By now a great many of you have likely already purchased and read Life Debt, the second novel in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy. Some of you may be waiting, however — for payday, for a free moment … or for someone to help you decide between the print version and the audio version. Likewise, there may be some of you who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to (or prefer not to) read the print version, and may be waiting to hear if the audiobook is an acceptable presentation of Wendig’s prose. Hopefully this review will help those folks, as well as anyone else who might be considering the audio version, decide if it’s for them.
I very much enjoyed the first Aftermath novel. I wasn’t among those troubled by Wendig’s prose or the “limited” scope, which seemed to be the two biggest criticisms. The present tense took about a page to get used to; Wendig’s clipped prose, about two pages. Like many, I was disappointed when I learned the book wouldn’t be about the “big three” of Luke, Leia, and Han, but I also became quickly enamored of this new group of characters: young Temmin Wexley and his psychotic droid Mr. Bones; Temmin’s mother Norra, pilot for the New Republic and veteran of the Battle of Endor; Sinjir Rath Velus, the foppish and lovable ex-Imperial drunk; the Zabrak bounty hunter Jas Emari; and several others, including A New Dawn’s Rae Sloane, now an Admiral attempting to stitch together the fractured remnants of the Empire. Wendig’s first Star Wars novel felt like the exciting, fast-paced pilot episode of a show you know you’re going to love, evoking the thrill, adventure, and humor reminiscent of the best of Star Wars. Suffice it to say, I was a fan, and excited to learn there would be two more books following the Wexleys and their small band of Imperial war criminal hunters.
Life Debt delivers on the promise of that first novel and then some. Recruited by Leia Organa Solo to locate her husband Han, who’s gone missing (while searching for his own missing person, the Wookiee Chewbacca), Norra and her team are soon caught up not only in the search for one of the most famous heroes of the Rebellion, but a rebellion to free the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk from the clutches of the Empire, and the machinations of the mysterious Fleet Admiral who’s been pulling Admiral Sloane’s strings. Aftermath, as mentioned, had a relatively modest scale, and the already-established characters of the Star Wars franchise were relegated to cameo appearances only. Here, having established his core group of new characters, Wendig opens things up a little, both in terms of scope and cast. Even if the “low” stakes of Aftermath left you cold, you’ll likely enjoy Life Debt; Wendig very effectively ramps up the scope and the stakes over the course of this novel, and while it comes to a satisfying conclusion, it also ends on the promise of a truly epic finale in Empire’s End, the final book of the trilogy, due out in January. The plotting is tight, the dialogue sharp and snappy, and while we may get more substantial appearances from the likes of Leia and Han and the rest (though I’ve resigned myself to the fact that we’re not getting any substantial post-Jedi Luke appearances until after Episode VIII drops), the further character development of the core cast is not neglected. All in all, if you liked Aftermath, I think you’ll love Life Debt. And if you were only so-so on Aftermath, I’d still recommend giving Life Debt a try, particularly if the limited scope of the first novel was one of your chief complaints.
Wendig’s signature staccato prose remains intact, of course, and while I enjoy this style well enough on the page, it is especially well-suited to the audiobook format. Along with the present tense, all three elements combine to lend a real immediacy to the novel. Some authors’ works don’t translate particularly well to audio, but Wendig’s style could almost be said to be tailor-made for the medium.
Unfortunately, this is a distractingly flawed production. I tend to prefer audiobook productions and narrations to be as straightforward as possible — a direct download of the author’s words into your brain, if you will. There will inevitably be some personality and flair introduced by the narrator — as there should be (no one wants to listen to a Ben Stein monotone for fifteen hours) — but it should be restrained, and appropriate to the scene. Marc Thompson’s narration, unfortunately, is neither of these things. The most mundane descriptions become desperately dramatic in Thompson’s hands, and the actually dramatic sections become almost unbearably hysterical. Every single observation is presented as though the point-of-view character thinks it’s the most bewildering or important thing in the world (“his skin was brown, and his coat was green. GREEN. GREEEEEEEEEEEEN!!!”). He really leans into the character voices, too — which is fine about half the time, and nigh-unintelligible (or just astonishingly obnoxious) the rest of the time. He does a credible Ackbar, but the kid in the prologue sounds like a bad Oliver Twist impersonation (“please sir, may I have some more?”), and Temmin comes off as a huffy obnoxious brat in a way the prose simply does not suggest. His Han is pretty good, but his Leia is so bland and whiny that it just makes his Han sound incongruous when the two of them are in conversation. Indeed, most of his female voices are similar, to the point where during a conversation between Leia, Mon Mothma, and Sloane, it became difficult to discern which dialogue belonged to which character. Jas and Jom aren’t bad, and his Sinjir sounds about like what you’d expect, but Norra, like Leia, comes off as weak and dithering.
What’s worse, the production includes occasional musical accompaniment (from John Williams’ film scores), constant scene-specific background noise, and astonishingly distracting sound effects. Now, this may be more subject to individual taste, but I found both the presence and the execution of these elements incredibly distracting. The background noise was just loud enough to cross the line from ambiance to irritating, and the music seemed to come in at random and often inappropriate moments. The sound effects were the worst, though, often being so loud in the mix that they actually overwhelmed the narration and made it impossible to hear certain words (this was true on my wireless Plantronics earbuds, my desktop Bose speakers, and whatever speakers I’ve got in my car). As a production, this audiobook leaves a lot to be desired.
That said, Thompson is a clear and articulate narrator, and other than the occasional explosion sound effect or ill-advised slobbery alien voice, he was never difficult to understand. And the flaws in the narration and the production I mention above do not ruin the audiobook. They don’t make it impossible to enjoy. They simply take some getting used to.
All in all, I loved Life Debt the novel, and found Life Debt the audiobook to be a flawed, if acceptable, presentation of said novel. If you have no other way to enjoy Life Debt, the audiobook will get the job done, albeit with the occasional irritating quirk. If it’s at all convenient to get the hardcover or the e-book version instead, however, I’d recommend going that route. I have a feeling you’ll enjoy the novel a good deal more that way.
Note: A review copy of this audiobook was provided by Penguin Random House