E.K.’s Johnson’s noble quest to show the world the greatness of Padmé Naberrie/Queen Amidala and her Handmaidens continues in her latest book, “Star Wars: Queen’s Peril”, a prequel to last year’s bestseller, “Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow”
Here’s the synopsis…
When fourteen-year-old Padmé Naberrie wins the election for Queen of Naboo, she adopts the name Amidala and leaves her family to the rule from the royal palace. To keep her safe and secure, she'll need a group of skilled handmaidens who can be her assistants, confidantes, defenders, and decoys.
Each girl is selected for her particular talents, but it will be up to Padmé to unite them as a group. When Naboo is invaded by forces of the Trade Federation, Queen Amidala and her handmaidens will face the greatest test–of themselves, and of each other.
Where “Queen’s Shadow” looked at Padmé’s transition from Naboo’s Queen to its Senator, “Queen’s Peril” winds back the clock and focuses on her early days as the planets newly elected monarchial ruler. This novel not only serves as a prequel to “Shadow”, but crosses over deep into The Phantom Menace territory as well. And because of that, E.K. populates the book with many non-Naboo characters from the film including Yoda, Darth Maul, and Chancellor Valorum. She even checks in on Shmi and Anakin Skywalker on Tatooine for good measure.
It’s a Padmé-centric tale however, covering her election to, and reign as Queen Amidala, so key locals such as Sio Bibble, Quarsh and Mariek Panaka, and her parents, Ruwee and Jobal Naberrie, play their parts.
It doesn’t take long before you get the sense that when E.K. watched The Phantom Menace back in 1999, she thought she could do better, she knew she could do better. And in some ways, she has.
Listen, I’m a big fan of the prequels, always have been, but I watched them through the lens of an unevolved 23-year-old male. I just wasn’t able to see beyond the pale and recognize the depth and potential in characters like Padmé and the handmaidens. Part of the reason was that my brain at the time was conditioned to only pick up the familiar and the comfortable.
Simply put, I lacked certain empathy, and I lacked imagination, and while others saw The Phantom Menace and drew inspiration from Padmé, I was dazzled by the male characters such as Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn. And this is not meant to pit one against the other or suggest that you are a deviant if you don’t like the handmaidens, no, this is just MY personal experience, and where I’m at today.
Thanks in part to fandom, I’ve evolved on the issue and come to both relish and appreciate Padmé’s role in Star Wars history. And not simply as a broodmare for Luke and Leia, but a viable character who is as dynamic and meaningful as most any other.
And as such, I’ve also come to understand her diminished role in those films comes not from a narrative decision necessarily, but perhaps something more antiquated. So as the years have gone by and a new generation of fans has embraced her as their own, we’ve been blessed with a rise in Padmé content, thus, expanding our worldview.
Likewise, for her handmaidens, who themselves have proven to be vital, are getting some much-needed TLC thanks to E.K. But this light shines bright and many others get illuminated by its plentiful glow besides Padmé and her handmaidens in this book.
One such benefactor of this luminosity is Quarsh Panaka, the Queen’s Royal Guard and a character who shares as sad a fate as anyone else. He’s at the center of much of what goes on here and is the one who finds, interviews, and recruits would-be handmaidens for his newly elected Queen.
His legwork is on display throughout the book with clever chapter breaks where we get accounts of him recruiting the handmaidens in their own environments, one at a time. Each one kicks off a different section of the book and is appropriately titled to match the particular handmaiden’s strongest attribute, STRENGTH (Tsabin), CUNNING (Rabene), DISTRACTION (Eirtama), BRAVERY (Suyan), and DETERMINATION (Sashah).
These are some of my favorite passages, where the girls get to test their mettle, perhaps for the first time, against a woefully unprepared Panaka. Sure, he thinks he’s in charge, but he learns quickly that’s not necessarily the case.
And it’s every bit as campy as you might imagine, in fact, on paper, the pairing may seem like a day-glo 80’s sitcom, not a compelling Star Wars fantasy. On one side, a no-nonsense, stern, overly protective royal guard, on the other, a group of teenage girls who conspire, tease, get their periods, and generally make life difficult for Quarsh. But you get the impression, besides his sworn oath to protect; he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
His relationship with Padmé, and to a lesser extent his wife Mariek, herself a member of the Royal Naboo guard, is vital as there exists this philosophical tug-of-war between them. Like-minded but also morally different people, whose relationship would eventually feel the strain of two lives dedicated to service, and to their own ideals. Reading these captivating, and often moving early accounts of this prophetic relationship only makes Quarsh’s decisions later in life that much more distressing.
