SPOILERS for The Aftermath Trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker and partial spoilers for Claudia Gray’s Bloodline.
In their reference book, Star Wars and History, Nancy Reagin and Janice Liedl compare real-life wars, veterans, and context to Star Wars. Liedl writes that “the Star Wars galaxy exhibits no prejudice against women rulers or leaders, whether during the Republic when women serve as leaders in all levels of government, or the fraught years of the Clone Wars (Liedl, 2012, p. 158).”
I disagree slightly. Yes, there are many female leaders during this time, though only a few most fans know about (Padmé, Mon Mothma, and Leia) the roadblocks they face are often brought upon by male adversaries try to exert some sort of power over them. Padmé is consistently used by Palpatine to manipulate Anakin before the latter causes her death via a broken heart. Despite all of her accomplishments, Leia’s pursuit as First Senator is undermined because of her relationship with Darth Vader, revealed by her colleague Ransolm Casterfo (though this is orchestra by a fellow female Senator, Lady Carise Sindian). In this trilogy alone Mon Mothma survives two assassination attempts, one by Gallius Rax in Life Debt and one by Senator Tolwar Wartol in Empire’s End. So, while Star Wars regularly has female leaders, their foils are often male, which can not be ignored.
The Optimist: Rae Sloane
“I agree,” Sloane says. “It’s high time we regard our place in the galaxy with a full awareness unclouded by prejudice. And then it’s time to act accordingly—we are the underdogs fighting to save the galaxy.”Sloane to the Secret Council, Star Wars Aftermath: Life Debt
This is the case with the second main character in The Aftermath Trilogy, Grand Admiral Rae Sloane. While this male antagonist is uninspiring, he does help highlight what makes Sloane so unique to the Star Wars universe. The Rebellion/Resistance side of Star Wars is often narratively led by optimism and hope. But optimism and hope drive Grand Admiral Rae Sloane to persevere through continuous losses in battles, through the betrayal of her aide, and through being undermined by other officers. Aftermath is not an introduction of Rae Sloane, but it does put her front and center as a key figure in the last days of the Empire and the foundation for the First Order. In the first novel, she is trying to consolidate power and contends with a male officer, a self-appointed Grand Moff Valco Pandion, vying for control of what remains of the Empire. Unfortunately, for Sloane and readers, there is a mysterious Imperial force pulling the strings.
I cannot talk about Rae Sloane without mentioning her foil in the trilogy, Gallius Rax. Gallius Rax is not the focus of The Aftermath Trilogy but inserts himself so forcefully into the narrative, it feels like he thinks he should be the focus. More time could have explored Sloane’s past relationship with the Empire and why she is dedicated to saving it. Instead we hear about it through Sloane’s thoughts and minor exposition in the second novel, Life Debt.
Having an amalgamation of other Imperials we have seen before is disappointing. And it is yet another contingency plan orchestrated by Emperor Palpatine. Sloane does not know this and is even more clueless about his true plan of rebuilding the Empire in the Unknown Regions. A younger, more brutal, and unyielding Empire. He sets Sloane up to take the fall on Liberation Day on Chandrila, forcing her to kill her aide Adea when the latter tries to assassinate Sloane for her disloyalty to Rax.
But Sloane is resilient because she believes the New Republic will throw the galaxy into chaos. And Sloane is not necessarily wrong about the New Republic’s inability to control a whole galaxy. That is not what the New Republic (at least under Mon Mothma’s guidance) wants to do. Some of the Interludes show the anticipation of both instability and stability. The pirate Eleodie Maracavanya destroys Imperial Star Destroyers to curry favor with the New Republic, Bounty Hunters are already looking for ways to get pardons, and the Mining Collective comes to Mos Pelgos to take over in place of the Empire.
