Back in 2015, the internet got itself into a bit of a tizzy over the news that an important Star Wars novel called Aftermath had been released, and that one of the main characters was gay. Since I have an ear tilted eternally to both queer news and Star Wars news, I was immediately intrigued, but also completely prepared for the barrage of vitriol the Star Wars fandom started spewing as soon as the book was published. Most of the criticism didn’t lead in with homophobia, and some didn’t mention the gay characters at all, but it felt like a very peculiar coincidence that after decades of shrugging off plenty of resoundingly mediocre Star Wars books with a “meh,” the fandom chose this one in particular to shred to pieces for its (allegedly) atrocious writing style, boring characters, and sloppy story. I read several Star Wars books as a child and have recently started poking around in the EU again, so I decided to find out for myself if Aftermath genuinely deserved the gruesome skewering it got online.
The first book of the Aftermath trilogy, entitled simply “Aftermath,” takes place immediately after the events of Return of the Jedi but before The Force Awakens and is set on a fairly remote planet where a handful of high-ranking imperials are trying to regroup after the Rebel Alliance succeeded in destroying the Death Star and killing Vader and the Emperor. The story primarily follows an ex-rebel coming home to her son (who later becomes a pilot as well and shows up in The Force Awakens), an imperial defector avoiding detection, a bounty hunter hired by the New Republic, and Wedge Antilles, a pilot who was instrumental in destroying the Death Star. It is also peppered with vignettes showing how individuals across the galaxy are coping with the fall of the Empire and the rise of the New Republic. The main characters, all with drastically different motives and personalities, end up working together to expose the secret gathering of imperials on the planet Akiva to the local population, and ultimately to the New Republic.
Now, I will grant that the author, Chuck Wendig, did make some stylistic choices that differ from the typical Star Wars EU conventions. His pattern of “interludes,” where he cuts away from the main story to tell a brief and unrelated secondary story, hadn’t really been done in a Star Wars book before. He also chose to tell the story in present tense, whereas all other Star Wars novels, to my knowledge, are in past tense. I can see how some people might not find this to their liking, but the technique is actually quite effective in showing the widespread fallout of the literally fractured Empire. Chuck Wendig is by no stretch of the imagination a bad writer, and is certainly not a bad writer of the magnitude suggested by the hundreds of one-star Amazon reviews the book has been pelted with. Wendig has written more than a dozen other non-Star Wars books, all of which have been well received critically, and all of which have four- and five-star averages on Amazon. In fact, the few elements of the writing I found genuinely irritating were the same elements I tend to find irritating in other Star Wars novels, namely the excess of awkward similes and the caricatured way anything related to the Dark Side is presented. You could argue, at most, that Wendig isn’t great at Star Wars-isms, but I don’t imagine that anyone actually is.
Characterization is where Wendig really shone in this novel: he introduces a lot of new characters and includes plenty of existing ones, all of whom are delightfully diverse in personality, philosophy, and background. Norra, who is arguably the main character, is a middle-aged woman who was a pilot for the rebellion and is returning to her homeworld to bring her petulant, resentful teenaged son to a less dangerous part of the galaxy. Rae Sloane is an Admiral in the Imperial Navy, in command of what seems to be the last surviving Super Star Destroyer, and trying to bring what remains of the Empire back together. As an aside, anyone who was mad about Finn being a Black Stormtrooper in The Force Awakens ought to have absolutely shit a brick over Sloane, who is Black and a woman and an admiral. Then of course, there’s the infamous gay: Sinjir Rath Velus, an Imperial Loyalty Officer who the Empire believed to have been killed on Endor. After coming face-to-face with his own mortality, he had a crisis of conscience and has been dodging imperials and casually drinking himself to death ever since. He is described as very much not white as well, though ethnicities in Star Wars are a little nebulous.
Now we all know I have a soft spot in my heart for queer characters, but if there’s one thing I hate more than no representation it’s bad representation, so when I say with conviction that Sinjir is absolutely delightful, I mean it. He’s got the snappiest dialogue in the book by a wide margin, the most complex backstory and uncertain motives, and is very instrumental in moving the story forward, in spite of professedly being only concerned for his own wellbeing. He can also kick ass in a fistfight, which never hurts a character’s cool factor. Although Sinjir’s sexuality is only briefly mentioned in Aftermath (and doesn’t shape his backstory in any significant way, hallelujah), I have it on good authority that he actually gets a living, breathing romantic interest and a sweet little love story later in the series, making him a unicorn amongst fictional gays. Incidentally, there are some lesbian side characters in this book who make it through the story completely unscathed.
As for the overall narrative success of the story Wendig has crafted, it’s a thoughtful and politically aware story about a group of fairly ordinary people weathering the uncertain transfer of power between two ruling bodies. It’s also cheekily self-aware, with a few characters joking openly about how inept battle droids are, and one imperialist pointing out bluntly that building a giant war machine called a “Death Star” kind of ruined any hope they had of painting themselves as plucky underdogs even though they’ve now lost power. Of the three Star Wars novels I’ve started in the last year, it’s the only one I’ve cared enough about to finish, and while it is certainly stylistically different from other Star Wars books, it’s very much not the disjointed mess that its detractors have claimed it to be.
I have to conclude that the hatred of Aftermath springs from two factors: first, there is obviously no shortage of good old-fashioned homophobia amongst Star Wars fans. There are plenty of reviews both on Amazon and elsewhere online that outright, unabashedly rage about there being gay characters in the book, and plenty of others that unsubtly bring it up in reviews that are ostensibly complaining about Chuck Wendig’s stylistic choices. Second, this book represents the first novel linked to the original trilogy after Disney bought Lucasfilm’s Star Wars properties. When that happened, Disney did a hard reset on the EU materials, relegating all the books that had been released prior to the buyout (many of which were beloved by fans) to the category of Legends novels instead of official canon material. Aftermath was part of the “new canon,” and droves of shrieking fanboys armed with the internet blamed this book, Chuck Wendig, and the space gays for single-handedly wiping hundreds of books they loved from existence. Several more canon Star Wars books have been released since the buyout—the two I started were very mediocre—but most of them have been well-received, and even the criticism they did get is not nearly as foul as the backlash to Aftermath. Of course, none of the others have prominently featured gay characters.
The reality of the situation is that Aftermath is a pretty decent book with a pretty decent story and an unconventional but tonally effective writing style. It’s full of diverse and well-developed characters, and doesn’t deserve even a fraction of the hate it’s received. I plan to start the second book of the trilogy next week. If you have a mind to pick up a Star Wars book, give this one a try, and don’t let the atonal squawking of angry fanboys trouble you.