That leads me to something else about this novel that I enjoyed, the payoff to other titles. After reading this book, I immediately did the following things, read the first third of “Queen’s Shadow”, watched “The Phantom Menace”, and re-read a certain part of “Leia: Princess of Alderaan”
Because like most Star Wars books these days, it adds nuance and meaningfulness to already meaningful tales, and by ever so slightly shifting the point of view, you uncover another layer. And that brings me back to my original point, where Johnston is looking to make “The Phantom Menace” better by subscribing to another point of view, in this case, Padmé’s. But the book doesn’t rely solely on Panaka and Padmé; we also get our most thoughtful examination of the Handmaidens to date.
Assembling “the team” in any work of fiction, whether it be in TV, film, or books, is always an exciting proposition. Obvious examples like The Avengers, The Seven Samurai, or A Bug’s Life all do a great job of introducing and developing protagonists who work together for a common purpose. Their commonalities are just as important as their differences, and while perhaps apart they are drifting in life; together they are an unstoppable force.
Chapter Six of “Queen’s Peril” is our “assembling the team” chapter, and it’s the most fun I had reading this book. I have no doubt E.K. has been thinking about this for many years now and had probably written this chapter in her head long before “Queen’s Peril” was even a thing. We know it was her first pitch way back when so of all the chapters it’s the most refined.
So, after Quarsh presents the girls to their Queen, concluding a lengthy recruitment process, Padmé, in a show of force, immediately removes him from the equation. Now, that may sound harsh, but it’s important to remember, this power-play isn’t done out of spite or is overly furtive, it’s necessary if the scheme is going to work. The group MUST act autonomously, they must act as one.
In that sense, while Panaka’s ego maybe slightly bruised, he understands there’s only so much he can control, and thanks to a pep-talk from his wife, accepts it. Here the Queen reveals herself to her would-be guardians, forgoing formality in an attempt to earn their trust, which she does. Sitting in a purposefully egalitarian circle, they begin to brainstorm and piece together this new system under which they would function as one single unit, protecting the Queen at all costs.
Privileged, we are giving a front row seat to the early stages of what would become one of the more effective bastions in Star Wars. And after some less consequential litmus tests, these upholders of the throne would have their mettle tested in the most egregious of ways, through war.
Every Handmaiden is afforded an opportunity to prove their worth to Padmé during this time, and she definitely has a favorite (Sabé), but, if we’re using a yardstick against which to measure someone’s pluck, I have to point to Saché.
I had no foresight, but I knew it was only a matter of time until Saché’s interrogation scene. I was dreading it, and I must remember to thank E.K. for handling it with the restraint and care it deserves. It’s a YA book so I wasn’t expecting gratuitous or anything, but it was not something I was looking forward to.
We learn in “Queen’s Shadow” that after being captured by the Trade Federation and placed in a camp, she was subject to interrogation. And as a result of this process, one that employed a unique form of torture, she was gifted a large collection of scars around her entire body. But the resilient Saché saved the lives of many members of the Royal Naboo Security Forces by refusing to name names despite the suffering. This courage earned her the utmost respect of The Royal Security Forces, and their loyalty to her was second only to the Queen.
In “Peril”, we get the details leading up to and including the interrogation, which is ordered by the camp overseer, a Neimoidian snake named Usan Ollin...
“The screaming started after about twenty minutes, and every human in the camp froze…the screams were anything but quiet. They were horribly shrill and pierced the air with such ferocity that Yané wasn’t sure if Saché was being given the chance to breath.”
In the immediate aftermath, the experience left her with cauterized lacerations over most of her body, including her hands and face, and physically spent, broken. In the long term, it left her arms, legs, and neck permanently scarred.
Despite it all however, it didn’t soften her resolve as she would continue to do her duty, and sometime later, after the war, was elected to the legislative assembly. And I said earlier, had earned the loyalty and respect normally reserved for the Queen herself.
If anything, E.K. wants you to understand that about the Handmaidens. That in the end, this band of sisters, this gaggle of warriors, when called upon, did their duty. And they didn’t question it; they did it for the love of each other, for the love of Naboo, and for the love of their Queen. They were indeed brave.
