, and now I’m annoyed because I did not imagine him like that. Not one bit.