E.K. Johnston’s Queen’s Shadow isn’t the first Star Wars book to focus on the tragic senator Padmé Amidala, but it is the most rigorous.
During the Prequel era, readers could use one of The Phantom Menace fictional journals, or The Queen’s Amulet and Queen in Disguise middle-grade stories, get more information regarding the character. There was a paper doll book. And there were Padmé fans who wanted more. Many made it themselves in the form of fanfic.
Queen’s Shadow gives Padmé a serious canon treatment for young adult and adult fans. Just like The Clone Wars, it’s better as connective tissue between movies than as a standalone story, but meticulous world-building and the depth of emotion the characters clearly have for one another gives it strength. Fans who have been waiting decades for Padmé to get the spotlight will enjoy this book.
The push of the plot comes from Padmé trying to prevent piracy in certain star systems and effect change (including trying to free the slaves on Tatooine), but really the story is a map between two Star Wars films. What was it like for Padmé to go from queen of Naboo to senator on Coruscant? What is it like to be one of her handmaidens, who serve as bodyguards and spies and friends all at once? This book has plenty to offer trivia buffs who want to know why Captain Typho took over for Captain Panaka, or lore readers who want the pathos, friendship, and tragedy of the handmaidens presented in a new way.
The new information about Padmé’s handmaidens feels both like a natural part of the saga and a wealth of new information. The level of detail is wonderful and instantly makes clear the relationships — platonic and romantic, casual and professional — between the women. Every aspect of their dress and behavior is explained. They are described as a shadowy crowd, and intentionally make it difficult for people to tell how many of them there actually are. I loved the portrayal of them as one unit or one creature, fading in and out of the light.
Padmé’s characterization is thorough, if sometimes a bit light: she is charismatic and honest, practically magnetic. She’s also naive about some things, shocked that grand cities can hide poor citizens or that political decisions are often made not in the Senate rotunda, but at parties afterward. Her emphasis on friendships and making connections with people helped me root for her. She’s smart, too, planning to intentionally inhabit “the wedge between Palpatine and his rivals.”
At times after reading it, I found myself reminded what Padmé would do in difficult social situations: she would carefully choose a persona and later retreat to her friends and be revitalized by them.
Each handmaiden has different skills and preferences, which are clearly marked, but the similarity in their voices and the (intentional) way in which the group blends in and then glides out as a single unit makes them less memorable individually. Although I liked the book’s emphasis on Padmé’s friendships, especially with Sabé, I found that the handmaidens did blur together at times. I don’t think that will be a barrier to fans who have already spent decades with these characters. Although there will certainly be differences between the Legends or headcanon versions of these characters and the canon ones, those are the kind of things Star Wars fans deal with all the time.
The opening is a bit vague, but it also plays well with images from the saga, Padmé’s death hanging over her like an epic battle, not a broken-heart afterthought. The biggest problem is that the book feels episodic instead of connected. In that regard, it’s limited by where it has to end: we know Padmé succeeds as a senator but does so in a corrupt government, and that what could have been an intriguing plot is lost in a messy movie that does not give Padmé nearly as much interiority as this book.
Maybe that explains why the pacing of the ending is oddly truncated, both in terms of specific scenes and the plot overall. A B-plot featuring Sabé felt more company-mandated than the rest and contributed to the feeling that the second half of the book had lost the push of the plot. The book’s biggest action scene is held back by the very thing that gives the book its strength: Padmé trusts her people to keep her safe, so it never really feels to the reader like she’s in danger.
There’s a tragedy to the Prequels that gets lost in the larger conversation about their tone as compared to the Original Trilogy, and Queen’s Shadow handles that tragedy well. Sometimes that means moments of irony: the beautiful Naboo lake house, one of the many underappreciated and under-used settings of the Prequels, is portrayed as a serene refuge moments before Senator Palpatine comes to visit. Others are cameos I won’t spoil here, but which tie Padmé’s story to the larger saga nicely.
Most importantly, the book gives Padmé the dignity and attention countless other Star Wars characters have received. Young women’s stories are still often reserved for the Young Adult genre: Ahsoka and Leia: Princess of Alderaan were also relatively short novels that added nicely to the Star Wars canon with varying degrees of success. Padmé rarely featured in Prequel Legends novels the way Anakin did, in part because the story didn’t put a spotlight on her life so much as her death. It’s great to see that changed now and to see the closeness and ferocity of the handmaidens.
Like many Star Wars books, the amount of fun you’ll have with this one might depend on how much you like the canon characters in the first place. It doesn’t transcend the voice of a typical Star Wars novel, but it does fit Padmé firmly into a narrative from which she has often been removed. And that feels like the long-awaited return of a good friend.
Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow is out now.