And their exhibitions of bravery into action may not have extended to the far reaches of the galaxy; it didn’t go unnoticed either, as Mariek Panaka said…
“When they write the official history of this era, I hope they give you some of the credit.”
I can’t help but feel E.K. was speaking for herself and all of the fans who were admirers of Padmé and the Handmaidens from day one. Through intuition and empathy, they were able to sense that the group had played a bigger role than what was presented.
Okay, that’s all the good, now, for the not so good.
By paralleling the film’s narrative with Padmé’s, voicing facets of the story from her point of view, E.K.’s managed to give “The Phantom Menace” more depth, and there’s no doubt the film is better because of it. And if you were to remake the movie, inserting this book’s ideas into it, you’d have one helluva Star Wars flick, but I think that’s where the point starts to get lost.
It’s disjointed in a way that makes you sometimes wonder what the focus of the novel is, The Phantom Menace or Padmé? And since neither one is beholden to the other, it seems unnecessary. That’s my way of saying that if I had a seat at the table, I would have eliminated most of the non-Padmé material because it simply doesn’t offer much insight.
And so as not to affect the page count, I would’ve gladly read more about Harli Jafan and Sabé’s tryst, and a petulant Padmé coming to terms with it. Or, as boring as it may sound, Padmé’s early days in the Queen’s court, learning the bureaucratic ropes, and flexing her sharp intellect and keen wit. I mean if we’re looking at Padmé and the earliest days of her rule, then let’s get after it. The sector-wide summit on the impending food shortage was an example of Padmé having to deliver the goods, not to mention it brought Jafan into the mix.
The novel is breezy at 224 pages and for me, read very quickly. The normally swift YA pace is aided by of course short chapters and quickened even further by a series of small in-chapter breaks. These cutscenes are used to check-in on certain characters, reminding us where we are in timeline but as I said, doesn’t offer much else other than decontextualize them.
Some of the breaks themselves feel arbitrary against the already frequent time jumps and E.K.’s use of “in media res”, and the book does indeed stall when she breaks away from the Padmé storyline. She doesn’t dwell or linger on them which make them mostly harmless, but there’s no payoff either, so they feel indebted.
But, not ALL of them are out-of-place, it’s all connected in some way and as the blockade is implemented and the violence increases, there’s just no way to avoid certain realities. And rather than dismiss or ignore them, she chose to remind us they exist, they are intertwined after all. This is the time setting she’s chosen, so you can’t totally ignore what’s going on around her.
Ultimately, in a book about Padmé and her Handmaidens, I expected to be more pages dedicated to Padmé and her Handmaidens. Perhaps that just didn’t have the mass appeal the publishers were looking for, a mostly political novel filled with teenage girls coming into their own, on the cusp of greatness.
Here we come to what I think is the key to understanding this world that E.K. has nourished. It breaks down barriers; tackles taboo subjects (for men mostly) such as ruining the sheets and doesn’t make excuses for or shy away from the virtuosity of women. And despite being thrust into enormous pressure and responsibility, Padmé and her handmaidens still have the arduous task of adolescence to deal with. Something than can often be a complex ride involving pettiness, jealousy, periods, sexual awakening, first loves, self-concept, and finding your place in the world.
Weighty themes to be sure but E.K. explores them using affable and straightforward language, not allowing the reader to feel anything but affinity towards these girls. With “Queen’s Shadow” as a prerequisite, I’m not confident anyone else could have written this book besides E.K. The whole thing feels very, very personal.
And while the theme of adolescence is up front at times, at three books in, E.K. is very familiar with and comfortable employing enough vernacular and axioms to placate your Star Wars soul. As usual, her world building is on point and fills in many narrative blanks that otherwise might not have seen the light of day.
But I think it’s important to understand that she does explore universal truths that extend far beyond the reaches of this galaxy, ones that affect us all on a tangible level. And while this novel might not be as good as its predecessor, these types of explorations, make it a worthwhile pursuit.
Indeed, the Force is strong with this group and they prove time and time again that they can be both strong and vulnerable at the same time, and that showing vulnerability amongst a sisterhood, isn’t inherently weak.
By setting out to make The Phantom Menace a better movie, which she has, she’s also made Star Wars better, and that’s something we should all be grateful for. I know I am.
Till next time…MTFBWY.
“Queen’s Peril” is published by Disney/Lucasfilm Books and is available now! To get a signed copy simply click the links below, while supplies last of course!
Mysterious Galaxy Books (US)
Bakka Phoenix Books (Canada)
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