Review – A Queen and Her Handmaidens Tested in Star Wars: Queen’s Peril by EK Johnston
It’s been a while since we’ve had an original Star Wars novel hit the shelves so I was delighted when Queen’s Peril showed up in the mail a couple months ago. Padmé Naberrie is an almost universally beloved character in Star Wars and Johnston’s previous contribution to the Star Wars canon, Queen’s Shadow, underscored what many fans have known for a long time while gently tapping the shoulder of other fans who may have overlooked the importance she played in the overall story of the saga. I absolutely loved Queen’s Shadow, which told the story of how Padmé stepped down from royalty and came to serve in the senate while taking her loyal bodyguards and friends – the Handmaidens – along for the ride. Shadow gave us political intrigue, spy games, and a great spotlight to Padmé and the fellowship she kept with her friends. While Queen’s Peril has moments which highlight these characters, it’s a much different book which may disappoint some fans who hoped for a story connecting more directly to the events of Queen’s Shadow. This review will contain minor spoilers but I will do my best to keep things as vague as possible.
Queen’s Peril opens before the events of The Phantom Menace, as Padmé Naberrie is elected Queen of Naboo in a narrow contest. The people of Naboo have elected her queen and the implications of this election become very apparent to Padmé, her family, and her new chief of security Quarsh Panaka. Padmé is not at all depicted as being naive but the sense of reality and duty take hold of her and those around her quickly. She was never going to be living a quiet life in the countryside outside of Theed with her family, which the election serves to remind her is no longer even an option. Padmé is swept up quickly into the arena of Naboo governing and her first adversaries will be the reconciliation she must make with her life before and her life going forward. Johnston writes Padmé wonderfully and the strengths of Queen’s Peril are definitely the first few chapters of palace intrigue revolving around what this new queen is thinking, as well as how others around her react. It doesn’t take long for them to learn Padmé Naberrie Amidala will be a different kind of queen.
The person who Padmé develops a complicated relationship with almost immediately is Captain Quarsh Panaka. Panaka is just as I remembered him in The Phantom Menace – vigilant, slightly annoyed, and determined to keep the queen safe. Once again, Johnston writes these characters and their dialogue with a seemingly effortless flow as if the words have been swimming in her head for years. I say Panaka’s relationship to Padmé is complicated in the beginning because he quickly becomes her protector, advisor, and adversary at the same time. Padmé knows when to fall-in-line for the good of others but seems puzzled at the tight security Panaka is determined to place around her. The push/pull relationship between Padmé and Panaka is very enjoyable and certainly adds a new dimension to their onscreen dynamic in The Phantom Menace. If you’ve read Leia, Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray you know where Panaka’s story goes and the connection he forms with Padmé makes his appearance in that story all the more haunting. There’s also some really amusing moments as Panaka vents about his difficulty communicating with Padmé and the Handmaidens to his wife. Though I enjoyed Panaka in this book I was surprised how big of a role he was given compared to some characters who deserved much more focus, in my opinion.
The characters I was surprised didn’t get more time were the Handmaidens. Johnston did such a great job establishing how crucial and tight their bond to each other and Padmé was in Queen’s Shadow. In Queen’s Peril we learn who they were before they took their roles as Padmé’s friends and protectors but I was surprised how infrequently they appeared in the story after they are introduced. It also surprised me how quickly Johnston moved through their introductions and backstories. When I realized Peril took place before Shadow I was excited at the opportunity of getting to know each Handmaiden a little better. Yes, we do get their backstory but it almost feels obligatory and these characters don’t feel as realized as they did in Shadow. It’s understandable the unit they make-up hasn’t gelled as much as when we meet them further down the road, but after each Handmaiden is introduced it’s easy to lose track as the story starts jumping all over the place.
I was caught off guard by how much this novel suddenly starts sprinkling in characters and moments from The Phantom Menace at times when they are completely unrelated to the story forming in the first few chapters. For me, this is when the novel starts to go off-course. I love The Phantom Menace and I’ve got no complaints for supplemental stories which help flesh out characters and moments from the film. That said, Johnston certainly provides them but they are so out of place it left me confused. Like one second you’re reading about outfitting the queen’s throne with a hidden compartment for a blaster and the next moment you’re on Coruscant with Darth Maul and Darth Sidious then right back to Naboo. This definitely caught my interest the first few times it happens but these transitions become more and more frequent. Eventually, these Phantom Menace additions started to irritate me, mostly because it felt self-indulgent and continued to take me out of the moment. It also takes away from the stories of each Handmaiden to the point where they start to feel like background characters in many of the middle chapters. Some fans may love these detours (and I hope they do!) but as soon as the story starts to coincide with the events of The Phantom Menace it almost felt to me like Padmé’s story took a backseat to telling an expanded edition of the film. Again, nothing but love for this film and these characters and I can appreciate the story being told from Padmé’s perspective, but I felt like these elements collided more than co-existed.
As distracting as Queen’s Peril suddenly dropping into the events of The Phantom Menace is, there are some interesting moments and interactions we didn’t see on film. We realize how huge it is for Padmé to venture off with Qui-Gon and Jar Jar when they arrive on Tatooine. Padmé’s mistrust and ill-regard for the bureaucracy of the Senate and it’s officers has always been there (and she’s not super crazy about Sheev, either). I won’t list all of them because I want to keep this spoiler-free and I think fans will really enjoy them. Everything Johnston has put into Queen’s Peril is great but I struggled to find the story. Maybe it’s not fair for me to expect this book to either be a story dedicated entirely to Padmé or a supplement to The Phantom Menace but as a reader I frequently felt like those two things were competing for my attention. They never seemed to align but I do think fans who take the time to read Queen’s Peril will enjoy them but I’m not sure how much they’ll enjoy the book overall.
For as many critiques as I’ve offered up Queen’s Peril does continue to underline the importance of Padmé’s place in the saga and the wisdom, strength, and grace her children eventually inherited from her. Not to get too far off-topic here but I’ll never understand why her name wasn’t even mentioned in the sequel trilogy. We know from the Poe Dameron comic and Bloodline that Leia knew a bit about her mother but I still don’t get why we haven’t had a full-story about Luke and Leia learning more about the person who gave them life. So, Queen’s Peril might not be perfect and I may not have enjoyed it as much as Queen’s Shadow but it seems like there is still a wealth of Padmé stories in the galaxy far, far away we should be hearing about, so I’m very grateful we’ve got another one here. My only hope is that we get them sooner rather than later and that the character’s legacy doesn’t exist in a prequel era vacuum. I love the prequels but a character as great as Padmé should have her story told across the saga.
EK Johnston put a lot of love into Queen’s Peril, that much is certain. However bumpy the story of Queen’s Peril tends to be Johnston demonstrates she has a great handle on writing these characters. Honestly, her skill of bringing these character’s voices so vividly to the page is why I continued to get frustrated when the story would drop back into The Phantom Menace. If Johnston returns to write another Star Wars novel with Padmé and her Handmaidens I hope it’s a story dedicated entirely to Padmé, Sabé, Yané, Rabé, Saché, and Eirtaé.
Special thank you to Disney Lucasfilm Press for the advanced review copy. Queen’s Peril is available at your local bookstore and from online retailers.