When the Star Wars Aftermath trilogy was announced, it instantly had baggage and blowback to contend with. As the first post- Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi novel in the new, official canon, it was essentially the piece of fiction wiping out 30 years of expanded universe history. Writer Chuck Wendig, saddled with this unenviable task, was harangued online, harrassed by reviewers, and hassled by E.U. loyalists. Then people started to actually read the books, and see the world he was helping to flesh out. While there were obstacles in his way, thankfully Wendig saw it through, as the third book in the trilogy, Star Wars Aftermath: Empire's End, on store shelves today, is an exciting, essential read, and a fitting end to the Empire era that was kicked off forty years ago.
Yes, the title is factual, but that's as far as we'll go with spoilers here. This book is about the end of the Empire, something that obviously had to happen (it's the First Order in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, not the Empire, after all), but it's really about the journey and the individual characters that get there.
Admittedly, the first book of the Aftermath trilogy started a bit slowly. The characters were almost entirely brand new creations, and with it picking up just after the Battle of Endor, the hope of many readers was to see more of the core cast of the Original Trilogy. With that novel, though, Wendig established himself as a master of the third act, pulling everything together for a riveting finish. That's on full display with Empire's End, itself a third act of the trilogy; it's the strongest of the three books, using everything built up from the first two to varying degrees. The third act of this individual novel is also the strongest; Wendig seems to get into such a rhythm once he's set the pieces on his Dejarik board that he soars to a finish with a sense of purpose only hinted at during the setup.
While acknowledging that the latter third (or even half) is better than the first, it's also fair to say that the pacing overall in Empire's End is much more even than the first two. While there's still setup being done, most of it is coming off the fallout of the events of Life Debt, the second book, which premiered less than a year ago. That higher sense of urgency must have been extremely difficult to maintain for an entire novel, but it's always there; you're likely to fly through this book, especially if you've been anticipating the conclusion of the story since the first novel.
The pacing is helped by the ever-wonderful inclusion of interludes, the highlight of the first two books, which here are used to not just give snippets of the galaxy outside the central conflict, but also to catch up with old friends (you may have heard about one, and a familiar furry friend is another), and to set up new characters and conflicts. Literally every single interlude in Empire's End made me desperate for a full story centered around that character, that location, that event. I'd buy a book of short stories in the Star Wars universe by Wendig in a heartbeat; his flare for the self-contained outdoes even his long-form storytelling.
The primary story includes bits of characters you already know, like Leia and Han, Mon Mothma, and Wedge Antilles, but the core team brought together in the first book are still the real stars - and are now old friends just the way those original movie characters are. As the story progresses and they go through their many trials and tribulations, there is heartbreak and triumph, laughter and tears; it's exactly as good Star Wars should be. The final fate of many of the characters was surprising, and the revelations about Star Wars lore, mainly shown through the villainous Gallius Rax and the interludes, should keep fans talking until at least the next film.
Perhaps the biggest compliment Star Wars Aftermath: Empire's End can receive is that the novel enriches the Star Wars story in a way that makes me want to go back and immediately re-watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens, to see if I can pick up on character details that will suddenly make a little more sense (two of the younger characters are shared here). Knowing what's to come in Force Awakens also colors moments in Empire's End with this mutual shading in a way that brought about nervous chills during certain moments. Likewise, I can't wait for Star Wars: The Last Jedi to see if any of the other teases get paid off in that film.
While the first two Star Wars Aftermath books rightly felt like a significant amount of setup, the incredible amount of payoff in Empire's End makes all that anticipation worthwhile. Likewise, the setup and teases in Empire's End will make fans even more excited for what's to come across Star Wars storytelling, from the upcoming films to the other novels, comics, and shows that tie so wonderfully together.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
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