Review: Aftermath: Empire’s End (Audiobook)

At long last, the trilogy that began with Aftermath, the flagship title in Lucasfilm’s Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens publishing endeavor (man, remember that?) has come to its conclusion. By now, no doubt many of you have already voraciously consumed Chuck Wendig’s novel Empire’s End, but for those of you waiting to hear what the audiobook version narrated by Marc Thompson has on offer, I’ve got you covered. 

I mostly liked Aftermath, and I mostly loved Life Debt, at least at the time I was reading them. Empire’s End is in almost every way the logical conclusion to the arc begun and continued in those books, respectively, both in terms of plot, and character arcs. But by the end I was left with the feeling that this book, and in retrospect, the entire trilogy, was just okay.

When we last left our lovable band of misfits, Norra Wexley and her crew of Imperial hunters was hot on the trail of former Grand Admiral Rae Sloane. Sloane, Norra believes, was responsible not only for a devastating attack on the New Republic, but for turning Norra’s long-lost husband, Brentin, into a mind-controlled assassin for the Empire. In fact, Sloane was betrayed by Gallius Rax, the actual architect of the attack and Brentin’s part in it, and Slone has teamed up with Brentin to track down Rax. All lines converge on the distant and barren world of Jakku, where Rax waits with what remains of the Imperial fleet, and where the Empire will make its final stand.

Wendig’s prose remains crisp, clear, and simple almost to a fault. I praised this style in my review of Life Debt, and I still enjoy it, but his tendency to lay out in plain terms how this person said that line, rather than relying on emphasis and context clues, can become tiresome when one is listening to an audiobook. I know she snapped the line, book, because I just heard the narrator snap it. I do for the most part still enjoy Wendig’s prose, however, and will very likely seek out more of his books to read on my own time, as it were.

That said, I felt that both the character arcs and the main plot fell a little bit flat. The characters don’t seem to have grown or changed much since the first novel, beyond a little sanding off of some of their rough edges. As for the plot, the conclusion that Wendig’s been driving towards is logical from both a story and a character perspective, but it still feels a bit anticlimactic. Indeed, the climactic Battle of Jakku (that’s not a spoiler, is it? I mean, look at the dang cover) feels fragmented and halfhearted, and the big set piece at the center of it doesn’t feel particularly well designed or executed.

The narration doesn’t help. If you read my review of Life Debt, you know I’m not a fan of Marc Thompson’s narration, and little has changed. His Temmin is still whiny and obnoxious (well beyond what I think even Temmin’s most ardent detractors would say is called for), his aliens still nigh-incomprehensible, and his women characters mostly indistinguishable from one another. Additionally, Thompson remains a singularly melodramatic performer, putting AWE and WONDER into his voice at the most banal and mundane descriptions (I swear he sounded surprised by one of the chapter headings), so that when things do get exciting and dramatic, there’s barely any change at all in the level of emotion and excitement he’s putting into his narration.

Likewise, the production remains intrusive, although not to the level that it was in Life Debt — though perhaps I’m simply more used to the “house style” for Star Wars audiobooks by now. Regardless, the nigh-incomprehensible alien voices become pretty much just incomprehensible once they’re run through whatever idiot filter the producer decided to slap on them. Additionally, sometimes sound effects cut in too early (blaster fire starting well before anyone fires a blaster) or go on for way, way too long (klaxons blaring). The music, at least, seems to have been used more judiciously and appropriately here than in the past, though again, perhaps I’m just more accustomed to it by now.

Let’s be honest — if you’ve come this far with Aftermath, you’re probably not going to stop now. And the book is entertaining; I don’t want to suggest that it’s not. There are some great action scenes, some fun character moments, and some intriguing suggestions for the greater Star Wars universe at large, both past and present. But the stasis the characters seem to have found themselves locked into is frustrating, as is the anticlimactic nature of the plot and Wendig’s apparent inability to successfully stage-manage a sprawling climax like the Battle of Jakku. Keep your expectations managed.

And, as with Life Debt, if audio is your only way of consuming books, this production won’t ruin the story for you. But if you’ve got a choice between print and audio on this one, maybe save that Audible credit for something else, and grab this one in hardcover.