The Cynic and the Optimist | Revisiting Star Wars: The Aftermath Trilogy (Part 1)
Recontextualizing the first major publishing release of the Disney/Star Wars era through its female leads. Part 1: The Cynic.
Earlier this year, I reread The Aftermath Trilogy by Chuck Wendig ( Aftermath, Life Debt, and Empire’s End). My last real thought after putting the final novel down: “Nope, never again.”
However, the past few years in Star Wars have circled that period, bringing new relevancy. The Mandalorian is years after the last of the Imperial remnants were defeated in the Battle of Jakku, Star Wars Squadrons takes place during, and Star Wars Battlefront II: Inferno Squad ended with the Battle of Jakku. The Aftermath Trilogy has become an increasingly valuable period in Star Wars history to know, so I wanted to revisit the story. Overall, it was a more pleasant experience, and I did not hate the first book as much the second time. I still disliked the second book and took a long time to finish the third. And while the novels are not long (350–500 pages each is on the short end for adult novels), they feel long. Each book is full of repetitive descriptions with too much time spent describing what characters are thinking of doing, and then describing the characters doing what they were thinking of doing. There is an infuriatingly pointless antagonist (more on that in part two), and, although the interludes introduced the now popular character Cobb Vanth, I am still not convinced they are necessary to the overall story.
But cut out the fat, and you have a story about two female veterans: one tethered to chaos, another tied to order. Aftermath is a tale of a cynic and an optimist struggling for purpose and power during wartime. The rebel pilot being the cynic and the Imperial Admiral being the optimist is a subversion that would continue to be expanded upon in Disney’s Star Wars era, where Imperials got as much depth and complexities as their rebel counterparts.
SPOILER WARNING — I will spoil things.
The Cynic: Norra Wexley
Whoever first uttered the phrase “We are our own worst enemy” might have had cynics in mind. This is the main roadblock of one main character in The Aftermath Trilogy, Norra Wexley. It is one characteristic of Norra, but it is the one readers see most of throughout the trilogy. Norra is one of the best pilots for the New Republic (a veteran we learn of the Battle of Endor). Norra joined the Rebellion when her husband, Brentin, was taken from their home by Imperial forces.
She is retired and, never having found Brentin, goes back to her home planet of Akiva to get her son, Temmin, whom she left behind. Temmin has her cynicism and does not understand why she abandoned him to fight the Empire. Norra insists it was for a bigger cause, even though she was driven by her husband’s capture. Norra’s personality and early life portray someone nomadically-inclined and isolated, so her reasonings might be more selfish than she would like to believe. Temmin is understandably angry, but he also has made a life for himself on Akiva and refuses to abandon what he has built. Norra does not believe that her son can survive without her despite evidence to the contrary.
Norra is still battling her son when she gets word from New Republic forces that Captain Wedge Antilles has been taken captive by Imperial remnants led by Rae Sloane. Norra, hesitant at first, takes the crisis to kill two birds with one stone: she brings her son along and gets to go back into action. Her reckoning with her son comes in other ways during the first novel but, ultimately, Temmin joins her as she builds a team of Imperial remnant hunters.
Norra continues to fight for the New Republic, but her cynicism with politics and the red tape causes her to disregard orders. When Han Solo (also a cynic) gets lured to Kashyyyk in a trap, Norra defies orders from Admiral Ackbar to rescue him as a favor to Leia. It is not hard to convince Norra to help because the ex-rebel pilot is projecting her guilt of losing her husband. And, if she can find Leia’s husband, maybe that will give her some peace. That is her purpose, at least that is what she believes through most of Life Debt. She struggles with whether bringing her son into that world was a good idea but also understands that she can’t always protect him.
The mission would end up reuniting her with her long-lost husband Brentin, leading to a battle at Chandrila orchestrated by a mysterious Imperial figurehead, Galiuss Rax. The result is many casualties and injured New Republic figures and Brentin missing again. Norra puts the blame solely on Rae Sloane and has a new purpose…revenge. She is unaware that Brentin went willingly with Sloane to seek revenge against Rax.
It is not explored enough but it is hinted that Norra feels compelled to keep fighting with the Republic for so long because she never got closure on what happened to her husband. She mentions becoming a rebel pilot to carry on his fight, but her contributions to the Rebellion and the New Republic are undeniable. And when she finds him in Life Debt, she is unsettled. Not just because he is acting strange but because she has completed her mission to find him…and still feels unfulfilled. The story would have served Norra’s arc more if Brentin was back with no control chip, and she just felt restless. Having him actually be controlled feels lazy and robs Norra of earned complexities. It is fascinating that Norra and her husband are both driven by revenge instead of the possibility of being a family again (at least not until it is too late). Part of the downfall of cynics in literature is a self-fulfilling prophecy of bringing out the worst in themselves, and this is no exception.
Norra puts herself and another teammate, Jas Emari, in danger by going rogue and tracking Sloane down to Jakku. The pair unintentionally find themselves on a secret Imperial occupied planet without reinforcements and have to rely on Temmin and Sinjir (another teammate) to save them. This leads to the Battle of Jakku, which sees a showdown between the New Republic and Imperial forces to defeat the Galactic Empire. By the time Norra confronts Sloane, she realizes the Admiral was not her true enemy. Norra puts aside her cynicism and distrust of Sloane to help her defeat Rax and save both Republic and Imperial forces on Jakku.
“You go ahead. Save the world. I’m going to leave, now,” Norra says, sighing and wiping tears away. The blaster clatters from her hand. “Let’s hope Brentin is right and you aren’t as bad as I think.”
Sloane gives her a small nod. “Good luck, Norra Wexley.”
“You too, Grand Admiral Sloane.”
— Star Wars Aftermath: Empire’s End
Having lost her husband, Norra finally decides to live her life and stop fighting. It is not a perfect arc and, often sidelined by other storylines like Mon Mothma’s struggles with leadership and her clash with Leia, whatever Temmin gets into, and those interludes. Her romance with Wedge Antilles also took a backseat for most of the trilogy. Developing feelings for a fellow pilot while dealing with the return of your long-lost husband is a more compelling conflict than having to track down your missing husband only for him to conveniently die. Wedge is considerably younger than her at this time which is also barely addressed.
In an interview with SlashFilm, Chuck Wendig said that he created Norra in response to the Missing Mom trope:
“My goal with her was always to create a “strong mom” character — given that in Star Wars (and arguably in a lot of YA too) mothers are given a short, short shrift in terms of getting to be fully-fledged, complex characters with agency in the world.”
— Chuck Wendig, SlashFilm Interview
Norra’s growth from cynic to less of a cynic (even hopeful) and inspiring growth within her son was one of the bright spots of The Aftermath Trilogy. While the novels do not present Norra as the perfect mom, they do not paint her as incompetent. It is made clear in the text that Norra is doing what she thinks is best for her son, no matter how misguided. She is a perfect mess and an antithesis to the dangerous myth that women can have it all. She excels at her day job, but her personal life is a disaster. By the end of the trilogy, she has found a path, not to have it all, but to manage her professional and personal life the best she can. And, whether in the real world or a fictional galaxy, that is all anyone can ever hope to do.