This Star Wars review contains spoilers.
Queen’s Shadow, the 2019 exploration of how Padmé Amidala progressed from queen to senator, did what the best tie-in novels do. It added to Padmé’s story, threading plot, character, and world-building together. Even if Padmé isn’t one of my favorite characters, it’s hard to deny Queen’s Shadow added depth and breadth to the Naboo senator who would become the mother of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa.
Queen’s Peril, E.K. Johnston’s followup, does not perform as well.
Set before and during The Phantom Menace, Peril is a prequel to Queen’s Shadow. Padmé has just been elected queen (Star Wars movie lore established that Naboo usually elects teenage girls to the royal palace). Padmé needs to gather her team of handmaidens, who all look enough like her to be able to pose as decoys. She wants to be a kind, responsible queen. Then The Phantom Menace starts, and her planet is invaded.
If that sounds disjointed, that’s because it is. Johnston’s strengths are still on display for the most part: the world-building is superb, even though we’ve seen most of it already in Queen’s Shadow. Her careful attention to relationships between women is still a rarity, and welcome, in Star Wars. But the dialogue is so flat that it’s difficult to tell one handmaiden from another, even with little introductory scenes for each of them.
Those introductory scenes are scattered throughout the book, along with other interludes that give geeky-fun glimpses into the lives of other The Phantom Menace characters. Unfortunately, the interludes don’t at all feel like complete stories by themselves. Instead of key moments in the characters’ lives, these scenes are simply sketches. As drabbles to introduce characters like Darth Maul or Yoda, they’re cute, but they don’t give any extra insight or show the characters making important decisions.
The pacing is also a problem. The novel jumps from the present day to flashbacks to interludes without giving any of these moments time to settle in. I’m interested in the details of Naboo court life, and there’s a certain completionist satisfaction in being able to picture the rooms where the handmaidens and Padmé lived and worked before the Trade Federation invasion. But Padmé’s day-to-day work as a queen is dull.
Her first major political decision has to do with agriculture, and it’s just as dry as all of The Phantom Menace’s discussion of trade routes. I kept wondering what part of this storyline was going to hook into the larger plot, expecting something to come to light that would give the mission a stronger connection to Padmé personally or illustrate a way for the handmaidens to learn how to come together as a group. There’s a suggestion that her decision affected the blockade, but no strong character through-line.
Instead, the second half of the book is a jumpy journey through The Phantom Menace, with the assumption that the reader already knows what happened in the movie. There are glimmers of interesting style here, but it all feels very rushed. Fans who have seen the movie will find little in the way of new insight. There is one particularly neat reveal about which handmaiden was in the queen’s role during the movie, but it’s fleeting.
Johnston had a difficult job when setting out to write this book. Queen’s Peril is a prequel to a prequel (The Phantom Menace) to a prequel (Queen’s Shadow), with so much of the tension erased by what we already know about Padmé’s story and where it’s headed. Through-lines of conflicts and resolutions between the girls are present but muted, and there’s little possibility of anything coming to a strong conclusion.
I did enjoy Eirté’s recruitment and the girls’ conversations about why they were chosen. Many of them are highly talented but not outstanding in their fields of study, and, of course, look at least somewhat like Padmé. Their discussion of why Guard Captain Panaka recruited them illustrates how the book’s logistical concerns are both important and dry.
Perhaps the best part of the book comes midway through, when one of the handmaidens’ burgeoning romance with a fellow teen girl ambassador threatens to expose the decoy strategy. I wanted more of that, things falling apart based on the characters’ desires that also added to (not just re-told) The Phantom Menace.
The book’s jaunt through the movie bounces around between scenes, avoiding becoming a complete novelization from Padmé’s point of view (which might have also been interesting). What it does add is sometimes fun, but it all moves in fast bursts, creating a baffling blur after the initial glacial pace. Queen’s Shadow made me become more attached to the handmaiden characters than before, especially second-in-command Sabé.
I wanted very badly to like this book. It doesn’t give me any pleasure to say something I was rooting for — a Star Wars book about and primarily for teen girls — turned out a bit boring and messy. Johnston is great at writing science-fantasy logistics, with characters talking through how exactly they’re going to hide blasters or change outfits quickly, and what the moral ramifications of those logistical choices might be.
It just isn’t enough to hold up this particular story. I wonder how much of this is due to the book’s format and the limitations of the characters and era. Padmé’s fate, written as momentous and tragic in Queen’s Shadow, is far away in Queen’s Peril. I’m still hoping for Johnston to continue to be the powerful presence in Star Wars fandom she has been so far, creating a strong niche writing about characters like Ahsoka Tano and Padmé. But it’s hard for me to recommend Queen’s Peril, even to the most devoted fans.
Star Wars: Queen’s Peril is out on June 2.