Spoiler Warning! I go into some minor details from the book so proceed with caution...
“I have no memory of my mother. I never knew her.”
-Luke Skywalker, Return of the Jedi
This quote by Luke in Return of the Jedi raised a few eyebrows, certainly in the wake of learning Darth Vader was in fact, Anakin Skywalker, Luke and Leia’s father. This faceless and nameless mother of the Gods was an afterthought in the original trilogy, but that would prove to be a temporary situation. Sixteen years later, George Lucas released Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace and the world was formally introduced to Padmé Naberrie of Naboo, and the rest is history.
Now that we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of the release, and all that’s happened to this franchise and the character since, it’s unimaginable now to think that it has taken 20 years for Padmé to get her own novel. It’s not hyperbole to say that when “Queen’s Shadow” was announced last year at San Diego Comic-Con, there was not only excessive happiness, but an almost frenzied collective exhale. This novel by E.K. Johnston is long overdue and with the expectations of a whole generation of Star Wars fans weighing on her, she delivers with a deeply moving and thoughtful look at this important character and her loyal Handmaidens.
As for the story itself, it takes place after the events in The Phantom Menace, amidst changing times for Naboo, Coruscant, and the galaxy. Padmé is not immune to this as her time as Queen has ended and with no chance for a re-election, as per her planet’s customs, she’s for the first time in a long time, out of work. This can be an uncertain time for anyone, let alone a former Queen and war hero, so as you can imagine she's doing some self-reflection and planning her next move. Additionally, as is customary, it’s also a time of change for her Handmaidens and royal guards who are mostly all moving on to other things.
Her initial plan was to abolish slavery in the Outer Rim system (Tatooine’s influence) but when newly elected Queen Réillata asks her to represent Naboo in the Senate, it’s an offer she ultimately can’t refuse. So, while the first part of the story deals with Padmé handling the business of the transition and supporting her friends as they embark on their own adventures, the second we are whisked away to Coruscant for a game of high stakes political poker. There, Padmé must get accustomed to her new life as a Senator as she maneuvers her way through a jungle of bureaucratic red-tape, the acrimoniousness court of public opinion, unknown threats and a long-list of known Star Wars characters such as Mon Mothma, Bail Organa, Mina Boneteri and Rush Clovis to name a few.
As you might expect the transition from Naboo to Coruscant is a contrast in just about everything observable. Amidala, with new Handmaidens in tow, is adjusting to life as a Senator with some minor difficulties. With some threats lurking in the shadows, others more overt, and some that have yet to reveal themselves, you can’t help but feel she’s in over her head on a few occasions. But thanks to her intelligence, Handmaidens (both new and old) and the few friends she’s made in the Senate, she picks up quickly what takes most years to learn. By the end she’s nearly become the confident, strong and resourceful Senator that we know her to be.
“We serve and we allow others to serve”
The first few chapters do such a great job of creating a surrealistic world view that you almost forget this is a Star Wars book. There’s no mention, or very little, of any instantly and easily accessible Star Wars idioms that would make this a difficult read for novice fans. Of course, as things progress that changes but the opening passages of this book by no coincidence are without a doubt its finest. I'm sure E.K. enjoyed writing this entire novel but you can tell where the sausage is made, and in this case
it's the moments in the book where it's just Padmé and her Handmaidens that is storytelling of the highest level.
But, you are rewarded if you do know your history, as having that base knowledge makes reading “Queen’s Shadow” such a more intimate and emotional affair. Sometimes, knowing the outcome can spoil the journey, but I would say this is one of those rare exceptions.
Art by Cryssy Cheung
Johnston’s ability to articulate the unspoken dialogue between Padmé and her Handmaidens is magical and puts you right in the middle of their sacred inner circle. It’s one of those rare moments where you’ve been granted VIP access and have been invited to peek behind the curtain, to see these enigmatic figures for who they really are.
