Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Book Review: Aftermath

After nearly two months (!) of sporadic reading, I have finally done it. I've finished Aftermath.

Sorry, Chuck Wendig, I really didn't like your book.

Star Wars: Aftermath- Chuck Wendig

(WARNING: Spoilers ahead. If you'd like to read this review with spoilers hidden, check it out on Goodreads. Also, the usual warnings about extreme snark, some naughty language, and RANT MODE ACTIVATED.)

If you're familiar with my reviews already, then you probably know by now that when it takes me this long to read a book that's not even 400 pages, it doesn't usually bode well. Needless to say, Aftermath couldn't hold my attention if it kidnapped it and stuffed it in a crawlspace bound and gagged with duct tape.

The problem isn't necessarily the story or the characters; my biggest issue is the writing style. One of the more unusual aspects of the writing style is that the story is told through 3rd person present tense. Or at least, it's unusual to me. Maybe it's just me, but there was just something very off-putting about that right from the get-go, and I've read and enjoyed novels written from a variety of perspectives before, including 1st person present tense. But this? I don't know, maybe another author could make it work, but Wendig simply couldn't. There were many times when bits of description felt more like reading stage directions than passages from a novel. Why he felt that this story needed to be told in present tense is beyond me.

Speaking of stage directions, Wendig seems to be showing his screenwriting roots in this novel. As I said before, the story itself isn't the problem, but rather the way it's told. Whether or not a different author could've made this work better as a novel I have no idea, but as I was reading I often couldn't help but feel like the story would've worked much better as a movie. Aftermath feels much more like a treatment for a movie script than it does like a proper novel. In addition to stage directions, there were many action scenes with abrupt POV switches between characters. Obviously, those kind of quick scene changes happen all the time in action-heavy movies and TV shows, but in a novel it's very jarring and frankly kind of annoying.

Telling this story through a movie rather than a book would've also done wonders for the novel's frustrating pacing problems which made up 90% of the reason why my attention kept escaping from its crawlspace and I had to put the book down for long stretches of time. In addition to being told in 3rd person, Aftermath also routinely switches between the POV's of several characters from chapter-to-chapter... and then within chapters... and occasionally within action scenes... and then the narrative adds a couple more POV's from less important characters... you get the idea. The end result is a narrative that feels both stretched thin and bloated at the same time. The main action takes place over maybe two days, tops, but with all those--often unnecessary--POV switches stuffed in there it feels like it takes forever for the plot to get from point A to point B. It gets a little maddening when 70-ish pages from the end the New Republic fleet is still wondering if the Empire is really having a secret meeting on Akiva, and then you remember that for them that less than a day has probably gone by at this point. Still, that's not much of an excuse when you consider all the goddamn evidence they've had up until this point. Really? 289 pages in and you're still wasting time wondering "if"?

Having lots of POV shifts can work, but the author needs to know how to juggle them all (positive example: A Game of Thrones). It started off alright, but eventually Wendig went overboard with all of them.

Oh, and it also doesn't help that Wendig often pauses the main story entirely at random intervals to insert "interludes", little micro-fictions that have nothing to do with the story you came here for at all and instead focus on random people in other parts of the galaxy dealing with the effects of the war. Look, as a concept it's kind of interesting, but those aren't the stories I paid to read; couldn't they all just be put together at the end, or in a little short story collection? It's like watching a movie in the theater vs. watching it on TV with commercials. This is the literary equivalent of paying to see one movie, but instead of playing the previews at the beginning, they stop the movie at random times to play them. They might be for very cool-looking movies that you'd want to go see, but you'd still probably leave the theater and demand a refund after the third or fourth time it happened.

Not all the interludes are even that bad, they're just all annoying as fuck because they take me out of the story. Yes, even that one that featured Han Solo. I get the feeling that Wendig was expecting readers to wet themselves with excitement over the cameo appearance of one of the fandom's most beloved characters, but for once in my life I do not care what random shit Han and Chewie are up to. Look, stories about the films' main characters are great and all, but if I wanted to read about their continuing adventures I would pick up one of the books that are actually about them. The story that I paid for and expected from Aftermath was one focusing on lesser-known and/or new characters like Wedge Antilles and Norra Wexley, a refreshing tale from the point of view of the galaxy's unsung heroes. The Han Solo interlude was such an egregious attempt to shoehorn in a popular character, and it just makes me madder that it had to be about a character that under any other circumstances I would love to read a story about.

Sorry not sorry
In addition to the pacing problems, too many POV changes, and awkward present tense, Wendig also has a weird habit that I can't find a more eloquent way to describe than "writing actions or bits of description as single, short lines in a way that's usually used for emphasis and/or to build dramatic tension but is used way too frequently in cases where emphasizing such an action doesn't make much sense so that after a while it becomes irritating and impossible to tell whether or not it's being used for emphasis or just because reasons". He also tends to engage in a lot of narrative hand-holding. Look, Chuck, I'm reading this book, so I'm a Star Wars fan; I don't need to be told "As you know"-style that there were a lot more Jedi around during the Clone Wars. I've also read lots of other books in the past and encountered plenty of metaphors in my time, so I like to think  I'm smart enough to not need every metaphor explained to me. Doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose of a metaphor?

Then of course there had to be a "twist" ending. Nothing wrong with having a big twist at the end, but this one was so poorly set up throughout the rest of the story that it felt more disappointing than anything else. Maybe I simply forgot about one or two instances of foreshadowing because it took me so long to read this, but my point still stands. There was no real build-up to it over the course of the novel. It feels more like an afterthought than an actual twist. Was it actually supposed to be shocking? Because there doesn't seem to actually be enough that's revealed by the twist for it to have shock value. It leaves the reader with more questions than answers, but not the kind of questions I felt particularly invested in speculating about. Just who the hell is "the fleet admiral", why is he significant, what's the significance of the other imperials thinking he's dead, is he someone we should know from the movies, why is he never named, when did Admiral Sloane ever indicate in her POV that she was connected to him... etc. Who cares? But if I have to speculate, I'm just going to go ahead and guess that this guy is Supreme Leader Snoke, just for the sake of guessing. I'm probably way off, but we're given so little indication of who he could be that it's as good as any other guess.

That's not to say that I don't have anything good to say about Aftermath, though. The story itself was cool I guess, if poorly told. The worldbuilding that went into the setting of the planet Akiva was also pretty great for the most part. It was a good mixture of familiar elements from previous Star Wars settings--the corruption and criminal underworld--and unique features that really brought the setting to life. Wendig made great use of the setting in the story, such as the gang travelling through underground passages and the layout of the city affecting the way the action played out. It definitely had that "lived-in universe" feel that I like so much about Star Wars.

Most of the main characters were also very interesting, fleshed-out, three-dimensional people, each with their own complex set of motivations. I enjoyed them all, with the exception of Temmin, who is an irritating, selfish little shit of a whiny teenager who tries too hard to be funny and/or badass. Yeah. he does have a change of heart towards the end, but I still spent most of the novel wishing he would just go the fuck away. But overall, Wendig's real talent seems to lie in characterization. I like the little ticks and quirks he gives to a lot of the characters, for example Sinjir's (who is clearly an alcoholic, though for once he doesn't hold our hands by spelling it out) interesting and almost poetic descriptions of whatever liquor he's currently drinking.

Unfortunately for me, what good qualities the story had were buried under layers of groan-inducing writing. Moral of the story: actually read the reviews and pay attention to the Goodreads rating before buying a book just because it's on sale at Target. Then again, I'm nothing if not a hypocritical book reviewer...

My Rating: two and a half stars out of five

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