I had very much hope for this year’s first Star Wars novel. It promised something completely different from what we got used to: a different time period not covered in the films, a different take on the background of a major character outside the realms we know her. My good experience with the author’s earlier Star Wars novel, Ahsoka, raised my expectations fairly high. Were they met?
Queen’s Shadow set itself a task that was both new and at the same time long-expected. It shows the transition stage between Padmé’s term as the queen of Naboo (like during Episode I) and as a senator (during Episode II). For some reason, even the pre-Disney canon never delved much into the timeframe between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Probably because the time was too peaceful to stage any major events.
E. K. Johnston did not let herself be bothered by this and tackled the story in her own way. Queen’s Shadow is centered on the characters, their background, their development and their daily life and dilemmas rather than on some epic plotline. That is all well. We have hundreds of Star Wars novel about battles and adventures, but why should Star Wars stories be limited to that kind of genre? Queen’s Shadow is entertaining, intriguing story and as far as I am concerned, I would welcome more similar Star Wars novels at the expense of sometimes tiresome, repeating-the-old-scheme space adventures.
“We Are Brave, Your Highness”
I spoke about “characters”, in plural, because the novel deals as much with the Naboo royal handmaidens as with Padmé herself. That is another matter that has been omitted for a long time, and in my opinion, it was high time that somebody corrected this. Naboo handmaidens are a fascinating subject from the cultural point of view, just as much as any other interesting Star Wars culture, and surely they must have their individual stories, too – yet they have not been addressed very much so far.
The author has managed to masterfully solve the problem “how to write a book about half a dozen characters who, on the screen, look absolutely the same”. Sabé, Saché, Yané, Eirtaé, Rabé, but later also Cordé, Dormé and Versé (I hope I didn’t forget any) each have their distinct personality and you become fond of them as you read. I must confess that it helped me to look up which one was which in the films (not that it made them that much more distinct). And after finishing the book, I would not mind a spin-off about one or two (Saché seems to be the most obvious choice, after the even more obvious Sabé).
Shadows and Politics
The novel plays nicely with the “Queen’s Shadow” in the title. It may refer to the handmaidens, or a specific handmaiden like Sabé who is, essentially, the second main character (she is the decoy from The Phantom Menace, played by Keira Knightley). It may refer also to Padmé herself and her new life after she stopped being the queen, yet she still lives in the shadow of her old self. In fact, there are so many queens and shadows that it is entirely up to you to pick – which is probably what the book intends to imply.
Aside from Naboo handmaidens, the novel features Padmé’s bodyguards (Captain Panaka and his wife – who eventually also becomes Captain, Typho, and the new character of Tonra). The story fills amazing number of gaps in the story, among many others for example how did Padmé associate herself with political movements opposite to the Chancellor’s, why are her handmaidens and bodyguards different in AotC than in TPM, or the change of Padmé’s style of speech, demeanour and wardrobe (!). Padmé’s gowns, incidentally, get immense amount of attention in the book – and no, it is not dull even if you are really not into fashion. It also reminisces several events of the Naboo invasion, adding more perspective to what we know from the films.
If that wasn’t enough, the author had managed to stuff in Padmé’s first meetings with senators Organa and Mon Mothma, but also the Clone Wars series characters Mina Bonteri and Rush Clovis. I cannot recommend highly enough for any TCW fans to read this, the characters are spot-on.
Reputedly, before submitting her final draft, E. K. Johnston got only one significant feedback from her editor – which said “more Palpatine?” She had, in the final version, included more Palpatine, but it is still very little (to the point that it makes me wonder what did “less Palpatine” version look like. But I am biased, because I adore Palpatine). This is partly understandable, Palpatine is at the time busy with the highest tier of politics, still, a few more scenes of Padmé slowly finding her own path apart from him could have helped to illustrate her character development as well as tell something more about her relationship to a mentor she had shared a lot with (starting from her homeworld).
Queen’s Shadow is a unique story. It offers deep insight into Padmé’s psychology at the time when one part of her life is over and she needs to pick the next steps. With her loyal friends by her side, this makes a very optimistic (but not at all cheesy) story. There are fairly deep matters being discussed, the stage is that of galactic politics and democracy that is not working the way it should. In the core, it is the tale of Padmé and the main purpose of the book is to show her personality in never-before-seen depth.
For Padmé fans, this is a must-read even if you are not into Star Wars novels otherwise. For generic Star Wars fans, it is a fresh, different type of story with focus on some long-omitted elements of the universe. It is a light read, so worth it even if you are simply looking for something random to leaf through while travelling. I hope E. K. Johnston continues to write similarly good stories, perhaps even about very different characters. How about Palpatine’s backstory and his first days in the Senate – perhaps while dealing with the young queen about to ascend to the throne?