E.K. is more than up to the task in giving these women a thoughtfulness and intelligence that just hasn't been fully explored previously. She took up the challenge of teaching some of us what I sense her and many knew all along, that these select few are courageous, intuitive and strong, not weak. And learning more about these Handmaidens is something I didn’t know I wanted or needed, but here we are. In fact, while the rest of the book contains intriguing moments, excellent world and character building, and ties in skillfully to other titles, I would have gleefully accepted an entire novel of only Handmaidens.
It’s obvious E.K. has spent a considerable amount of time taking into account everything about the Handmaidens, ensuring each are giving their due. Yané, Saché, Eirtaé, and Rabé are all given plenty of space on the page to develop and grow while Sabé, who follows Padmé to Coruscant, does the heavy lifting. She is more than up to the task and is a force all to her own. In fact, she has some of the strongest moments in the book and her character is as resourceful and strong as any.
But Johnston is smart enough to keep the story evolving and part of that is not only the transformation of Padmé and her surroundings, but the people around her as well. So, while some familiar faces and names do make the journey with her, it’s only logical for some to stay behind. It’s here we meet her new trio of Handmaidens, Cordé, Dormé and Versé who all make her transition a smooth one. And while she misses the connection and friendship she shared with her original group, she’s gotten to know and love these new Handmaidens just the same.
So, as we go from the rich and colorful world of the Tweed Palace and the lake house, furnished with all its beautiful surroundings and dreamlike landscapes, we are then whisked away to the artificial world of xenon, permacrete and bio organics of Coruscant. The pace and tone of the book alters slightly to match the environment but with its central figure always present and Johnston’s polished style, you are never once taken out of the story.
What I liked very much is that Johnston thrusts us into a dangerous situation and political intrigue as Amidala faces unknown threats almost immediately. With so much already known about this time and the players, to drag us through reeducation of Coruscant would be a waste of time, plus, that would take away from the focus of the book unnecessarily. And while this portion of the book does feel like one long chapter occasionally, it’s definitely interesting to see her using muscles she’s never had to use before, skills that we are accustomed to seeing when she's on screen.
Padmé is learning that to survive in the Senate and political atmosphere on Coruscant, understanding how the game is played is vital. There are many layers and moving parts and she must navigate them all in a way she’s not accustomed to doing. She must in fact for the first time, let Padmé, not Amidala, take the lead. She's finding her voice in a way never thought possible, or useful, and to detriment of her political opponents, she's starts to like it.
And as you approach an historic meeting between Princess Leia’s two mothers, Breha and Padmé, you can’t help but want it to be one of those all-time Star Wars moments, but, it’s not. It’s deliberately subtle and thoughtful, just like the rest of the book is and just like the two women themselves. As much as I wanted it to be something else, Johnston nails the tone and balance here choosing to keep it grounded in reality.
Her early dealings with Bail Organa and Mon Mothma are interesting simply from the fact that they aren’t sure if she can be a trusted asset or ally yet. As Queen, she curried favor with soon-to-be Chancellor Palpatine and favored military solutions to Naboo’s threats, understandably so at the time. But for the pacifistic style of Mothma and tempered diplomacy of Organa, they need to know she can be more than that.
So, if you’re looking for Padmé to burst into a room, guns blazing, causing all sorts of havoc, this isn’t the book for you. We’ve seen Padmé handle a blaster before and we know she can take care of herself should the need arise. But the political arena can be just as treacherous and just as dangerous as the Petranaki arena can, and I’m sure she’d much rather deal with an unruly Nexus than Senator Lott Dod. And it’s here, in this still unfamiliar space, Padmé is learning that being on the right committee or making the right ally in the Senate can be just as effective as an ELG-3A pistol.
But make no mistake, this book deals with some weighty themes, they are all there, but what “Queen’s Shadow” doesn’t do is bog you down with them. It softens those hard edges by mixing in key moments of exploration of self and sensuality betwen Padmé and her Handmaidens. It feasts on a generation of deep rooted, center of the earth type oaths that make the bond between women a mystery to some and a revelation to others. While the euphemism “sisterhood” gets used a lot, at the books core is a much deeper understanding of what their relationships mean to each other and how they share a symbiotic connection with the space around them.