While she does have the resilience and hope often associated with rebels, she is unquestionably an Imperial, possessing the mercilessness that one expects from Imperial officers. She orders Stormtroopers to throw Temmin off a roof, and she executes a Stormtrooper point-blank for being weak-minded. She is also a trained martial-arts fighter and often engages in unarmed combat throughout the trilogy. A brutal fight with Rax concludes with Sloane getting her fingers broken.
And at least Sloane actively tries to get rid of Rax once she finds out a little bit of his past. But she never gets close and ends up having to be told everything when she finally confronts him in the last few chapters of Empire’s End. Sloane’s dynamic with Rax could have been interesting if this was a Rae Sloane trilogy. But again, there are so many characters stuffed into all three novels that the mystery behind Gallius Rax does not even come close to being engaging enough to warrant the page time. The trilogy could have focused on her rivalry with Brendol Hux, which is ultimately more consequential leading into the Sequel Trilogy. Especially since what happened to Sloane after Empire’s End remains a mystery but must involve Brendol.
Even if the text is fleeting, Sloane briefly entertains leaving the opportunity to start a new Empire and live a civilian life. She also mourns a life she never had, one with a husband and children. However, rebuilding an Empire in her likeness is too tempting, even if she has become a politician by necessity. And maybe in older Star Wars tales, that would be the outcome, but Sloane feels she is destined to bring order to the galaxy.
Children and building something with the next generation are common themes throughout the trilogy, especially on the Empire side. Rax kidnaps children from his homeworld and molds them into cold-hearted killers. When Sloane kills Rax and takes his fleet into the Unknown Regions, she uses Brendol’s son, Armitage, and his authority over the children to keep Brendol in line. And even though we have yet to learn the story of what happened between Empire’s End and the novel Phasma where she was already out of the picture, Sloane is victorious at the end of The Aftermath Trilogy.
If this were a Legends novel, this trilogy would probably take place from the perspective of Temmin and Gallius Rax, so focusing on two older women for the first major publishing initiative for Lucasfilm Press was progress. And having a prominent gay character in Sinjir was a step forward. But all these characters deserved a better set of novels a little more removed from the Original Trilogy (and a few Prequel Trilogy) characters. Did Han Solo need to take up so much space in Life Debt? Mon Mothma navigating the fledgling Senate is interesting but is a whole novel unto itself. There are characters whose page time is used well: Wedge Antilles is delightful as Norra’s new love interest. And Han and Leia (while wearing out their welcome) are entertaining for most of their appearance. Luke is noticeably absent but given where The Force Awakens starts it makes sense they want to leave his whereabouts during this time open for future exploration.
Their new galaxy will never have known a time without an Empire. That thrills her. And, indeed, it worries her, too. “It’s time to start over,” she says to Hux.
“That is our first order. To begin again. And to get it right, this time.”Sloane to Brendol Hux, Star Wars Aftermath: Empire’s End
By the end, Norra, who has nearly isolated herself from others most of her life, including her family, is working with her son and has a group of friends she loves and trusts. Sloane has the opposite; she only has enemies that she has asserted her power over strategically. But she is more confident than she was when Aftermath started, lamenting over her ceremonial Admiral title. But for three novels, these two lead women were sidelined by too many plot threads and too many characters. Both Norra Wexley and Rae Sloane’s outcomes are a mystery (sadly, Temmin died in The Rise of Skywalker as well as the entire First Order fleet). Those are the two things that matter most to Norra and Sloane respectively. Sloane is likely dead, probably at the hands of men like Hux or Snoke, as it is hard to believe she would give up control of the First Order she helped build. I suspect we are inching towards answers for that in live-action as series like The Mandalorian are inching towards the Sequel Trilogy. Until then, The Aftermath Trilogy offers one of the few stories we have focused on aging female military officers in the Star Wars universe. And, I can appreciate Wendig’s novels for delivering that much.
Liedl, J. (2012). Teen Queen: Padmé Amidala and the Power of Royal Women. Star Wars and History, (p. 151- 175). Wiley Publishing.