But that doesn’t mean Johnston shy's away from going deep into the political quagmire of Coruscant, which is both a reflection of our current times and a dire warning of what’s to come. Corruption, autocracy, plutocracy, benevolence, malevolence, pick any word you want that describes a system of government that is teetering on the brink of nihilism, and it’s on display here. We see and get an early sense of a rebellion beginning to form within the rank and file of its capital, but we know what lies ahead for the former Queen and first time Senator from Naboo. She will not only be a voice for freedom and democracy in the senate, but the galaxy at large as well. But difficult decisions and challenges are ahead for Padmé and she’s learning quickly who the good guys are from the bad. But you must learn to walk before you can run, and this is Padmé learning how to walk.
This novel, like so many other Star Wars novels, not only provides additional context to the greater canon library, it enhances it. The Clone Wars, Leia: Princess of Alderaan, Battlefront 2, the prequel trilogy, they will all be significantly enhanced whenever you revisit them. Indeed, the connective tissue here is clear and concise and is one of the strongest features of the book. Whatever your flavor happens to be, you'll find something here for you to enjoy. You get snippets of not only inter-personal battles, but influences that are quietly at work, shaping and setting the board for future grand scale events that all appear in other media. I guarantee that if you've been consuming Star Wars for a while now, you will smile more than once at the occasional name drop or reference.
To ensure the focus remains on Padmé however, certain characters are referenced but never directly named, for example there's no direct mention of Anakin but we do travel to Tatooine and Padme carries with her the Japor Snippet he gave her. There’s also plenty of scars still to remind everyone the cost of war and keep alive the events in The Phantom Menace. Qui-Gon Jinn is mentioned several times, as they honor the fallen Jedi, as is the price her Handmaidens paid, for example the punishment Saché endured at the hands of the Trade Federation. And hanging over all of this is the trial of those involved in the invasion and occupation of Naboo, something that does see a resolution, although not a satisfying one.
Johnston isn’t reinventing Padmé, that’s not her task, she’s exploring sides and planes of the character we haven’t seen before for various reasons. It’s no secret Queen/Senator Amidala was that generations Princess Leia, a brave, intelligent and strong female influence who continues to inspire many to this day. Those that were introduced to Star Wars through the prequels have an unflinching and unwavering devotion to her and rightfully so. She’s everything you want in a character, complex, infinitely skilled, independent, doesn’t suffer fools, altruistic and brave. Johnston captures all that and more in “Queen’s Shadow” all the while crafting an engaging and timeless story.
While her treatment in the prequel trilogy was unsatisfying to some, The Clone Wars less so, there’s been this undeniable truth that she’s as important to the Saga as just about anyone else. She was more than just a broodmare, a vessel to bring Luke and Leia into the world, she was proof for many that tyranny, in all it’s forms, will not be tolerated and she wasn’t simply satisfied with just being Anakin’s wife. She was and is a strong female social justice warrior who would never sit idly by and let innocent people suffer. We could use more of that these days I think.
Likewise, for the criminally underused and unexplored Handmaidens, Johnston has pulled back their hoods to reveal a treasure trove of beauty, pain, honor and sacrifice. Their story was one that deserved and needed to be told, and as deep as Johnston goes, there’s so much more that needs to be said. I would watch a series based on the upbringing, training and lives of would-be Handmaidens any day. Like I said earlier, the story of the Handmaidens was one I didn’t even know I wanted until now…I’ve got E.K. Johnston to thank for that.
I really don't believe you need to be a die hard fan of these characters or the era to enjoy this book. It's accessible in the way any good book is, with interesting characters, intriguing story threads and is well written. I hope you pick one up, you won't regret it.
“We are brave, your highness”
"Queen's Shadow" is publish by Disney-Lucasfilm Press and is available in book stores and online now! You can order a copy by clicking HERE.
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